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How to Manage an Employee Who’s Having a Personal Crisis

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)?

What the Experts Say
Managing an employee who is going through a stressful period is “one of the real challenges all bosses face,” says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and author of Being the Boss. Most of us try to keep work and home separate, but “we all have situations in which our personal and professional lives collide,” and how you handle these situations with your employees is often a test of your leadership. You need to be empathetic and compassionate while also being professional and keeping your team productive. It’s a fine line to maintain, says Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and author of How to Be Happy at Work.Here’s how to manage an employee going through a personal crisis.

Make yourself available
“People don’t always feel comfortable telling their boss” that a parent is gravely ill or that they feel stressed out in the wake of a crumbling relationship, says McKee. They may be too overwhelmed, or embarrassed that it is causing them to be late repeatedly or to miss deadlines. Often a manager’s first challenge is simply recognizing the warning signs that an employee is going through a difficult time. Invest time in building good relationships with employees so you’ll be able to detect any problems early on. If you maintain an atmosphere of compassion in the office, people are more likely to proactively come to you when they’re going through a tough period.

Don’t pry
As a leader, you need to be able to show empathy and care, but you also must avoid becoming an employee’s personal confidante. After all, your job as manager is not to be the office shrink. So don’t ask a bunch of questions about the employee’s problems. As the person with more power in the relationship, the employee may feel compelled to tell you more than they’re comfortable with. “You want to build a caring relationship with employees, not a friendly relationship,” says Hill. Many managers make the mistake of confusing being liked with being trusted or respected. A good manager “has the ability to read and understand other people’s needs and concerns,” says McKee, while still keeping everyone focused on the major task at hand: accomplishing work.

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,” says Hill. 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. “Try to use the word ‘we,’” advises Hill, as in “How can we support you?” The employee may have an idea for a temporary arrangement — some time off, handing off a project to a colleague, or a more flexible schedule for a few weeks — that is amenable to you. 

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. “You may be very compassionate but you may be in a company where that’s not the way it works,” says Hill. Of course, 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,” says McKee.

Check in regularly to make sure they’re doing ok  
Whether you’ve settled on a solution yet or not, check in with your employee occasionally by dropping by their desk (keeping their privacy in mind) or sending a brief email. Not only will your employee appreciate that you care, you’ll get a better sense of how they are coping. “You can simply ask, ‘Do you feel like you’ve got a handle on it?,’” says Hill. “And if they do, you can say, ‘Let’s just keep in touch so neither one of us has too many surprises. Or if you get a little over your head, I hope you’ll feel free to come to me and we can do some more problem solving and make further adjustments if necessary.’”

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. “For this to be useful,” says McKee, “it’s got to be specific and it has be grounded in reality.”

Be transparent and consistent
Be conscious of the fact that other employees will take note of how you treat the struggling colleague and will likely expect similar consideration if they too run into difficult times in the future. “If you want to get productive work out of people, they need to trust you and believe that you’ll treat them fairly,” says Hill. Remember that policies may be precedent-setting. Every situation will be unique, but you want to be comfortable with policies in case you are called to apply them again. Keep in mind that solutions could apply to “the next person and the next and the next after that,” says McKee.

Principles to Remember

Do:

 
  • Set a tone of compassion in the office. It will not only give your employees confidence to approach you with struggles, but also give you the ability to spot warnings signs.
  • Be creative with solutions. A flexible schedule may allow a person to maintain their output without much disruption.
  • Check in from time to time, both to reassure the employee and to make sure that further adjustments or accommodations aren’t needed.

Don’t:

  • Act more like a therapist than a manager. Your heart may be in the right place, but don’t get involved in your employee’s personal problems.
  • Make promises you can’t keep. Research your company’s policies before you offer time off or alternative work arrangements.
  • Treat similar situations among employees differently. Employees will note — and resent — the inconsistency.

Case Study #1: Set realistic work goals with the employee and delegate some of their work
Alicia Shankland, a senior HR executive with more than 20 years of experience, managed two different women through the intensely stressful, emotional months of fertility treatment. In both cases, the treatments continued for nearly a year, so the women were away from work frequently for medical appointments and procedures. They also experienced severe ups and downs from the hormone drugs and the emotional devastation of miscarriages.

What’s more, the schedule of fertility treatments didn’t fit neatly into any of the existing standard HR leave policies. “There was no way to make a 30-60-90 day plan to accommodate all the unknowns,” Shankland said.

