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Should a CEO hold employees to pre-COVID performance standards?

In his weekly column, Maynard Webb advises leaders to hold people accountable while offering “more grace and empathy.”

Should a CEO hold employees to pre-COVID performance standards?
[Source illustration: sportpoint/iStock]
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Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. Should I hold people accountable to the same high standards during this pandemic?  Or should I give me employees more benefit of the doubt because of what they are dealing withworking from home, school closures, and the stress and anxiety that comes with this time? 

—CEO at a midsize company

Dear CEO, 

I always believe that you should hold people to high standards. Having said that, we are in extraordinary times and these times dictate that we need to show more empathy and give people more latitude. 

Everything we know has gone a bit sideways. Many people are working harder and also juggling more than they ever have. For many, homeschooling kids wasn’t something that was previously on the to-do list and being “sheltered in place” with a spouse who is also trying to work from home wasn’t something anyone imagined a year ago. Then there’s all of the time spent shopping for groceries and sanitizing everything! Managing all of all the things in our work and our lives, which have now been mashed together in the same time and space, is complicated.

I hate underperformance, but now is not the time to be super tough. This is a time to lead through inspiration rather than expectation. Communicating is more important than ever.

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Of course, there are some infractions that are clear cut: if someone commits fraud, harassment, or does anything that is illegal or harmful the rules are the same—they have to go. But if someone was a good performer before the pandemic and is now struggling, seek to understand what’s going on. Examine why their performance changed and explore what you can do to help them. Did they do better when they were in the building and benefitted from working in an office? If so, maybe there is a way to get them back to the office safely. At one of the companies where I’m a board member, some employees were having a hard time working from small apartments in one geography, so we opened the building for them. (In another location we opened the office, and no one wanted to go; that’s okay too.) 

I want to give people the benefit of the doubt—especially in these times—but this is not a license to slack off. There is still a job that needs to get done. Continue to hold people accountable, but offer more grace and more empathy. In fact, I think that this is a practice we should continue even after the pandemic is over. Just as our attitudes about remote work have changed forever, maybe our management styles will also change—and evolve to something more powerful and more inspiring.

Perhaps the best advice I have is to remember to do something that too often gets overlooked. Instead of just worrying about managing those who are underperforming, focus on coaching your best performers as these are the ones who will make the greatest contributions. Don’t forget to show them love and give them support.