What to Do When You Realize You Made a Bad Hire

Sometimes it happens that a candidate who had the right credentials, seemed to fly through the interview process, and had lovely references turns out to be an unexpected problem after hiring. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, consider yourself lucky, because only 19% of new hires are considered fully successful, according to a frequently cited study, and by the 18-month point 46% are deemed failures.

If you’ve been in this situation, you’ve had to face the dilemma of whether it’s worse to be stuck with an employee who can’t handle the work and is damaging to the team, or to go public with the admission that you’ve made a significant mistake. Usually in these situations it’s less costly to make a change, and the sooner you make it, the better. Although coping with the impact of a bad hire will never be easy, following these steps will help you recover and move on with the least possible damage to all parties.

Prepare for a direct, and probably uncomfortable, conversation with the new hire.Rather than hoping for the best, or trying to deter a confrontation, leveling with the new hire about your dissatisfaction and their performance issues can open the way to joint problem solving. By sharing your concerns and asking for their input, you may be able to discover workable alternatives, or at least understand how bad the situation truly is. You can start off with something like, “James, I want to talk about the last few weeks, and where we seem to be on track and where we need to make some adjustments.” Keep in mind that the new employee may recognize the same problems that you do and be grateful for the opportunity to clear the air and work on a solution together.

Try to repair the situation with focused feedback or reassignment. One of my clients hired a relatively junior staffer for his moxie, energy, and drive. Within just a few weeks, though, the new employee started broadcasting his concerns that the job was not as exciting or rewarding as he had expected, and he started making careless mistakes and goofing around with other employees. His manager gave him careful feedback on his behavior and asked lots of questions about why the job felt unsatisfying. Luckily, thanks to projected business growth and flexible organizational parameters, the manager was able to shift the new hire to another department and a more challenging job that suited his ambitions better. We developed an intensive training program to equip him for the new role and ensure a smooth transition.

This doesn’t always work. At one client company, a new vice president who came from a different industry made numerous commitments to apply the feedback she was receiving, but she didn’t understand the business model and seemed either unable or unwilling to adapt her technical skills, so she was incapable of implementing the feedback accurately. Watch out for the escalation of commitment — many of us resist “giving up” on a tough situation. But if you’re giving the person lots of feedback, and you don’t see both significant personal effort almost immediately and actual improvements over the next three to six months, at some point you need to prepare to cut your losses.

Identify both the current and the future expense of keeping the bad hire. In some situations, the negative impact on other team members or the business makes it impractical to look for other internal opportunities or to invest in ongoing development. In one case, a senior executive who had previously worked for a very large public company joined my client, a midsize family-owned company, with such unrealistic expectations about resources and autonomous decision making that he cost the business dearly. Giving him feedback didn’t work, and moving him to another role wouldn’t have solved the problem.

In situations like these, the costs usually include reduced productivity or increased opportunity costs, employee disengagement and possible turnover, and increased interdepartmental conflict. Some clear indicators are missed deadlines or a decline in work quality. A less obvious sign is extra pre- and post-meeting meetings — often an attempt by colleagues to compensate for or work around an underperformer’s struggles. Compare those impacts with the cost of replacement and onboarding for a new candidate.

Often you won’t recognize how much negative impact the bad hire has until you remove them, as happened at one of my clients where they tweaked the organization multiple times over several years, trying to find a place for an executive who had made a good initial impression but did not have the necessary knowledge or skills, and who therefore bottlenecked work, suppressed innovation, and created dissension among colleagues and subordinates. It wasn’t until she was removed that others stepped up to build bridges and enthusiastically tackle languishing initiatives and propose new creative solutions.

Make the case for an exception to the typical exit plan. If the relationship can’t be salvaged, look for every opportunity to make the transition and departure as smooth and graceful as possible. Start by considering whether you can negotiate a mutually beneficial plan. An honest conversation can give the unsuccessful hire more sense of personal control and also give you the leeway to work publicly to support the team’s activities and find a replacement. Particularly if the employee has previously expressed discomfort, you could open with something along the lines of, “I appreciate your telling me how concerned you are, and the current situation is having a negative impact on the team, too, so I wonder if we can work this out in a way that benefits everyone.” Check with your HR department before you do this.

Otherwise, if it has to be a surprise to the employee, be direct and to the point: “As we’ve discussed several times, someone in your role needs to be able to accomplish these tasks and goals successfully, and you haven’t been able to do that. So unfortunately, we’re going to have to terminate your employment as of such-and-such date. Here’s how we’re going to manage the exit.”

Offering severance and outplacement services will demonstrate to both the unsuccessful employee and their colleagues that you’re acting in good faith. While it’s true that most companies only provide severance payments or outplacement services in situations where an employee has provided long and faithful service, when organizations take responsibility for the mistake of a bad hire, it helps everyone move on more quickly. The exception to this would be if the employee misrepresented their skills or has ethical or behavioral problems.

