Pragmatism & Compassion : A contemporary leadership balance

Jan 2 / Nick O'Sullivan
“If pragmatism is what enables leaders to identify what conversations must be had, compassion is what informs how such conversations must be conducted.” 
I’ve spoken with a lot of leaders this year, from middle management to MDs, CEOs, Directors and Chairs. What has struck me is the extent to which so many people at any level struggle to have the conversations they need to have. The impact on them as individuals is almost always high levels of stress and anxiety. It consistently makes me sad to see such great people suffer in such a way. In addition, the impact on others within the business, and the business itself, of the situations that tend to result is also pretty negative. Workplace stress, detrimental outcomes, other people having to work harder, building friction and often resentment. 

All of these observations have caused me to reflect on what could be causing so much stress in today’s workplaces. Here’s my thoughts on the matter… 

A modern emphasis 

The work place has evolved. Rightly so. We are no longer an age of Victorian work houses, exploitation and ‘results at all costs’. We are familiar with great lines and sentiments such as, “Look after your people and they’ll take care of your business”1, and ‘Our people are our greatest asset’.
Most recognize the truth in these things. As a result approaches and ideologies such as ‘servant leadership’ and an emphasis on compassion and empathy seems to have very much become the norm. Even within the workplace, ideologies such as ‘agile’ emphasize a need to empower those at the bottom and for organizations to be as ‘flat’ as possible to enable innovation – something every modern organization seems to want to be. In my experience, this is true, ‘flat’ approaches are good for innovation. However, speaking to others in the field, the result can be scrum masters who step back from providing direction when there is a lack of clarity because they want ‘the team’ to come up with their own answers – seemingly missing the fact that, as leaders, they are part of the team.

Alongside such trends – the increasing awareness of the value of people, the emphasis on innovation and its preference for ‘flatter’ approaches – is the modern ‘fight for talent’. As the working population shrinks in many developed economies2, many employers seemingly wrap themselves up in knots to try to attract what talent is around. Offering options around remote working, great work place benefits, and of course creating a ‘hip’ and welcoming environment and workplace culture. This of course all makes sense, as we also know from numerous studies that happy employees are more productive (one such study from the University of Oxford’s Said Business School is referenced in this World Economic Forum article).
The catch is that the potential result of all of this, as indicated in numerous discussions I’ve had this year, is that many managers and leaders can be so focused on not offending or upsetting anyone (because it’s not good for organizational culture or Glassdoor reviews) that they are reluctant to take the necessary, pragmatic and timely actions required of their role. Unfortunately it seems that the effect of the inaction that often results can be worse than anything that could have come about by having the difficult conversation. 

Let’s not forget… 

Being a leader of people is tough. If management is about frameworks, leadership is predominantly about emotions. It’s why the word ‘leadership’ often appears alongside words such as ‘inspire’, ‘trust’, ‘psychological safety’ or ‘motivate’. But leaders are also the ones that have the responsibility to get things done. A leader that has a happy team but cannot deliver the required outcomes is not an effective leader in my view. Of course the converse is also true as we explored earlier. The point is that a leader must be willing to have the tough conversations to ensure the outcomes are delivered, not through any need to be ‘tough’, but precisely because being willing and able to have the tough conversations is what enables us to lead with compassion in terms of the bigger picture. Let’s consider an example to illustrate what I mean.

Imagine we have a member in our team, Person A, who has consistently not been performing for months. The team know that they have some stuff going on in their personal life and so initially they were happy to pick up the slack to give this person space, because they would hope others would do the same for them. However, almost a year later, the rest of the team picking up the slack is starting to cause issues in their lives too. They are working longer hours. They are stressed. That stress goes home with them. Person A gets just as big a bonus despite the now extended period of a lower contribution. The new normal is not one that many members of the team feel is fair, and a perception of a lack of fairness is now breeding resentment.
The leader of this team has an option: 

Option 1.

They could say nothing because they don’t want to risk upsetting person A. Their personal issues are sensitive in nature and they have been having a tough time, certainly in the first few months. Besides, it might all just blow over soon…

Option 2.

Alternatively the leader could decide to speak with Person A and highlight the wider issues the team, and the individuals within it, are now facing as a result of their sustained period of additional support.
Let’s consider what could happen in each of these scenarios. 

Taking option 1.

The leader says nothing. While sympathetic to Person A, the rest of the team become increasingly frustrated that their leader does nothing to address their concerns, reducing motivation and productivity on the team. A few weeks later, the issue comes to a head. 
As a result of a comment in the kitchen area, another member of the team, Person B, loses their temper with Person A and has a go at them. Person A runs out crying, the rest of the team – while uncomfortable at how things have panned out – are pleased something’s finally been said. Person A, however, calls in sick and a few weeks later submits a grievance. Person B is reprimanded and placed on a warning. Morale on the team is low. The leader gets called into the MD’s office to discuss the fact that their team is falling further behind on their targets and two team members have submitted their resignation. 

Taking option 2.

The leader asks to speak to Person A. They ask how the situation is now, and are pleased to hear things are getting better. Person A is grateful for the support they have been given by their wider team. 
The leader then proceeds to sensitively highlight that while the team have been happy to help, doing so has placed some members under additional stress and that it would be great if the individual felt they could increase the extent to which they engage with and contribute to the teams objectives. Person A is concerned to hear the impact on their colleagues and resolves to help address that and support them in turn. The two agree some objectives to help focus the individuals reengagement. In the next team meeting, Person A volunteers to take on some of the action points from other team members who themselves are really grateful for their support and the adjustment in attitude. 

Achieving the balance 

Now of course I’ve made these scenarios up, but they are based on situations I’ve both had in my own career and seen in others. Yes, we all want to be that compassionate leader, of course we do - we care for our people. But compassion for one person should not blind us to the needs of others.

The bigger point, perhaps, is that compassion is not necessarily about what action we do or don’t take, but describes the manner in which an action is taken. Compassion need not, therefore, preclude a leader from doing what is needed for their team or the aims of the business - essentially from being pragmatic – but it should guide how they then take the necessary action. Compassion and pragmatism are not binary, the two can very happily co-exist. Indeed they must do so for leaders to be most effective, because when issues exist within a team or business, people can only be expected to help address it if they know there is an issue, and that means having the conversation.

That being the case, when issues occur it’s important we’re willing to have the candid discussions with the people we need to play a part in their solution or mitigation. As ever, moral courage is critical to enable leaders to have these discussions, as these examples illustrate. Though as we also explored at the start of this blog, it’s also critical that this courage to speak plainly in an effort to be pragmatic, to acknowledge, explore, understand and address an issue, is also done with compassion. That’s leadership. No one ever said it was ‘easy’, or ‘comfortable’. It’s a skill that we must be conscious of and apply effort to develop. 
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