In each case, she endeavored to make as many allowances as possible, and the women used sick time, flex time, and personal days. She worked with each of them to set concrete, realistic work goals that allowed them to focus on the most critical deliverables while delegating other duties, and teammates pitched in to make sure duties weren’t neglected or dropped. “We managed through it as a tight-knit team,” she says.

A happy outcome was that the team was well prepared to cover for the maternity leaves that were eventually taken by each woman. “It actually showed us all that we could play multiple roles,” Shankland says. When the women returned from their respective maternity leaves, they were both at “110 percent.” Each had “exceptionally successful years at the company that more than made up for the time when they needed extra hands to make it through.”

Case Study #2: Act with compassion and offer flexibility if possible
When David*, a professional at a financial services firm, heard that the husband of one of his team members had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, he knew it was going to be a long and emotional roller coaster for her. Within weeks of the initial, grave diagnosis, doctors suggested that the cancer may not be spreading as fast as initially thought, and that the husband may have months to live, rather than mere weeks. That did little to lessen the emotional devastation. “It was so difficult to predict,” he said. It’s such an emotional time, and “you can’t ask for a timeframe. She wants to have a diagnosis and she wants to be able to maintain a regular work schedule. But she just doesn’t know.” From a manager’s standpoint, he said, “you have to take that burden off the employee.”

David recognized that it would be better to offer the woman more flexibility, a shift she happily embraced. The management team restructured her job away from her responsibilities in client services, which demanded high close rates and availability, to duties that weren’t as time sensitive. “This provided our team with less reliance on her and also gave her the freedom to focus on her important family matters that were the priority,” he said. She also agreed to switch her compensation from salaried to hourly, which allowed the firm the flexibility to carry on the arrangement indefinitely.

Ten months after the diagnosis, she was still with the company in the modified arrangement. “You have to act with compassion,” said David, “while also being responsible to clients and other employees.” Critical to the firm’s success? Making sure they could continue to be flexible. “Sometimes you just don’t know how a situation will end,” David said. “You need to keep an open mind.”

*Not his real name.


Carolyn O’Hara is a writer and editor based in New York City. She’s worked at The Week, PBS NewsHour, and Foreign Policy. Follow her on Twitter at @carolynohara1.

 

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To Seize the Future, Create a Leadership Circle

A global pharmaceutical company was about to lose the strategic advantage of several blockbuster drugs coming off patent. In five years, the revenue shortfall would be significant. The senior commercial and scientific directors formed a “circle of leaders” comprised of 23 senior managers who had no meaningful history of collaboration on strategic initiatives. The hope was that the diversity of brainpower and perspectives would yield imaginative ways to outgrow the shortfall.

An international media firm that successfully moved from print to internet nonetheless faced new competition from the likes of Google and Buzzfeed. Although its readership was at historic highs, the CEO was determined to double its subscription base over the next five years. So the chiefs of strategy and technology formed a unique circle of peers — 18 diverse members from across the organization whose task over the next six months was to ask and answer what they felt were the most pressing strategic questions facing the company.

This kind of approach to special challenges that companies face is new. But the problem of getting different parts of organizations to talk meaningfully with one another is old.

When Lee Iacocca became CEO of Chrysler, here’s what he found: “Chrysler didn’t really function like a company at all. Chrysler in 1978 was like Italy in the 1860’s — the company consisted of a cluster of little duchies, each one run by a prima donna. It was a bunch of mini empires, with nobody giving a damn about what anyone else was doing…. Everybody worked independently.”

Such extreme non-communication inside companies today is rare. However, equally rare is tapping into the minds of a group of imaginative, open-minded employees and managers to scope out potential strategic opportunities. That, in brief, is the concept of a leadership circle.

Many leaders turn to their direct reports for guidance. While a natural inclination, this group is (by design) representative of current operating units and functions, which often have a status quo to defend. Then, too, this group likely has deep expertise in today’s core skills and advantages, yet little or no knowledge of the novel opportunities outside their realm. Lastly, this group may be more attuned to individual interests (including performance metrics and compensation incentives) rather than the collective and longer-term needs of the firm. In short, today’s existing leadership structure, expertise and purpose are designed to address today’s challenges — not tomorrow’s.