It’s painful for all parties when you make the wrong hire, so learn what you canabout what went wrong to avoid repeating the situation, particularly because it will be crucial that the replacement works out well. If you move deliberately but quickly to handle the problem, the new hire is more likely to still have some job opportunities in the pipeline, or to be able to return to their last position, and will be grateful for the chance to salvage their career — and it’s more likely that you’ll still have a batch of candidates to consider.

Liz Kislik helps organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses solve their thorniest problems. She has taught at NYU and Hofstra University, and recently spoke at TEDxBaylorSchool. You can receive her free guide, How to Resolve Interpersonal Conflicts in the Workplace, on her website.


The 4 Types of Coaches Every Leader Needs

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” This quote from legendary college basketball coach John Wooden is one of the best ways I’ve found to describe the importance of coaching in the workplace.

The reason is that we’ve entered a new era of business in which the rapid pace of change requires people at all levels of the organization to constantly learn new skills, change their perspectives, and push themselves to higher levels of performance. That’s where coaching comes in: Coaching is about providing timely feedback to help someone strengthen their skills, knowledge, or behavior to better accomplish a short-term goal.

The word “short-term” is an important aspect to remember. Coaching is all about helping someone perform better right now. While coaching might happen repeatedly over the life of a project, it could also occur in the space of just one conversation.

While coaching has long been a critical part of how leaders interact with their direct reports, many organizations are seeing significant advantages from making coaching a part of their culture. Among other benefits, these organizations are more likely to have a strong leadership bench, experience lower leader turnover, and have more satisfied and engaged leaders.

While the benefits of a coaching culture are significant, it can be very challenging to build. One of the big issues is that many people have a misconception that coaching can only happen in one direction, with people at higher levels of the organization coaching people who have lower-level titles. But a coaching culture depends on breaking down those barriers, and enabling everyone in the organization to become a coach.

One of the key ways to overcome this barrier is for leaders to become comfortable not only with giving coaching, but receiving it. As leaders become more comfortable about asking for and receiving coaching from varied sources, coaching begins to become more ingrained in the organization’s culture. Specifically, leaders should seek out four different types of coaching, each of which plays a distinct role:

Leader coaches provide guidance

When a leader is getting coaching from a boss or another higher-level leader, the coach should ideally be serving as a guide for the leader. The coach should be focused on providing both proactive and reactive coaching that will help the leader succeed.

Proactive coaching is focused on helping set the leader up for success. It might take the form of offering insights or resources to help the leader complete a project similar to one that the higher-level leader has tackled in the past. On the flip side, reactive coaching is about helping the leader solve problems, such as helping remove barriers standing in the way of success or changing tactics to better approach the issue.

One trap for leaders as coaches, however, is that they may find themselves managing more often than coaching. While coaching is about helping guide people to solve problems, managing is telling people what to do. Managing involves setting goals, giving direction, communicating expectations, and making decisions. When coaching from a boss or other higher-level leader starts to become more like managing, leaders often get frustrated, and may feel micromanaged. While managing is a necessary part of leadership, it should occur much less frequently than coaching.

Peer coaches offer candid partnership

While bosses and higher-level leaders serve as important and valuable coaches, many people struggle to let their guard down among those who have higher-level titles in the organization. Even in high-trust relationships with their leaders, direct reports may feel that they still must present their best sides to ensure they don’t risk sharing issues that may affect their performance reviews, raises, career prospects, or job status.

Peer coaches can help to fill this gap. Peer coaching pairs together same-level leaders for mutual benefit. Without the burden of a title or rank dynamics, peers can provide candid feedback that’s focused on achieving the best possible outcome

Peer coaching can also help break down silos and improve collaboration across the organization. In addition, it can help people to feel more accountability for their work, knowing how much their peers are counting on them.

Direct reports can coach on their areas of expertise

While many leaders can see the benefits of coaching from their boss or peers, they often struggle with getting coaching from those who report to them. In the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, we learned that leaders are getting very little coaching from their direct reports—and that’s fine with them! Many leaders may be concerned that getting coaching from their direct reports may make them appear weak or lacking in knowledge.

However, direct reports often have specialized knowledge that can be extremely valuable to their leaders. As leaders are promoted, they lose touch with the day-to-day issues and experience, especially as rapidly changing technologies transform the workplace. Thus, direct reports often have much deeper knowledge of their subject matter, on-the-job pain points, and ideas for solutions than their leaders.

Coaching from direct reports is one of the most critical aspects of building a coaching culture. When team members get to share their expertise and input with their manager, they are much more likely to feel like a valued and trusted member of the team, which improves their engagement and commitment to their jobs.

