There’s a handwritten sign on the door of the fast-food restaurant that shares a message with entering customers: “Short staffed! Please be kind to those who showed up today.”
If you’ve seen that image circulating on social media recently, you already have some understanding of the dilemma many managers are currently facing. The amount of work that needs to get done hasn’t changed, but on some days a manager’s team of 10 may actually be a team of seven, five, or even less. This is something we have seen happen during the last recession.
It’s easy to turn to those who are working and expect them to pick up the slack, but this approach is now more likely to backfire than succeed. The pandemic has led to a new kind of working culture and employee expectations surrounding work performance, compassion, loyalty, and trust in the workplace.
The pandemic created a unique confluence of factors that led many mid-career employees to reevaluate their priorities. Confronted with the feeling that their literal lives were on the line, many people started questioning their loyalty to work. The short, precious nature of humanity decreased their tolerance for burnout, and remote work gave many people a sense of what’s possible with more ownership of their time, like being more present with family or using a side hustle to pad their savings. During this time many new and younger workers sought entrepreneurial opportunities or joined the creator economy, starting their careers by working for themselves and failing to “buy in” to traditional workplace culture.
This shift is reflected in another social media trend garnering notice in recent weeks: the concept of “quiet quitting.” Except it’s not actually quitting at all, but a term coined to represent employees coasting by on the bare minimum, refusing to put forth any effort beyond what’s absolutely required.
Now, with employee loyalty and trust deeply eroded and leaders facing unprecedented demand for compassion, managers are stuck in the middle. It falls to you to provide the balance between leaders whose primary motivator is the company’s success (in the eyes of stakeholders like board members and shareholders) and employees whose primary motivator is, increasingly, their own wellbeing.
How to Improve Work Performance
The good news is that managers can adopt compassionate tactics that rebuild positive relationships with employees while also creating a culture of high work performance. Being compassionate doesn’t mean you can’t hold boundaries; it means there are clear expectations and open conversations that take place within a result-oriented work environment.
- Make learning and demonstrating compassionate tactics a priority.
Building a compassionate work environment that will improve work performance requires ongoing education and trial and error. “Build in public” and let employees know you’re specifically working on better understanding how to compassionately meet their needs.
- Don’t make assumptions about what matters to your team.
As a part of that learning, make an effort to have individual conversations and collect assessable data about what actually matters to your team. Don’t just assume you know what compassion means to them, or you could end up making unilateral moves that are a sacrifice on your part and don’t even make your employees feel seen and heard in the right way.
- Collaborate with individuals to create solutions that work for everyone.
When you have an employee in a difficult situation, the best way to offer a compassionate response that drives their best work performance is to create a solution together. Rather than pushing a basic work performance plan, sit down and really talk to that person. Understand what their needs are, present the needs you have to ask of them, and figure out the way forward together.
- Acknowledge your own humanity, and you will foster honesty and transparency in return.
If you don’t know the answer, or aren’t sure of the best way to handle a situation, be open about that rather than pretending or blustering. Revealing your humanity to your employees in appropriate ways builds an environment where they feel like they can be transparent in return. And if an employee tells you something difficult or lets you know about a personal hardship, ensure you offer a compassionate response that makes them feel rewarded for being open with you rather than keeping things secretive.
Becoming a more compassionate leader requires managers to strike a cautious balance between care for the employee as a person and commitment to institutional goals. While driving high work performance may be challenging, it is possible with the right training and approach, and worth it for the rippling benefits it brings to leaders, employees, and companies alike.