Creating a leadership circle is a step toward addressing these shortfalls. To be clear about a few things up front: This is not a call for organizational restructuring, nor is it the adding of another layer of management or the establishment of a new committee per se. Instead, this is about bringing people together (regardless of their current roles and responsibilities) to focus explicitly on a future opportunity that is central to the long-term viability of the company. The mission of the circle of leaders is to think differently about the future, to be aspirational while intentionally challenging the status quo.

To start, create a diverse ad hoc team of 15–18 people from throughout the company to work together for about six months. There could be C-suite participation, but only as peers; the CEO and board members are excluded. The purpose of the circle is to share perspectives and explore possibilities on no more than three critically important questions facing the company. For example, a typical question might be around how the competitive landscape is morphing and who competitors might be in the future — and what the company will need to do to prepare for such an exigency. Or the circle might ask what new products or services the company could capably provide to maneuver into an entirely new marketplace. The only questions the circle should avoid are what to do about current operational problems.

Thus, the circle is more a “community of engagement” rather than a standing committee. Within the circle, each member holds equal status and should not feel that he or she is being asked to represent the point of view of accounting, sales, shipping, or whatever the home department. Moreover, its focus should not be on day-to-day operations; in fact, it should be quite the opposite. The only commonality to be stressed for this assignment is that all must be eager to think about the future of the company. The only contract between members is that they be open, honest, and committed to considering the ideas of others.

Second, adopt the rule that, for this assignment, conflict is encouraged. What should be encouraged is conflict, not warfare. Personal attacks, dismissive criticisms, harsh invectives, rolling eyes — all are unacceptable behaviors for the circle. What’s needed is a way to enhance, even exploit, the value of the diversity in the room. The best way to do that is to allow people to say, for example, that while they appreciate the views of others in the room, here’s another (and quite possibly, opposing) way to think about the question at hand. All should think of themselves as stewards of the company. Thus, the acceptance of disagreement as a natural (and desirable) consequence of a diverse set of perspectives on current affairs or future possibilities will provide positive fuel for constructive conflict.

A leadership circle is of little value to a business if people cannot openly disagree without being disagreeable. If the circle has been carefully assembled from a diverse group, it’s important to put that diversity to work as long as everyone agrees that it’s the future of the company, not this ad hoc circle, that unites everyone.

Lastly, since the circle has no formal authority and since it does not control any resources, its value depends on capturing what’s been learned and sharing it, especially upwards. While no leadership circle is designed to provide clear-cut, cogent strategic directions for the company, the chances are that it will generate some viewpoints that perhaps have never been heard, especially at the C-suite and board levels. Such viewpoints could, in turn, generate more fresh, innovative thinking — and from that, new corporate vistas might easily emerge.

One of the biggest mistakes the leadership of any company can make is to suppress imagination and creative thinking. Whatever ideas come out of a leadership circle should be handled in the same way they were generated: the ideas should be rigorously and systematically discussed, debated, and explored. Too often, structure and rank inside companies devolve into unhealthy deference to those at the top. C-suite players may be bright, talented, and hard-working; but they are also more than likely overworked and too invested in what’s happening today or what transpired last year. No senior executive can possibly have a monopoly on what might happen in the future that could affect the company’s survival.

A leadership circle is a unique engagement of members of the corporate family. It is a thinking-intensive forum created to expand horizons and raise new possibilities. One business unit director for the media company commented to me that, after the first few meetings of the leadership circle, discussions were happening that had been previously missing from all past strategic dialogues. “We simply had never had a forum for having such discussion among peers from across the organization,” he shared with me one day, “and once we got started, the benefits became evident to all of us.” With a universal need for companies to find new ways to either take existing corporate capabilities and move them in new directions or to start developing the capabilities required to keep the company moving forward, forming circles may be the best way to start solving that need.

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What to Do When You Get a New Boss Every Few Months

In some workplaces, reorgs and personnel changes are constant, which means that you might be getting a new boss every few months. How do you develop an effective relationship with your manager when the person filling that role keeps shifting? How much of an investment should you make? How can you get what you need to succeed and grow in your role? And is maintaining continuity your responsibility?

What the Experts Say
Managing your relationship with your boss is challenging enough as it is. When that person changes every six months, the task becomes a lot more difficult—and time-consuming. “There’s a big part of work that is relational,” says Reb Rebele, an instructor in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Collaborative Overload”. “You’re dealing with people on a regular basis, getting to know them, establishing norms, and establishing patterns. If your manager is constantly changing, you’re doing a lot of extra relational work and it’s a much bigger investment of your time and energy.” Priscilla Claman, the president of Career Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm and a contributor to the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job, agrees that having to cycle through new managers is “one of the world’s most frustrating things.” Your “impulse may be to duck and hide,” she says, but you must instead be proactive. It’s never easy to have several bosses in as many years, but there are ways to make this challenging situation more tolerable. Here are some tips.