External coaches provide objectivity

While developing a strong coaching culture within your organization is ideal, leaders say they desire coaching from external coaches more than nearly any other kind of development. External coaches can play a deeply valuable role in providing outside perspective and expertise to leaders. With an external coach, leaders can feel free to voice concerns without fear of damaging relationships with their colleagues and can gain perspective about how leaders in other organizations may have dealt with similar situations. They can also be objective to the situation without concern for organizational politics.

Unfortunately, leaders are rarely getting these opportunities for external coaching. Many organizations reserve external coaching only for leaders at the executive level, which can leave mid-level and frontline leaders struggling to gain outside perspective. The good news is that advances in technology are making it easier for these leaders to access coaching, such as by easily scheduling virtual sessions.

When leaders seek coaching from a wider variety of people, they not only maximize their own performance, but engage others in their success. As people begin to feel more comfortable giving and receiving coaching, it will begin to become a way of (work) life, transforming your organization not only into a coaching culture, but a high-performance culture.


Written by Ryan Heinl

Ryan Heinl is director of Product Management and leader of the Impact Lab at DDI, where he brings innovative leadership solutions to life. He is an entrepreneur, writer, chef, Crossfitter, mindfulness junkie and occasional yogi who travels the world in search of the perfect moment (and secretly hopes he won’t find it).

When Is It OK to Tell a Well-Meaning Lie?

A manager gives an employee overly-positive feedback to boost their confidence. A doctor gives a patient a too-rosy prognosis to foster hope. A government official conceals a security threat to prevent widespread panic.

These are relatively understandable scenarios in which an individual tells a lie because they think they are helping someone. In each case, however, it’s unclear whether the lie actually makes the recipients better off. Employees could benefit from honest criticism in order to improve; patients may benefit from a candid prognosis; citizens might take actions to make themselves less vulnerable to security threats.

Given the ethical issues surrounding deception, how can one be sure when telling a well-meaning lie is the right thing to do — and when it’s not?

Some would argue that deceiving others is never ethical, especially in today’s corporate climate. As reports of fraud, bribery, and privacy breaches abound, “transparency” is becoming a watchword in organizations. If an act of deception were uncovered in public, it could result in a severe blow to your reputation.

However, day-to-day life presents what comedian Jerry Seinfeld calls “must-lie situations” — or, at the least, situations in which people lie precisely because they believe it is the ethical thing to do. For example, if someone asks how they look on their wedding day, the only acceptable answer is “You look incredible,” regardless of whether this is true.

But what if your boss asked you for your opinion on an under-developed presentation that they had to deliver at an important meeting that is weeks away? This is a very different situation. True, it might cause you both discomfort in the moment if you tell your boss that you think the presentation is not in great shape. However, there is enough time before the meeting for you to save your boss from embarrassment if the presentation were to fall flat. To your boss (and perhaps the company), preventing this embarrassment later on could be more important than avoiding the discomfort of receiving criticism.

In this case, falsely telling someone that they did a great job could be considered a paternalistic lie—that is, a lie that requires the deceiver to make assumptions about whether lying is in the best interest of the person being deceived.

In our recent article published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, across seven studies with over 2,000 research participants, we find that paternalistic lies spark strong resentment from deceived parties. In several experiments, participants were paired with partners (“communicators”) who had the opportunity to lie or tell the truth in order to help participants earn different prizes. For example, in one of the studies, communicators had to report the outcome of a coin flip, but could do so honestly or dishonestly. If the communicator was honest about the coin flip outcome, the participant would earn one ticket for a $10 lottery that would be conducted that day; if the communicator lied, the participant would earn one ticket for a $30 lottery three months from that day.

This choice — a chance at $10 now or $30 later — requires the communicator to make assumptions about what’s best for the partner when deciding whether to lie. It models a number of real-world situations, such as when a financial adviser might lie to a client for the purpose of nudging them to save money for the future.

Although it’s well-intended, lying in this context is paternalistic, since it assumes that the client would prefer future savings over available cash in the present. We found that communicators who told lies in this context were viewed as less moral than communicators who told the truth. Three specific inferences underlie this judgment. In particular, participants believed that paternalistic liars did not have good intentions, that paternalistic liars were violating their autonomy, and that paternalistic liars misunderstood their preferences. In another study, we also found that participants were actually less satisfied with the prize they received when it resulted from a paternalistic lie.

Importantly, not all lies bring about these negative judgments. In our experiments, some participants learned that a communicator’s honest or dishonest statement influenced how many lottery tickets the participant earned, rather than which lottery they were entered into. In this case, there was no ambiguity about the fact that lying would help the participant—anyone would rather receive more lottery tickets than fewer. Indeed, in this situation, lying was not seen as less moral than truth-telling, and did not elicit the same negative inferences.

