How to lead empathetically when you have a teammate who is struggling personally

Leading while teammates are going through difficult situations is hard


Grace Tripathy , Fri 15 December 2023
We all have life events that distract us from work from time to time: an ailing family member, a divorce, the death of a friend. You can’t expect someone to be at their best at such times. But as a manager what can you expect? How can you support the person to take care of themselves emotionally while also making sure they are doing their work (or as much of it as they are able to)?

Emily, a dedicated team leader, found herself facing a challenging situation. One of her team members, Charlie, was grappling with personal turmoil, juggling the complexities of an external affair leading to a divorce that was tearing apart his family. Balancing the demands of the workplace while carrying such a heavy emotional burden, Charlie was struggling to meet performance expectations, leaving Emily in a delicate position as a leader torn between empathy and professionalism.

Understanding the delicate nature of Charlie's situation, Emily knew that leading with empathy was crucial. However, maintaining a professional work environment was equally important. Striking the right balance required a thoughtful and nuanced approach.

First, Emily decided to initiate a private conversation with Charlie. She wanted to create a safe space for him to share his struggles without judgment. Instead of immediately addressing performance concerns, she began by expressing concern for his well-being and acknowledging the challenges he might be facing outside of work.

During their conversation, Emily demonstrated active listening skills, allowing Charlie to open up about his personal life at his own pace. This approach helped build trust and allowed Emily to gain a deeper understanding of the emotional toll Charlie was experiencing. In doing so, she learned about his fears, uncertainties, and the difficulty he faced in separating personal issues from his professional responsibilities.

Understanding that Charlie might find it challenging to communicate openly in a face-to-face setting, Emily subtly introduced the idea of using AIM Insights, a platform designed for non-face-to-face communication among team members. This platform served as an online forum where employees could share their personal struggles, ambitions, and non-work-related goals in a comfortable and confidential manner.

Emily emphasized the benefits of AIM Insights, explaining how it could provide a supportive space for team members to express themselves freely. The platform allowed individuals like Charlie to share their experiences, offering insights into their lives outside of the office, making it easier for leaders like Emily to comprehend the challenges faced by their team members.

Without explicitly revealing Charlie's personal situation, Emily encouraged the team to use AIM Insights as a channel for open communication about their non-work-related struggles and aspirations.

These 3 tips are also used to ensure that the workplace is a confidential, empathetic and supportive environment. 

  1. Listen First, Suggest Second

When you speak to an employee about their current struggles, listen first instead of immediately advocating for some particular course of action. They may just want a sounding board about the difficulties of caring for a sick relative or an opportunity to explain why a divorce has affected their attention span. If you immediately suggest they take a leave of absence or adjust their schedule, they may be put off if that’s not what they were thinking. Instead, ask what both of you can do together to address the issue of performance during the difficult period. 

2. Know What You Can Offer

You may be more than willing to give a grieving employee several weeks of leave, or to offer a woman with a high-risk pregnancy the ability to work from home. But the decision isn’t always yours to make. If you have the leeway to get creative with a flexible schedule, an adjusted workload, or a temporary work-from-home arrangement, do what you think is best. But also be sure you understand your company’s restrictions on short- and long-term leave, and what, if any, bureaucratic hurdles exist before promising anything to your employee. Explain that you need to check what’s possible before you both commit to an arrangement.

If the employee needs counseling or drug or alcohol services, there may be resources provided by your company’s medical insurance that you can recommend. But investigate the quality of those resources first. The last thing you want to do is send a suffering employee to avail themselves of a program or supposedly helpful people who then fall short.

3. Consider Workload

You also have to consider whether prolonged absences will adversely affect clients or team members. If so, mitigate those risks by easing the person’s workload. If there are people who are willing and able to take on some of the individual’s projects, you can do that temporarily. Just be sure to reward the people who are stepping in. And then set timelines for any adjustments you make. If the person knows that their situation will last for 6-8 weeks, set a deadline for you to meet and discuss what will happen next. Of course, many situations will be open-ended and in those cases, you can set interim deadlines when you get together to check in on how things are going and make adjustments as necessary. Whatever arrangements you make, be crystal clear about your expectations during this time period. Be realistic about what they can accomplish and set goals they can meet.



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