Most managers will have encountered a situation in which an employee has made a grave mistake that could seriously damage a critical project and reflect badly on the manager and the organisation. What’s the best way of reacting?

A frustrated manager may decide to reprimand the employee. This vents frustration and is intended to teach errant employees that they need to raise their game. However, venting frustration in the heat of the moment isn’t an especially constructive response. The research evidence is clear: it’s best to respond with compassion.

A study by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at New York University found that employees who look up to managers because of their compassion and kindness were highly loyal. Blaming or harshly criticising an employee often rebounds negatively on the manager. Professor Adam Gant of the Wharton Business School calls it the “law of reciprocity”, a phenomenon he sums up succinctly like this: “Next time you need to rely on that employee, you may have lost some of the loyalty that was there before.”

Managers are human beings just like their employees, and humans get angry. Pretending not to be angry when you clearly are isn’t the solution. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Stanford University research psychologist Dr Emma Seppala suggests that the first step is to give yourself time to step back, reflect and genuinely cool down.

Seppala advocates putting yourself in your employee’s shoes to help you empathise with them: most employees who have goofed big time are already feeling terrible, so making them feel worse isn’t going to help. A little empathy can go a long way toward crafting a constructive response.

Finally, forgive. It’s potent stuff, strengthening your relationship with your employee and promoting loyalty (loyal, happy employees take fewer sick days and are motivated to improve). It also fosters a collaborative approach to fixing the problem.

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