Our research yielded some specific steps you can take to determine whether your lies are paternalistic (and thus, whether they will be welcomed or met with resentment). To determine whether your lies will be seen as paternalistic, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Can you safely assume that most people would be better off with the outcome associated with lying, rather than the truth? If not, tell the truth.

Sometimes the answer to this question will be obvious. Believing you look attractive on your wedding day is clearly better than believing you do not, and earning two lottery tickets is better than earning one lottery ticket. In these cases, lying is likely to be appreciated.

In many other cases, the answer will not be as obvious. If you’re not sure whether most people prefer the outcome associated with lying, consider asking a group of people. If there is disagreement, tell the truth.

  1. Do you know whether the person with whom you are talking prefers comfort over candor in this context? If not, lean towards candor.

Remember, it’s possible to learn people’s preferences simply by asking them. Consider asking your colleagues and family members the type of feedback they appreciate, and when and why they might appreciate constructive criticism over comfort. For example, you can ask your significant other whether they really want to know how they look when they ask you; and a doctor can ask their patients how much they want to know about their prognosis, or whether they would like to focus conversations on their treatment options.

We ran several studies examining paternalistic lies in close and professional relationships and found that people were more comfortable with a communicator’s deception if it was informed by an explicit conversation about a person’s preferences. For example, in one study, we found that people had a much higher regard for a doctor who offered a patient false hope when the doctor had previously discussed the patient’s preferences with the patient, versus when the doctor simply assumed these preferences.

  1. Are you confident that the target of the lie knows that you are looking out for their best interest? If not, any attempt to justify the lie may be ineffective. 

When caught lying (paternalistically or otherwise), people often defend themselves by saying they lied to protect the other person. But before lying to protect someone’s interests or feelings, ask yourself not only whether you are lying to protect them, but also whether that person would believe your lie was well-intended if they found out. In several studies, we found that people were not likely to believe paternalistic lies were well-intended, and reacted poorly to these lies even when the liar communicated good intentions. However, people were more likely to believe that paternalistic lies were well-intended when they were told by people who knew them well or had reputations as helpful, kind people.

Even though paternalistic lies are often well-intentioned, if uncovered, they will usually backfire. Lying may be helpful when there is no ambiguity about the resulting benefits for those on the receiving end. But in most other circumstances, honesty is the best policy.

Adam Eric Greenberg is an assistant professor of marketing at Bocconi University.

Emma E. Levine is an assistant professor at behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Matthew Lupoli is an assistant professor of management at Deakin University.


Dealing with Disappointment

  • Category EQ

Robert didn’t know what to think. How could he have misjudged the situation so badly? He felt angry, sad, and betrayed.

Because of his impending retirement, Robert had carefully groomed a successor to take over his key project. The company’s executives assured him that they agreed with his choice. But when push came to shove, they vetoed his candidate. Instead, they appointed someone else to take the lead — someone Robert didn’t trust to continue the work that had been the capstone of his career. Robert was left kicking himself for not seeing it coming. The sense of futility and bewilderment was almost too much to bear.

Many people successfully work through their disappointments. Somehow, they have the strength to take stock of what has happened to them, learn from the incident, and move on. They come out of such disappointments stronger. But others, like Robert, struggle. In these cases, disappointment can even become depression. How can we learn to manage our disappointments effectively?

Managing Expectations

Someone once said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” The quote recognizes that when we experience disappointment, our hopes and expectations are out of line with reality. We all feel this way from time to time. Some of these disappointments will not make much of a difference, but there are also disappointments that can change the course of our lives.

Given the convoluted nature of desire, there are no experiences that are entirely free of disappointment. This is what makes disappointment such a complex and confusing feeling. Many of our desires that we pursue are unconscious, sublimated, and frequently contradictory.

Paradoxically, we may even become disappointed when we get what we want. For example, in Sigmund Freud’s 1916 essay “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work,” he explored the paradox of people who were “wrecked by success.” Unconsciously, these people believed that their success was unjustified, so achieving it didn’t feel satisfying to them. In other cases, even when we do get what we want — and think we deserve it — we may discover that what we wanted so badly doesn’t bring the expected bliss and happiness.

Developmental Influences

The way we handle disappointment is related to our developmental history — our relationship with our parents and other early, formative experiences.

Some people seek to avoid disappointment by turning into underachievers. They unconsciously set the bar low and avoid taking risks, to prevent themselves or others from being disappointed. Without realizing it, they have decided that the best strategy is not to have high expectations about anything. Such behavior turns into a form of self-preservation. However, it also leads to a mediocre and unfulfilled life. Ironically, these people often turn into disappointments for everyone, including themselves.