Schedule an “interview”
Let’s not sugarcoat this. A new manager can be “very dangerous” to your career prospects, says Claman, because “the person who hired you will always love you more” than someone who inherits you. You must therefore “do the best you can to make it seem as though you’re being hired by the new boss.” Schedule an appointment to meet her one-on-one and bring a copy of your resume. Speak about your accomplishments as you would in a job interview. “Talk about who you are, how you work, your strengths, and your goals,” Rebele adds. It’s important to “spend this early time with your new boss having those kinds of conversations” particularly if it’s a volatile time at your organization. Think of it as a “co-onboarding process.”

Discover the new priorities
Next, do a little detective work. “You need to find out the reason why this boss was appointed and what it means” for your organization and your career path, says Claman. “It may have something to do with the failures of the previous manager, but it’s more likely that the new boss signals a change in the organization’s direction or a shift in its mission.” To find out, talk to your peers, your colleagues in other departments, or your boss’s boss. Get involved in your new manager’s orientation process. Then, either “align yourself with the new priorities” or, “if your company is heading in a very different direction, think about whether you still want to be associated with it.”

Modify and adjust
One of the most challenging things about dealing with these frequent changes is that “it’s hard to get into a rhythm,” says Rebele. “The benefit of working with someone over time is that you know what to expect and there’s a lot of predictability.” When the org chart is in flux, however, you need to regularly “update your mental models” and modify your behavior and work style. Claman says it helps that you “not think of these people as your bosses,” but instead as “very important clients,” each with “his own quirks and special needs.” You need to “adapt and change” and accommodate. Ask each new boss how he likes to communicate. Ask how often he wants status updates. And find out how much detail he wants in those updates. After a month or so of the new normal, “ask for feedback about how you’re doing.”

Invest in the relationship, even if it’s temporary
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you don’t need a strong relationship with a new boss who may soon be replaced, says Claman. “You need to make a big investment” no matter how short you expect the person’s tenure to be. This is as much for you as them, Rebelle notes. “Having good relationships with colleagues and your boss makes your workday more enjoyable” and efficient, he explains. “You don’t have to be best friends” with a new manager, but it’s a good idea to make an effort to get to know her. Ask about her hobbies, her weekend plans, and her family. Be open and curious. If those conversation topics go nowhere, default to work.

Focusing on learning
Even in the best professional situations, you shouldn’t “rely on your boss for all of your development needs,” says Claman. But a new manager will almost certainly have something useful to teach you. Perhaps he’s a sales whiz, a brilliant marketing strategist, or has great technical chops. Transient bosses may not be in the best position to mentor and coach, especially when it comes to navigating the organization, but Rebele points out that they do often bring “novel information—a new background, new experiences, and new perspectives.” They can allow you to “see your work with fresh eyes,” he says. So take advantage of the “opportunity to learn.”

Check your attitude
You may find that you don’t like or respect your new boss as much as your old one, but don’t dwell on the negative. Rebele suggests you “focus your attention and energy on areas you do have control over and things you can do to improve the situation” like being a “helping contributor.” Claman concurs. “If you start thinking, ‘I’m the only one here who knows what’s going on; these people are clowns,’ that will come through in your work,” she says. Similarly, don’t moan to colleagues about your new-boss whiplash. If you need to vent, talk to your spouse or your friends (provided they don’t work at your company). Seek out people who will give you honest feedback about the validity of your complaints.

Maintain relationships
One bright spot of the frequent management switches: the number of senior managers who can vouch for your work increases. That’s why it’s smart to treat even short-term bosses as part of your growing professional network. “Our networks can be helpful to us down the road in ways we can’t always foresee,” Rebele notes. Even if you decide it’s too much work to stay in touch with all of them, “never badmouth your current boss to your old boss,” Claman adds. “Not only could it mess up your relationship with your new boss, it might also taint the feelings your previous boss had for you.”

