Sunday, September 13, 2009

Empathy and Accountability – Can They Co-exist?

The issue of empathy versus accountability has been on my mind a lot lately. You see, my natural behavioral style (my DISC style) is that of a High D – Driver. That means that I have a heavy task orientation, driven to get results with little thought to the impact on the people around me. So empathy is not all that natural to me. Accountability though is something that I am very familiar with and was a huge component of my management style.

As a side note, this profile is fairly common among leaders, which is one explanation for the number of “bosses” out there that don’t seem to care about their people, push their teams for results without regard to the impact on their people, and generally burn out their staff shortly before they wear out their own welcome in their organizations.

But a number of years ago I figured out that I could “catch more flies with honey than I could with vinegar” and began to develop more meaningful relationships with my employees and coworkers. The impact of this change was better personal relationships with both my peers and my team members and more productivity from my department. Oh, it wasn’t instantaneous, but I saw that when I needed my staff to go the extra mile, they willingly did it. When I needed that extra 20% to get us over a hump, I could count on them to come through.

Clearly my empathy for my employees had a dramatic payoff both personally and professionally. This directly impacted the company’s bottom line and helped catapult my career as well.

But the question that keeps coming up for me has to do with being too empathetic; with being too understanding. Where is the balance between being understanding and allowing others to shirk their responsibility? Is it possible that when we are too empathetic we undercut the need for responsibility and accountability?

Here is the question.

When Should Empathy Stop and Accountability Start?

In the past few weeks I have been hearing about situation after situation where people just seemed to blow off their commitments, missing deadlines, and skipping meetings, knowing that the other person would “understand” their situation. Sometimes they would get a cursory “sorry” but nothing sincere and no sense that the person involved felt any sense of responsibility for missing their commitment. It appears as though people have adjusted to the concept of empathy from those around them, and are taking full advantage of it to shirk their responsibilities.

If this pattern were to continue, we could well end up with a society of people who lack the belief in both accountability and responsibility for their actions. And that would mean a society where our word was no longer our bond, but rather a meaningless gesture.

But does that mean that empathy is bad?

Of course not.

But we cannot let empathy overtake the need for personal responsibility. And empathy must stop where the lack of personal commitment begins. If things happen that are out of someone’s immediate control, I believe empathy is appropriate. But let’s draw the line where people use empathy as a way to avoid personal responsibility.

What will this look like for you? How will you continue to show empathy but draw a clear line for personal responsibility?

I would be interested in your thoughts on this topic. Please feel free to share them here.

If you enjoyed this entry, please forward it on to your friends and co-workers.

Until next time …..

Dave Meyer
ECI Learning Systems, LLC

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