Others, following a very different trajectory, seek to avoid disappointment by becoming overachievers. Although they tell themselves that their expectations of perfection are appropriate and realistic, these presumptions turn out not to be true at all. The bar is set far too high to ever make whatever they want to achieve attainable. They forget that perfectionism rarely begets perfection, or satisfaction — instead, it too often leads to disappointment.

Of course, there are also people with a more balanced developmental history. These people usually had parents who didn’t try to be perfect, and didn’t expect their children to be perfect either. By being “good enough” parents, they created a secure base for their children. These children feel secure in their relationships, supported rather than controlled, and are able to play, explore, and learn, thereby acquiring the inner strength to cope constructively with the inevitable setbacks that will come their way in their journey through life.

While it’s helpful to know which way we lean, our developmental history is not our destiny. Whatever our developmental history may be — having a secure base or not — disappointment can provide us with valuable information about our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and what makes us happy.

Styles of Coping

Major disappointments are often defining moments in people’s lives. Constructively dealing with disappointment can be a self-curative process that can contribute to personal growth and make for greater resilience. Take Winston Churchill as an example. Early in his career, the disastrous First World War military campaign at Gallipoli forced him to resign from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill had come up with a plan (later called “Churchill’s Folly”) to send a fleet through the Dardanelles strait and capture Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), which he predicted would cause Ottoman Turkey to quit the war. But the plan utterly failed, and tens of thousands died. Churchill was disgraced and demoted.


To cope with this calamity and the subsequent humiliation, he refocused his attention and energy away from politics. Six months after his demotion, he became an infantry officer and joined the fight in France. During his time out of the political spotlight, he thought through what had happened to him and what it had taught him about dealing with life’s challenges. While at first he felt overwhelmed by what he called his “black dog of depression,” Churchill realized that it was much more constructive to reframe his disappointments as learning experiences in order to be able to cope better in the future, and to use disappointment as a catalyst for personal growth. Such soul-searching provided him with new information about himself, the world, and others.

Far too many people, when faced with disappointment, tend to attribute negative life events to their personal failings. They resort to obsessional self-blaming, as they feel ashamed or humiliated of not measuring up to the image of their ideal self. As a result, they direct their anger inward, to themselves. It may prompt them to say that they deserved it, that they were not good enough. Others, however, will turn their anger outward toward others, to people who didn’t fulfill their expectations. It will contribute to feelings of spite, vindictiveness, and bitterness.

Unfortunately, both emotional reactions keep the person stuck in a web of disappointment. In many instances, disappointment can turn into a lingering sadness — a feeling of loss, of being let down, or even of betrayal. In particular, this is the case when disappointment has been inflicted by people whom they trusted deeply, as in Robert’s case. How can we overcome it?

Overcoming Disappointment

Unpleasant as disappointments may be, we can always learn something from them.

To constructively deal with disappointment, we need to first understand what has happened. Some instances of disappointment are predictable and preventable. But there are others that are unavoidable and beyond our control. To manage disappointment, we need to differentiate between situations that fall within our control and factors that are beyond it. Being able to recognize the difference will help us to deal with our frustrations more appropriately.

We also need to check whether our expectations are reasonable. Are we having unrealistically high expectations, and thus aiming too high? Or are we setting our goals too low? If you belong to that group of people who set their expectations too high, working constructively through disappointments may help you to modify expectations. You may learn to move away from perfectionistic standards; you may start to accept what is “good enough.” For those who have set the bar too low, what they should stop doing is hanging on to false beliefs about life like, “There is no more hope” or “Nothing ever works for me.” Avoiding disappointment is not possible in life; trying to do so is not a very constructive way of dealing with life’s challenges.

When disappointment occurs regularly, it may be advisable to reevaluate our perceptions and behaviors. We can examine whether we are inviting disappointment. Could we have been clearer in our communication of what we were expecting from others? Do we really know what we expect from ourselves? Are we listening to what others are saying to us? Could we have done something different to arrive at a different outcome? Also, given what we know about ourselves, how can we adjust our expectations to be more effective the next time? And what support and resources do we have at our disposal to help us move through our feelings of disappointment successfully?

To deal with disappointment constructively, don’t let it deteriorate into apathy and depression. Sustained negative rumination is not a prescription for change. When we become preoccupied by bad news, we lose sight of what is right in our lives and in the world around us. We only internalize feelings of sadness and anger. Hanging on to these feelings can result in us unconsciously making them a part of our identity.

When we catch ourselves thinking negatively, we should redirect our energy and focus on positive solutions. Although from an unconscious perspective we may be reluctant to let go of a disappointing experience, in the long run it will be more detrimental to continue holding on. When we become too preoccupied with thinking about situations that have not met our expectations, we only create unnecessary stress.

