There are some open secrets in management. Secrets people believe to be true, but won’t confess to. Despite what culture handbooks might say, one such secret is the belief that if you are a tough boss, often disliked by your colleagues, you are a successful leader; if you are friendly, warm and people-driven, you are most likely an ineffective, low-impact leader.
At the core of this belief is that people need to be pushed, goaded and incentivised, often with fear, to get things done. To make sure team and company objectives are met, bosses then have no choice but to play bad cop.
A large part of this tough-boss routine is often a result of bosses believing people can—and must—only be evaluated on one metric at the workplace: performance. In data only we trust, is a trope one hears often. Those who swear by the maxim believe strongly that an unyielding pledge to data indicates a bias-free mind. It’s the beginning of an evidence-based, merit-driven culture. It is how meritocracy gets baked into a system.
Eventually, since people want systems that are transparent and fair, meritocracy seems like the right crutch to justify performance.
The trade-off between caring and meritocracy then becomes an eventuality. Managers and leaders end up believing that two should be parallel tracks, best kept that way.
But are being caring and results-driven really opposite qualities?
A caring meritocracy is a system, that is focused on key results and objectives, but not at the cost of forgetting that people are at the centre of work.
Often, people will point out mistakes, shortcomings and give you feedback; but not go that extra mile to coach you, guide you, mentor you on how to do things better. Can you empathize with their shortcomings?
The seeming conflict is that meritocracy feels that you have to be very clinical and cut and dry. Things are black or white when you measure, assess and reward/punish performance. A lot of organizations will do it only by numbers—either you achieved the target or you did not.
Where business goals and objectives are concerned, “objective" data might do the trick, but how do you evaluate for effort, earnestness and behaviour? Or, for that matter, for ambiguities, roadblocks and external factors that impact businesses?
If you are only meritocracy-driven, you won’t allow for variance and variability in different contexts, situations and types of work. A purely “meritocratic" system would seem harsh and unfair then.
Caring says people will mess up—whatever the reason—but be empathetic to how they are feeling, after they have made mistakes, and look ahead to help them improve.
In our work project, one of us made a huge blunder that materially impacted outcomes. While the manager overseeing the project was very direct in calling out the error and giving out very candid and direct feedback, she was also very caring. “You must be feeling very bad right now. I understand, I have been there before."
Not only did we learn how to avoid the same error in the future, now when we have someone make a mistake around us, we also know how best to give them feedback without destroying their confidence and making it personal.
This is not being “soft". This is giving people a chance to improve but if after multiple chances, it does not work, we also understand that they cannot be persisted with. The meritocratic decision will be to let them go.
It would seem difficult—almost impossible—to be “caring" when you are firing someone. But, it isn’t.
For example, recently one of the people we worked with had to be asked to leave because his performance was just not matching up. But, a caring meritocratic approach enabled us to have a discussion with him about his performance, offer chances to upskill while he served the notice period and also apprise him about roles where he would be more suited. Caring about the individual enough to make sure that there is genuine concern for the person’s growth regardless of positive or negative performance. Meritocracy, in the caring context, demands equal responsibility from the organization.
It’s here where the golden middle exists. You don’t have to compromise on meritocracy to be caring. They must—and they can—coexist.
A good manager (tough or soft) must remember that people look up to you as a leader when they see you contributing to their personal and professional success. For that, you have to be candid, tough, objective about their shortcomings; but caring enough so that they are motivated and encouraged to fix themselves.
Art of Work focuses on extreme choices in the workplace and offers suggestions on how to find the doable middle ground. Pramath Raj Sinha has founded several higher education institutions and Shreyasi Singh is an author who now works in higher education.