The “New Leader Tuesday” series is dedicated to the proposition that one of our most valuable pursuits is supporting the development of new leaders on our teams. Whether you are developing new leaders or serving as one, I sincerely hope the guidance supports your cause.
One of the less than pleasant surprises many first-time supervisors or managers encounter as they navigate their new roles, is a sudden immersion in the personal problems of their team members.
In my book with Rich Petro, Practical Lessons in Leadership, I offer up my view on “The Top 10 Challenges of New Leaders.” Number 3 reads: “The personal problems of your associates will become your problems if you let them.” Fall into this trap, and you open yourself up for a whole new set of problems.
Many a first-time leader has been consumed by the personal issues that people bring into the workplaces as excuses for (pick one): excessive tardiness, frequent absences, poor dispositions and poor performance. These problems and their resultant excuses are the adult form of, “The dog ate my homework.”
In addition to the individual drawing you into their own personal soap opera, be assured that EVERYONE is watching how you deal with these types of chronic issues.
7 Ideas for Navigating the Personal Problems Issue:
1. Ensure that performance expectations are crystal clear. Lacking the backstop of clear expectations and an environment of accountability for results, you are in for a bad experience when it comes to dealing with everything, including the messy people issues.
2. Don’t let the issues identified above (tardiness, absences, poor performance etc.) fester…address them in near real time with the individuals.
3. Do link business implications to the poor behaviors. See also that point on clear expectations. This of course is the basis of quality feedback. While it’s sad when the dog eats your homework, the tardiness puts a strain on the team, impacts others who rely on the individual and potentially impacts other internal or external customers.
4. Always treat the individual in question with respect, and I encourage people to respond to personal problems with empathy, however, don’t feel obligated to create exceptions to the established performance expectations.
5. Don’t get caught up in playing amateur counselor. You’re not trained for this and while it might be tempting to dispense advice, it’s a step down the slippery slope of being drawn into someone else’s personal problems.
6. Where needed, point people towards external help. Offer your encouragement for this step and if your firm offers access to a confidential Help Line, point the individual in this direction. Remember, serving as a counselor is beyond your pay grade.
7. Do document any and all chronic issues and make certain to touch base with your H.R. manager to ensure that your record keeping and your handling of a situation is fair and appropriate.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
This situation often makes the manager feel like she is in a tug-of-war between being an empathetic human being and a cold, calculating numbers machine. Given that perceived dichotomy, many managers mistakenly confuse empathy with the need to make constant exceptions. That’s a mistake.
You can be empathetic. You should coach someone on the impact of their behavior on performance and results…that is good and fair. You can point them in the right direction to seek help if the situation merits outside support. However, at the end of the day, you are on the hook to your firm, your boss and your team to ensure that everyone is accountable for their work.
It’s far from cold and cruel…it’s fair.
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An ideal book for anyone starting our in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.
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