Disappointment is not meant to destroy us. If taken in stride, it can strengthen us and make us better. In spite of its devastating emotional impact, we may even consider encounters with disappointment as journeys toward greater insight and wisdom. But to be able to make these journeys of self-reflection and reevaluation meaningful, we need to look beneath the surface. Only by working through painful associations will we be free from them.

In spite of whatever disappointing experiences come our way, our challenge will be to not let bitterness take root. We would do well to keep in mind that although disappointment is inevitable, being discouraged is always a choice.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article wrongly attributed the quote “Expectation is the root of all heartache” to William Shakespeare. While is not the first to make that mistake, we’ve updated the attribution to prevent others from repeating it.

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries is an executive coach, psychoanalyst, and management scholar. He is the Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi. His most recent book is Riding the Leadership Rollercoaster: An Observer’s Guide.


4 Ways Busy People Sabotage Themselves

You’ve left an important task undone for weeks. It’s hanging over you, causing daily anxiety. And yet instead of actually doing it, you do a hundred other tasks instead.

Or you’ve been feeling guilty about not replying to an email, even though replying would only take 10 minutes.

Or maybe the last time you needed stamps, you went to the post office to buy a single stamp because you couldn’t find the 100-pack you purchased a few months ago. You know it’s around… somewhere. But you just don’t have the time to clean your desk to find it.

These self-sabotaging patterns maintain a cycle of always having too much to do (or at least feeling like that’s the case). If you’re chronically tapped out of the immense amount of mental energy required for planning, decision making, and coping, it’s easy to get lured into these traps.  Let’s unpack the problems in more detail and discuss solutions.

1. You keep ploughing away without stepping back and prioritizing.

When we’re busy and stressed, we often default to working on whatever has the most imminent deadline, even if it’s not particularly important. Stress causes our focus to narrow to the point where we’re just keeping going, like a hamster on a wheel. We respond to emails and go through the motions of getting things done, without actually stepping back and considering what’s most important to work on. You might find yourself spending several hours on a task that wasn’t that important to begin with, even though you have a mountain of other things to be doing.

The solution is to step back and work on tasks that are important but not urgent. Use the “pay yourself first” principle to do items that are on your priority list first, before you jump to responding to other people’s needs. You might not be able to follow this principle every day, but aim to follow it for several days of the week.

2. You completely overlook easy solutions for getting things done.

When we’re stressed, we don’t think of easy solutions that are staring us in the face. Again, this happens because we’re in tunnel vision mode, doing what we usually do and not thinking flexibly. Especially if you’re a perfectionist, when you’re overloaded it’s likely that you’ll find yourself overcomplicating solutions to problems. For example, lots of busy people don’t keep enough food in the house. This leads to a cycle of stopping in at the grocery store on an almost daily basis to pick up one or two things, or a restaurant habit that ends up being expensive, time consuming, fattening, or all of the above. The solution seems horribly complicated: hours of meal planning, shopping, and cooking.

To get out of the trap of overlooking easy solutions, take a step back and question your assumptions. If you tend to think in extremes, is there an option between the two extremes you could consider? (To solve my no-food conundrum, I bought a $150 freezer and now keep at least a dozen or so healthyish frozen meals in there, as well as frozen bread and other staples. I’m not Martha Stewart, but neither am I grabbing takeout for every meal.)

On a broader level, breaks in which you allow your mind to wander are the main solution to the problem of tunnel vision. Even short breaks can allow you to break out of too narrow thinking. Sometimes, a bathroom break can be enough. Try anything that allows you to get up out of your seat and walk around. This can be a reason not to outsource some errands. They give an opportunity to allow your mind to wander while you’re physically on the move, an ideal background for producing insights and epiphanies.

3. You “kick the can down the road” instead of creating better systems for solving recurring problems.


When our mental energy is tapped out, we’ll tend to keep doing something ourselves that we could delegate or outsource, because we don’t have the upfront cognitive oomph we need to engage a helper and set up a system. For example, say you could really benefit from some help cleaning your house, but finding someone trustworthy, agreeing on a schedule, and training them on how you like things done feels more taxing than you can deal with right now (or ever). And so you put it off, week after week, doing the work yourself — even though even reallocating the time spent on one cleaning session would realistically be enough to hire someone else to do it.

Remedies for recurring problems are often simple if you can step back enough to get perspective. Always forgetting to charge your phone? Keep an extra power cord at the office. Always correcting the same mistakes? Ask your team to come up with a checklist so they can catch their own errors. Travel for work a lot? Create a “master packing list” so that trying to decide what to bring doesn’t require so much mental effort. Carve out time to create and tweak these kinds of systems. You might take a personal day from work to get started, and then spend an hour once a week on it to keep up; author Gretchen Rubin calls this her once-a-week “power hour.” When you start improving your systems, it creates a virtuous cycle in which you have more energy and confidence available for doing this further. By gradually accumulating winning strategies over time, you can significantly erode your problem, bit by bit.

