February 2017
Issue Map
The Public Manager

A Call for Compassionate Performance Management

Friday, February 10, 2017

Line managers can boost sustainable performance and grow talent by taking more of a whole-person approach to the way they lead their people.

Performance management is rightly experiencing a radical overhaul. The structured, one-size-fits-all process of twice-yearly reviews, often perceived by busy managers as a necessary evil, has been denounced as formulaic, backward-focused, and subjective. In its place, pioneering employers such as Deloitte are now advocating a continuous, "one-size-fits-one" approach. But there's an opportunity to take this even further.

In a landmark Gallup study outlined in the book Strengths Based Leadership by Barry Conchie and Tom Rath, 10,000 employees were asked what they want from their leaders. The answer was four things: compassion, trust, hope, and stability. This raises the question: Could organizations achieve more effective and relevant performance management by putting compassion at the heart of the process?

Compassion can be defined as a concern for the welfare of others and the basic human desire to help. Managers can demonstrate compassion by building personal relationships with their teams. Gallup's study shows that when employees feel that their line manager cares about them, they're substantially more productive and significantly more likely to stay with the company.

However, this opens up a debate about the boundaries of a line manager's relationships. The role of a manager is to help and support employees so they can be effective and productive. Part of this is about ensuring employees have the right skills and then managing the operational aspects of their performance. And, yes, there's a benefit in having frequent and in-the-moment conversations about individual employees' performance. But a whole raft of issues in people's lives will affect whether they'll be successful at work. Not all of these issues will be visible or discussed openly. So where should managers draw the line?

Each of us has a life outside work. If a manager knows about someone's interests, goals, ambitions, dreams, and fears about life in general, then it follows that they can respond more appropriately, and more compassionately, to help that person. For example, if someone sings in a choir, plays in a band, is training for a marathon, or is looking after a friend or relative, the manager can create the flexible conditions that allow that employee to balance his or her work and broader lifestyle. A fuller appreciation of the pressures of life for each person means the manager can exercise discretion in a personalized way. This should not be underestimated—the trust and understanding required on both sides to make this work bring about a very different, more positive experience of work. And the business case for happier employees is already well made!

In the performance management process, line managers need to find a way to tap into what people personally find motivating—inside and outside work—and where they get their personal pride. They have to get to know the people they're managing and understand what makes them tick. This requires more than simply knowing that they're married with two children. If an employee has a problem outside of work that is impairing performance, you could argue that the line manager has a legitimate role in helping to try to resolve it. It's about showing employees that their line manager is on their side and wants to help by offering support and flexibility where possible. This increases commitment in the longer term, which is critical for business.

It's Not for Everyone

Some managers may argue that this is not what they signed up for. When people are promoted to a management role, they sometimes assume they have to maintain a distance from their employees. They may be reluctant to become emotionally involved with their staff, fearing that it might compromise their working relationship. They may feel that a compassionate approach is at odds with their role of achieving results and getting the best out of people.

Of course, sometimes managers have to discipline staff, have tough conversations, provide difficult feedback, or make unpopular decisions. They also may feel uncomfortable about prying into people's private lives. Yes, they'll grant compassionate leave after a bereavement, but many would instinctively shy away from showing a more everyday brand of compassion, perhaps even seeing this as a sign of weakness.

Also, while many employees may want a close relationship with their boss, others might prefer a more transactional relationship. Not all workers want to be deeply connected to their organization or their job. We all have different emotional boundaries.

But the point here is that many employees do want a compassionate line manager who cares about them as individuals. Without this, there's little chance of them feeling genuinely engaged at work. So line managers who avoid building close relationships with their team members because they're concerned about the downside may be missing a trick!



Organizations can't simply introduce a blanket HR policy to force line managers to act with compassion. Individual managers have to have a genuine interest in their people, and they have to make their own positive and conscious choice to be compassionate. If a manager is insincere or untrustworthy, people will see through this.

Employees also have to be sure that any personal information they might disclose—especially around issues of depression, anxiety, or illness—will be treated sensitively and confidentially.

But, ultimately, every manager could benefit from knowing more about the individuals on their teams, in terms of their career aims, their lifestyle opportunities and restraints, and their interests or commitments outside work. By showing they care about these aspects, managers will gain a level of trust, goodwill, discretionary effort, commitment, and engagement.

Developing a Compassionate Approach

HR teams should help line managers to exercise compassion and bring it into their working relationships. Line managers may need support to define their own boundaries; to understand their own level of compassion; to establish a new compassionate relationship with direct reports; to determine how, when, and how often to bring compassion into performance management conversations; and to know how to balance the needs of individuals with those of the organization and what practical steps they can take to handle any difficult situations or circumstances that may arise.

The best organizations want to create closer and more intimate relationships with their customers. Perhaps the place to start is to create more compassionate relationships with employees. By conducting individualized performance conversations with compassion, integrity, and respect, line managers can create a more engaging, supportive, and inspiring environment in which people are more likely to thrive.

About the Author

Murray Furlong is an executive consultant and leadership development specialist at Hemsley Fraser.

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