When it comes to managing attitude or personalities at work, the advice I always give is not to let it be a personal matter. Rather, make it all about the work and your working relationship. But what about when it really is a personal matter that’s causing the problem? When an employee has personal issues at home affecting their job, how do you focus on the work?
Of course, most of what you know about your direct reports is about who they are at work. But it’s helpful to know when there is a precipitating event in an employee’s life outside of work that affects their state of mind at work. It might be a new thing or longstanding, long-lasting or passing, big or not so big, sudden or gradually unfolding. In some cases, the personal problem is obvious. In others, it may be a bit of a mystery at first.
Most people try to compartmentalize personal challenges and keep them out of work as much as possible. Some people don’t or won’t. Sometimes they can’t. Some coping mechanisms work better for some people than others. It may be that an employee’s usual coping strategies are no longer effective in the face of a new, unfamiliar challenge.
Remember that everybody—everybody, even you—has a personal life. Some personal challenges are more difficult than others. But everybody has these challenges and must deal with them from time to time. There are some personal issues that are tough for anyone—even the most private compartmentalizer—to keep under wraps.
Remember also that most people are doing their best. Something that may seem trivial to you may not be so trivial to someone else. You are never going to know everything about what someone else is going through, and that includes their mindset in dealing with it.
Approach solutions from a compassionate mindset, rather than a punitive one. Assume your team member is doing their best with what they have, given the situation. Your job is to further help them navigate this situation as effectively as possible—at work.
There are two basic steps you can take as a manager to help employees whose personal issues are affecting their work: connecting them with resources and reducing unnecessary work stress. Even if you do nothing else, taking the time to focus on these two things in a 1:1 meeting with the employee in question is huge. You will be doing your part to help this person in a way that makes a real difference and communicating they are a valued member of your team.
Of course, make sure you respect that individual’s rights and privacy. In your effort to make accommodations or connect them with resources, don’t overstep. You don’t need to know all the details. The best way to start the conversation is usually, “Is there anything you need, or anything I can do as your boss, to help you feel your best and do your best at work?” Let this person know you will be their advocate should they need to negotiate anything with HR (and then make sure you deliver on that promise).
Discuss ways you can reduce this person’s work stress, even if only in the short-term. Perhaps some of their tasks could be delegated to someone else, they could arrange to work remotely, or they could work a special schedule for a while. Perhaps expectations or requirements need to be adjusted.
Think about who else might be affected by changes to this person’s work. That could be someone on the team or someone up or down the chain of command. Make sure to communicate and align with these people, too. But remember not to infringe on the rights or privacy of the employee in question.
Over the years, I’ve seen many managers get drawn into highly personal matters with employees. Don’t do it. It is time-consuming and almost never works. More often than not, there are negative repercussions that are hard to shake.
Managers often ask me, “When an employee is wearing their personal pain on their sleeve at work, don’t you need to acknowledge that and ask about it?” The answer is, yes, of course. Be aware, be kind. But be brief about it. The employee will be no better served by a long, tearful discussion than you will. Don’t make work another potential minefield for them.
It is not your job to be any employee’s therapist, no matter how close your relationship might be. You are not qualified, or, even if you are, it is not appropriate. Nor should you try to be any employee’s life coach or counselor. You should not, nor do you need to, be trying to help this person manage or solve their problems at home. If the employee in question is demanding this kind of involvement from you, make the boundary clear, and direct them to HR.
No matter what the problem is outside of work, what you need to do is make it clear that what’s going on at work is 100 percent the work. That’s not just some hard-nosed boss talk. This demonstrates emotional intelligence.
Often, the biggest favor you can do for this person is to refocus their mindset on the work: “Here are the performance standards. Here are the concrete expectations. Your time at work is measured entirely by these metrics—and nothing else. No matter what is going on in your personal life, work is a place where you can succeed and feel good about yourself and what you do.”
Work can become a safe space for people experiencing times of personal hardship. Establishing boundaries around what is and is not part of the discussion at work can allow a welcome reprieve. It also creates an environment where the employee can reliably do well and create an upward spiral of success.