4. You use avoid or escape methods for coping with anxiety.

People who are overloaded will have a strong impulse to avoid or escape anxiety. Avoidance could be putting off a discussion with your boss or avoiding telling a friend you can’t make it to her wedding. Escape could be rushing into an important decision, because you want to escape needing to think about it further. This can lead to a pattern of excessively delaying some decisions and making others impulsively. Avoidance and escape can also take other forms — an extra glass of wine (or three) after work, binge-watching TV, or mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. It might even be ticking less-important things off your to-do list to avoid the urgent task that’s making you anxious.

If you want to deal constructively with situations that trigger anxiety for you, you’ll need to engineer some flexibility and space into your life so that you can work through your emotions and thoughts when your anxiety is set off. With practice, you’ll start to notice when you’re just doing something to avoid doing something else.

If you can relate to the patterns described, you’re not alone.  These issues aren’t personal flaws in your character or deficits in your self-control. They’re patterns that are very relatable to many people. You may be highly conscientious and self-disciplined by nature but still struggle with these habits. If you’re in this category you’re probably particularly frustrated by your patterns and self-critical. Be compassionate with yourself and aim to chip away at your patterns rather than expecting to give your habits a complete makeover or eradicate all self-sabotaging behaviors from your life.

Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.

This article is about PRODUCTIVITY

Research: Women and Men Are Equally Bad at Multitasking

According to popular stereotypes, women are better multitaskers. In fact, a quick Google search leads to many press articles claiming a female advantage. For example, women came out as better multitaskers when researchers used fMRI scans to measure brain activity, computer tests to measure response times, and an exercise in which people walking on a treadmill had to simultaneously complete a cognitive task.

From analyzing decades of studies of men and women in other cognitive skills, we know that men’s and women’s performance is usually quite similar. Yet there are a few tasks in which men and women consistently outperform each other — on average: For example, it is well-established that men typically fare better when imagining what complex 3-dimensional figures would look like if they were rotated. In turn, women reliably outperform men in certain verbal abilities such as remembering a list of words or other verbal content.

While women’s supposed superiority at multitasking has garnered headlines, the scientific findings regarding sex differences in multitasking abilities are rather inconsistent: some studies found no sex differences while others reported either a male or femaleadvantage.

One reason for these inconsistent findings may be that, to date, the vast majority of studies have examined gender differences using artificial laboratory tasks that do not match with the complex and challenging multitasking activities of everyday life. Another possible culprit is that different researchers define multitasking differently.

To address these concerns, we developed a computerized task — The Meeting Preparation Task (CMPT) — that was designed to resemble everyday life activities and, at the same time, that was grounded in the most comprehensive theoretical model of multitasking activities. That would be the model of University College London professor Paul Burgess. He defines two types of multitasking — concurrent multitasking, in which you do two or more activities at the same time (talking on the phone while driving) and serial multitasking, in which you switch rapidly between tasks (preparing your next meeting and answering an email, being interrupted by a colleague, checking Twitter). It’s this latter type of multitasking that most of us do most often, and this type of multitasking we wanted to test.

In the CMPT, participants find themselves in a 3-dimensional space, consisting of three rooms: a kitchen, a storage room, and a main room with tables and a projection screen. They are required to prepare a room for a meeting, that is, they have to place objects such as the chairs, pencils, and drinks in the right location, while at the same time dealing with distractors such as a missing chair and a phone call, and to remember actions to be carried out in the future (e.g., give an object to an avatar, put the coffee on the meeting table at a certain time). This computerized simulation was originally created to  allow for placing all the participants in the exact same conditions which permits to easily compare their performance and to avoid variables that may affect it (e.g., amount of noise). Such tasks also allow for measuring many variables at the same time. Finally, the task was designed to place participants in an unfamiliar situation, that is, in a situation where most people do not have any previous experience that would help them in carrying out the task.

Our idea with the present study was simple yet rare in the scientific literature: to use a validated task to assess whether there are gender differences in multitasking abilities in an everyday scenario in the general population. In order to do so, we recruited 66 females and 82 males aged between 18 and 60 years old and we asked them to carry out the CMPT. Thereafter, we compared the performance of both groups on several variables from the CMPT: overall accuracy of task completion (e.g., have participants placed the required objects on the table?), total time taken to complete the task, total distance traveled in the virtual environment, whether participants forgot to carry out tasks, and whether they managed the interrupting events (such as the phone call) in an optimal manner. We found no differences between men and women in terms of serial multitasking abilities.

