“Am I feeling too much empathy for my staff’s problems?” a client asked me the other day. Coincidentally, another client had asked a similar question just a day earlier. Both clients worried that they were letting their feelings about team members’ personal concerns eclipse their managerial responsibility to require accountability and performance.
In one case, the supervisor recognized that an employee’s caring for an aging parent was both necessary and important even though it was creating scheduling conflicts and distractions; in the other case, an employee had expressed feeling upset about a challenging work situation in a way that cast doubt on whether he was truly up to the task.
In situations like these, leaders can choose a variety of approaches to maintain a humane relationship with team members while stewarding the needs of the business.
It’s About Them, Not You
No matter how deeply you empathize, your assumptions about your team member’s feelings won’t necessarily be accurate. We base many of our decisions on our own perceptions of what’s happening to someone else, and how we would feel if we were in their situation. But what we think we see is probably not the full story — we only know what we observe and what they’ve chosen to share with us.
Often, what an employee really needs is for something to change in their situation outside of work, or to make an adjustment in some other personal aspect of their health or functioning — neither of which are for you to handle. To find out how employees are truly feeling, ask them directly: “It must be very hard dealing with your father’s condition. How are you holding up?” Or, “That’s a tough thing to handle. Please let me know how I can be helpful.”
Respond to any explicit requests for help and show support wherever you can. If your team member needs flexibility with deadlines or to work from home sometimes, and you have the authority to provide it, great. If you need approval or administration from a higher up or Human Resources to make adjustments like these — or to arrange for some kind of leave — try to pave the way so the employee can speak to HR or the appropriate decision-maker successfully.
If your work team has a supportive culture, other team members may already be picking up the extra workload, or might be amenable to pitching in temporarily. Make sure you’re aware of whatever is happening, officially or unofficially, so you’re not surprised later if those accommodating colleagues become overwhelmed.
Increase Communication Wherever You Can
If the employee wants to discuss how to approach a difficult conversation they need to have, help them prepare the interaction and even rehearse it with them. You can also use this practice for holding challenging conversations into a developmental opportunity for the whole team.
Check your own communication: Have you been providing the normal level of functional direction? Or are you holding back information because you’re concerned the employee won’t be able to handle it? Make sure you’re telling the employee what you’d expect under normal conditions, and ask explicitly how they would like to adjust during this difficult period. Otherwise, if they miss a step while you’re already picking up the slack, you might be inclined to feel resentful. That’s a very common response, but unfair.
Keep evaluating the impact of the employee’s personal circumstance on the work and the rest of the team. It’s easy to be supportive and give more leeway when the impact is negligible. It’s when the impact is significant, either in depth or duration, that you have to step back from your own feelings about the situation and assess what’s working and what isn’t. Then, with full respect for their humanity and their good sense as a business person, discuss it with them.
Be Caring, Respectful, and Clear-Headed
Offering sympathy and support can deepen a work relationship in ways that benefit both the people and the work. But interfering in someone’s personal life or acting on your own beliefs without checking if you’re accurate can disrupt both the individual and the work. Even if you have outside or expert knowledge about how to handle an employee’s personal situation, it’s not your place to tell them what you would do in their circumstance, so don’t offer an opinion unless they ask.
But if their individual situation is hurting their work performance, that’s a different situation. Rather than pretending it doesn’t matter and giving them a pass — which can put you at risk later on if they are consistently underperforming — address it. You can say something like: “I understand that this is a very distracting time for you, and I’m glad the team is able to support you.” Or: “I’m happy to take care of these things for you. Once you get through this tough period and can focus again, I hope you’ll be able to return to your old level of performance.”
Lastly, don’t push them to share any details other than those that specifically affect their work, like timing, keeping commitments, and accuracy. Simply point out what’s been missed, and express your support. Remember: You’re in charge of the work, but not of them.