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • A little digging to find out the reason why this boss was appointed and what it means for your organization and your career path
  • Be willing to adapt and change your style and behavior to accommodate your new manager
  • Make an effort to get to know your new boss on a personal and professional level just as you would any new colleague

Don’t:

  • Dwell on your annoyance. It’s better to focus your energy on things you can do to improve the situation
  • Assume that your new boss has nothing to teach you. Instead, think about what he knows that you don’t
  • Badmouth your current boss to your old boss. It could harm your relationship with your new boss and spoil your previous boss’s regard for you

 

Case Study #1: Accommodate your new boss and stay in touch with your old one
Mark Scott, the chief marketing officer at Apixio, the digitized medical records company, has experienced his fair share of organizational changes over the course of his career. In one job alone, he endured six consecutive corporate reorgs and had five different bosses in two and half years.

It was frustrating for Mark, especially since he had joined the company in the first place to work for Claudia, his original hiring manager. “She impressed the heck out of me,” he recalls. “She was a super smart, strategic thinker, and I thought I could learn a lot from her. [But] eight months into my job, she got promoted [and moved on].”

Mark reported to no one for a “painful few months.” The quality of his work life declined even more after the company’s leadership appointed a “corporate person who had no foundational experience whatsoever in marketing,” as his manager. His new boss was based at the company’s Ohio headquarters, while Mark ran a team of 38 people in San Diego.

Mark had “very little support from” his new manager and for a while, he kept his head down. But when his third boss—we’ll call her Regina—started making decisions about his department and team without consulting him, Mark realized he needed to do more to cultivate a relationship. He flew to Ohio to meet with her in person.

“I wanted Regina to see me as a resource and [as a source of] positive energy,” he says. “I told her how I like to work, how I like to receive information, and how I process it. I explained to her how past decisions were made. And I asked her: ‘How do you like to work? And how can I help you?’”

Regina told Mark that she wanted to be more involved in his team’s decision-making process. Mark—who says he is someone “who likes to move quickly”—modified and adjusted his style to accommodate Regina. He sent status updates and project reviews each week; before any new product launch or initiative, Mark made sure Regina had all the relevant information in her inbox 48 hours in advance.

It was tedious and “time-consuming” but the new process “improved the dynamic” between them. “It gave Regina an understanding of everything that was going on and also gave her the opportunity to provide input.”

Mark also made a concerted effort to build a more personal relationship with Regina. He chatted with her before meetings and whenever she was in town from Ohio.

Today Mark is not in touch with Regina, but he remains in contact with Claudia. “We speak on the phone from time to time and ask each other for advice,” he says. “We have a good relationship.”

Case Study #2: Determine why the new boss was appointed and what it means
Alex Roman (not his real name) had been in his job as a product manager for a retail marketing company for less than a year when his boss got promoted to a new position in the company; his second boss lasted about six months in the post, and by the time his third boss was appointed, Alex was annoyed—and worried.

“I felt like my team and my product were being passed around,” he says. “With the management changes, it seemed as though the company wasn’t invested in what we were working on.”

Once his new boss—we’ll call her Pam—was installed, he went on a mission to determine the reason behind the constant reorganizations. He talked to his colleagues in other units, and he inquired about the company’s strategy with his manager’s manager. “As it turned out,” he said, “the company was shifting away from mobile products—where my expertise was—and instead putting more money into what had been our core business.”

Alex realized he didn’t have much of a future career with the company—nor did he want one. He started to discretely look for new work. “After I grasped that my company was heading in a new direction, I saw that my role was no longer critical to the organization, nor was it valued,” he says. “I had to move on.”

But in the meantime, Alex needed to make the best out of his situation. He scheduled a one-on-one meeting with Pam where the two made a plan about how they would work together. He tried to stay positive and focused on ways he could help Pam get acclimated in her new job. Alex also got to know Pam on a personal level—they both had daughters the same age so they bonded over toddler tantrums. While he wasn’t going to stay long at his company, he also realized that he could learn from Pam. “She had almost encyclopedic knowledge about how retail promotions work,” he says. “I still think back on how much I learned from her.”

n the end, Alex’s hunch was correct. He and his team were let go only six months after Pam took over. “I am just glad I already had a job search up and running,” he says.

Alex was lucky to find a new job in mobile products that suited his interests and expertise. Happily, he has reported to the same person ever since he was hired.

 

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University.  Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW

https://hbr.org/2016/07/what-to-do-when-you-get-a-new-boss-every-few-months?cm_mmc=email-_-newsletter-_-management_tip-_-tip_date&referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date

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