New Leader Tuesday-Ideas for Dealing with Messy People Problems

New Leader Tuesday at Management Excellence

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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By | 2016-10-22T17:11:27+00:00 July 17th, 2012|Leadership|5 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Tina Del Buono, PMAC July 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    Great advice Art, I wish I would have known this 15 years ago when I became an office manager, it would have saved me a lot of time and trouble!

    • Art Petty July 17, 2012 at 2:34 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Tina! Same here…much of my writing fits into the theme of, “things I wish I would have known when I started out.” Always appreciate your readership and comments! -Art

  2. Andrew Meyer July 17, 2012 at 3:13 pm - Reply


    interesting post. I have one situation that occurred recently that I’d be interested in your take on. It comes to how to deal with someone when they’ve done something unacceptable.

    As an example, say the person had a deadline that they didn’t meet. This is a reoccurring problem and meeting the deadline has to do with the person burning calories and time management. All things the person has complete control over. My reason for emphasizing this, is that there were no outside forces or issues that prevented the person meeting the deadline, they just procrastinated doing their work. Also, the person knew they had messed up and missed this particular deadline.

    This situation links directly to your Idea 1, 2 and 3 above. Clear expectations, not letting issues fester and linking business implications to poor behavior. The approach taken was to write out a formal letter of warning, have HR review it and ensure that it is complete, sufficiently detailed and specific and that it will go in the person’s personal record. Then meet with the person and the HR person and give them the letter, which they could sign and have put in their file or they could refute it. The person signed it and it went in their personal file.

    A couple of points/questions:
    1. When the person walked into the HR managers office, they knew nothing about what was going to happen or what the purpose of the meeting was until they were handed the letter. This maybe right, it maybe wrong, but it’s my belief that giving people time to think, rationalize and create stories just makes an unpleasant meeting longer and the discussions more protracted. While the element of surprise might be seen as cruel, it means that the person reading the letter of warning is responding in real-time, as opposed to the HR manager and myself, who are prepared.

    2. Everything was written out in the letter. The only thing really said in the meeting was: “did the person agree with what was written in the letter” (they did) and “did they want to sign it or dispute it” (they signed the letter). The whole meeting was 10 minutes. It’s my belief that the less said, the better. When we wrote the letter, we could prepare and choose our words. There would be nothing said that would be burned into the person’s mind. No “words never to be forgotten.” The letter was objective, direct, to the point and identified the behavior that was wrong, what the consequences would be if they did it again. The letter was unemotional, versus having a discussion, which could get emotional.

    3. In our company, we have a policy that if someone is going to be given a letter of warning or counseled, there should be another person, usually the HR manager, present. Both managers know exactly what is in the letter and are in agreement about it. This tends to prevent problems. It might seem harsh to have “two against one”, but the purpose is to make it clear that the behavior written up in the letter is unacceptable and that it’s unacceptable to the management team, not just one person.

    Reading your 7 Ideas above, I thought of this situation and thought you might find it interesting. I’d also be interested in your outside perspective.


    • Art Petty July 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm - Reply

      Andy, thanks for sharing the scenario. With the caveat that I respect every firm’s HR policies, my own approach in dealing with the performance issue would be similar in some respects and different than others. Everything you describe, brief, behavioral, business-focused etc. is spot on. My own approach would be to make an initial situation discussion much less formal. (I would do it outside of the auspices of HR and not under the formality of a letter of warning. It wouldn’t be any less serious…just less formal.

      My sense is the approach you describe (very to the letter of the law) eliminated an opportunity to engage in a good…albeit constructive performance discussion. And yes, the discussion shouldn’t be long…but it would be good form to involve the individual in suggesting how he/she will improve…and to set the stage for a follow-on discussion. These discussions are how relationships are built. Obviously if the behavior repeats itself again, I would follow the firm’s escalation process.

      Long and short, I much prefer to coach/counsel/engage first and formally escalate later. Personal style preference. -Art

      • Andrew Meyer July 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm - Reply


        thanks, we’re probably more aligned than you might think. There’s background and history, which would have been too long to include. The coach/counsel/engage cycle you mention was used, however it didn’t change the behavior. We waited, probably to long, for an indisputable infraction and then reacted immediately.

        My point in presenting this scenario, was that if someone reaches the point where they need to be counseled, I think it is better to do it in writing, with one other manager present and to keep the meeting short and focused. The letter should explain the issue and do all the talking. The talking the managers should do at that point is simply about whether what the letter described was accurate and are they going to sign it or dispute it.

        Thanks again for your comments about this and insights over the years.


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