One of the occupational challenges of your role as a manager or supervisor is learning how to navigate the personal issues of your team members that seep (or rush) into the workplace.
While many of your coworkers will do a good job maintaining a separation of professional and personal issues, some people seek out sympathetic listeners anywhere they can find them, and you as boss are fair game. That’s OK, to a point.
Displaying empathy shows that you care. Ensuring that people who are struggling have access to the right help through counseling or the firm’s private support line are all part of your responsibilities as a manager and to maintaining your membership in good standing in the human race. Providing a break for someone to see a doctor, lawyer, counselor is fine as well.
However, beware those individuals who use their personal problems as recurring excuses for chronic poor performance. While they are in the gross minority, it’s a safe bet that you will encounter people who attempt to manipulate you by using their personal issues as a lever.
Your early exceptions and acceptance of misfires and mistakes are capable of snowballing into a different standard for Bob due to his impending divorce or for Mary because of the stress of her son’s arrest, or for Alex because of his mother’s illness.
Over time, performance issues will become blurred by the personal challenges, and your continued accommodation will turn someone’s problem into one that’s now yours. Not only will you have an employee who is in essence gaming the system, you will have everyone else watching and judging how you handle this situation. Your own credibility as a manager is at stake.
5 Ideas for Navigating the Sticky Personal Problems of Your Employees:
1. Displaying empathy is admirable and encouraged. If someone approaches you with an issue, listen and show genuine understanding and concern.
2. Don’t practice counseling, law or medicine (or any other profession) without a license! Direct people to company resources (if available) or, encourage them to seek appropriate outside help.
3. We all need a break once in awhile. Provide reasonable flexibility for people to gain outside help or to attend outside appointments. Encourage the use of vacation and personal days as appropriate. Beware of this moving from exception to norm, however.
4. Warning! Don’t let personal problems become excuses for sub-par performance. If you see a pattern of poor performance or chronic tardiness developing, don’t hesitate to tackle this issue. Keep it focused on the business and don’t allow the conversation around performance to be redirected back to the personal issues. Empathy is good. You also have a business to run.
5. Don’t become part of the problem by making excuses for the individual. Everyone is watching. Create one double-standard and your credibility is shot.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Navigating this particularly sticky obstacle requires you to apply the same balanced, fair approach consistently across all team members in all circumstances involving personal issues. Your entire team is watching and judging.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.