How to Hold People Accountable with Compassion
Pushovers prolong helplessness, failure, and mediocrity. But accountability with compassion fuels boldness, growth, and productivity.
You demonstrate respect for people when you hold them accountable.
Accountability says behaviors matter. Who wants to live in a world where actions have no consequences?
Lack of compassion creates fear.
One commenter on Leadership Freak writes,
“I had a controversial conversation with an invested social worker yesterday. They were trying to fix a problem that a teenager got himself into.
He broke into the social worker’s facility. She wanted to drop the charges because she thought he had potential.
What lesson is he learning from being free of the charges?” (edited for content)
Accountability AND compassion:
Don’t shoot your wounded.
Choose accountability AND compassion, not accountability OR compassion. Accountability without compassion is detached, distant, and disheartening.
Accountability is about personal responsibility. But you can support people when they face negative consequences.
When someone screws up, stand with them, but don’t encourage irresponsibility.
Compassion is most relevant when people are down. Don’t compound failures by keeping your distance when people are paying the piper.
Get your hands dirty. Compassion takes time, energy, and patience.
If your goal is development, help people come out better on the other side of failure. Don’t stand aloof.
The language of accountability AND compassion:
- I know this is hard. I’m standing with you.
- I can’t make this go away. But I’ll help you get through it.
- I’m sorry we had to terminate you. Let me help you find a new job. (Depending on the reason for termination.)
- Yes, you’ve lost trust. Let’s find some ways to help you earn trust again.
Accountability isn’t cruel when you walk with people after they screw up.
A second chance has meaning when people take responsibility for their failures.
How might leaders practice accountability with compassion?
What are the limits of compassion?
“3 Simple Steps to Hold People Accountable”
“Assess your compassion” (HBR)
In a prior version of this post I used the term “compassionate accountability,” which in the context of personal development is a registered trademark of Next Element Consulting LLC, https://next-element.com/conflict-without-casualties/. I make no claim of ownership to that mark.
Thank you Dan. This is a hard truth. Justice and mercy can exist together as accountability and compassion.
Thanks Duane. The skill is not in having one or the other qualities, but both together.
Great post Dan! Accountability and compassion; grace and truth; can exist together. This is often an excellent time for the “power of and.” Instead of “but” in the middle of the sentence, use, “and.” The difference is amazing.
Thanks Ken, Yes! I heard Jim Collins use the expression, “the genius of AND.” It’s unfortunate that we think you have to be mean or angry or distant to bring up poor performance.
Wishing I had used this more as a teacher in my early twenties. I was over the edge in compassion and lacking a bit in the accountability factor when working with children and parents whose needs were so great. Hopefully as we mature we gain more balance between heart and head. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Positively, Pauline
Thanks Amazinglyyou. My experience indicates that we all swing to one side or the other. Some are too tough. Others are too tender. Maybe this is a case where we need to include others to help us find balance.
“Let me help you find a new job.” If you unfortunately had to let someone go, regardless of the reason, you’re then putting that burden elsewhere in the company, In essence, robbing Peter to Pay Paul. Now…If that person wasn’t a good fit for you, but maybe in another unit they could be successful, then I can see helping them relocate. That’s a soft dance you have to be careful with as it could be a mixed message. I’m helping him/her find a new job, why not help them come up to speed in your organization, it may be just as much effort to invest in them more than to relocate this person. I do see that it’s tough however. So I struggle. Good piece.
Thanks Yanir. Your suggestion to do all you can to help them fit is important. Maybe redesign their job or reassign them. But if you have to let them go, they become a powerful voice either for your organization or against it … depending on how you treat them.
I got this idea from Jack Welch who advocated for being very generous with people you have to let go. Stay in touch with them. Help them with their search. Send them birthday cards.
Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s soup, was radically changed by a job placement counselor he was given, after he was let go.
Positioning accountability as constructive, and something more than a “you missed” dialogue sets us apart..
Your suggested behaviors allow us to distinguish ourselves as great humans, something far above good managers or good leaders IMO
Thanks Ken. Yes! When accountability is ONLY about what you do wrong it’s a negative experience. But all of us enjoy meeting our targets and exceeding our goals. Accountability is part of that.
A program/process of Restorative Practices provides an excellent opportunity for this process to unfold.
Hi Dan, great post on what tough love actually consists of. It seems all too often that folks focus on either being too critical or too compassionate without realizing that both are needed to guide people toward change.
This is an excellent read and will pass it around the office as we need more of this approach with people. I’m in a large organization where too many individuals are allowed to screw up with no accountability. Its so destructive as there’s no change in behaviors which only hurts the and often alienates the solid performers.
Thanks for engaging this conversation. I completely agree with your thoughts on this. I really believe in accountability and compassion. Although, I think that case the social worker was too clouded by compassion. She had the best intentions, and I hope whichever way the child’s situation goes, it’s in a positive direction.
Thankfully I’ve had leadership with accountability with compassion. I’ve had people that stood beside me while I’ve been held accountable and I have done the same for others. I think the best way for leadership to practice is to put themselves in the individual’s shoes before making a decision that could be life-altering. By putting themselves in the shoes of someone that has made a mistake would let them know that compassion is what needed for growth in the positive direction
When compassion prevents someone from learning a valuable lesson from his or her mistake, it has reached its limit. What example does that set for the person you are showing compassion. Another example of compassions limit is when you bring someone else’s issues into your own household or life.
The problem is when accountability becomes a hot potato that gets passed down until there’s no one left to pass it to. Compassion comes into play when those in power realize that those without power are most vulnerable to being the one holding the accountability potato with no means of tossing it back up to where it may or may not belong. Most issues in the workplace, as Dr. Leemann would say, are systemic. However, that does not mean we ignore accountability. In Health and Safety Management literature it is widely accepted that to create a most effective Health and Safety Management System, health and safety accountability should be focused on line management to line workers. I think the compassion part comes into play when managers realize that sometimes, if the system is flawed, line employees might be stuck in catch-22 when it comes to accountability. Not being black-and-white about every issue is what makes an good leader. Understanding that failures happen, and if not intentionally created by a malevolent individual, are most likely caused by a series of influences.
Your example about the kid who broke in the social worker’s facility is good. I understand your point about he should have been held accountable. However, the compassion part comes in when you question things like our judicial system and whether or not, based on your own morals and values, the punishment would match the crime. The idea of compassion is subjective. So when you ask what are the limits, it is hard to say. I would assume, though, that each leader’s compassion limit should be what ever comprises his beliefs.
compromises his beliefs*
Great post Dan!
People sometimes have an either-or view on accountability. They don’t hold people accountable because they view it as mean. But what is really mean is to not hold people accountable and then they get surprise when they have to be let go for poor performance.
John Wooden said that when the coach “bawls you out,” don’t take this as a negative. This is a positive. The coach thinks you can do better and wants to see you improve. It’s when the coach starts ignoring you that you should worry.
Have a great week!
What if it is a parent? A parent that does the aloof thing and has no compassion on the Adult child? What do you do as the adult child? The parent says they have been wounded and “shoot” their child?