We cannot exclude the possibility that there are no sex differences in serial multitasking abilities, but if they do exist, such differences are likely to be very small. There is a need for other studies that replicate these findings, or that investigate concurrent multitasking. But we think it is fair to conclude that the evidence for the stereotype that women are better multitaskers is, so far, fairly weak.

Julien Laloyaux is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bergen (Norway). His research interests include multitasking abilities and in particular in psychiatric and neurological disorders. Another main area of interest is the cognitive and emotional underpinnings of psychotic symptoms.

Frank Laroi is Professor of Psychology at the University of Bergen (Norway) and University of Liège (Belgium). His research interests include using state-of the-art technology in assessment and treatment contexts for various psychological disorders, especially schizophrenia and associated symptoms.

Marco Hirnstein is a researcher at the University of Bergen (Norway), whose main research focus is electric brain stimulation methods but has always been curious about cognitive sex differences.


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


  • 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.


  • 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.


What to Do When Your Boss Won’t Advocate for You

Having a great boss is a potentially life-changing gift. On the other hand, many of us know firsthand that having a bad boss can cause a lot of drama, headaches, and stress. While it’s easy to love the great bosses and flee the bad ones, there’s one kind of boss that’s much less straightforward to navigate: the boss who doesn’t advocate for you.

You might not even know that you have one. Most advocacy happens behind the scenes and in conversations to which you yourself are not privy. As the adage goes, 80% of what’s said about you is said when you’re not in the room. Non-advocating bosses can refuse to bring up your name favorably in the promotion conversation. They can withhold critical developmental feedback and stunt your growth. And they can even overtly undermine you and attempt to sabotage your long-term career prospects.

When you discover you have a boss who isn’t advocating for you, the knee-jerk reaction is often to advocate for yourself and become your own PR machine. That’s often a mistake. Too much blatant self-promotion in the workplace can backfire and signal that you are narcissistic, egotistical, and ultimately unconcerned about the greater good. You ideally want others tooting your horn for you. Before taking action to close this critical advocacy gap, you’ll want to understand why your boss isn’t advocating for you.

First, consider the possibility that you are actually the problem. In other words, you may not have a bad boss — you just might not have developed enough or demonstrated the skill necessary for the boss to advocate for your advancement yet. Observe the characteristics and accomplishments of the rising stars around you to see where you might improve. Proactively solicit the gift of your boss’s feedback and ask what it would take to earn their advocacy. And perhaps consider getting a coach to help you make the improvements necessary to earn your manager’s advocacy. Seeking and applying your boss’s advice could potentially move them to advocate on your behalf.

When I first started teaching at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, I met with the dean to find out her expectations. I wanted to understand her perspective on what excellence looks like in my role so I could be intentional about my professional growth. Having these conversations early on with your boss can guide your goal-setting and position you to advance. Without this type of feedback, you might be falling short of your boss’s expectations for promotability and not even know it.

Assuming your performance is strong — and ideally, exceeds expectations — if your boss isn’t advocating for you, the issue likely lies with your boss. While it may not necessarily be your fault, it is your problem. You owe it to yourself to find a workable strategy to advance your career. Here are three steps you can take to navigate the advocacy gap.

Release your boss from your unmet expectations for advocacy. As unfair and frustrating as it seems when your boss doesn’t advocate for you, it’s in your best interest not to take it personally. There are countless possible reasons why your boss isn’t advocating for you. Your boss might be insecure and see you as competition. Your boss may suffer from deep unconscious biases that lead to unfair evaluations of your performance and suitability for bigger roles. Perhaps your boss is trying to advocate for you but lacks the social capital and credibility to successfully advocate for anyone. Or, perhaps your boss may simply not want to be your champion. Whatever the reason may be for the advocacy gap, forcing, manipulating, or shaming someone into being your advocate won’t work. Let go of whatever anger or hurt you have developed because of your boss.

Find another advocate. Ideally, you would have a direct supervisor going to bat for you from the get-go, but your boss isn’t the only person in the organization who can advocate for you. There are other influencers who can give you the boost you need. To navigate your advocacy gap, you want to identify and win the support of executive sponsors. The ideal sponsor is a powerful, high-ranking ally within your organization who will bring up your name with the right people at the right time so that you gain access to opportunity. Your sponsor is your champion in the organization — and sometimes even beyond it.

Many people confuse mentors with sponsors. In short, mentors counsel you, sponsors accelerate you. You don’t want to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. This is particularly important for women and people of color for whom, research shows, hard work alone is usually not enough to get noticed.

Sponsors typically choose their protégés. So, you’ll want to strategically increase your visibility to gain their interest instead of explicitly soliciting their advocacy. For one, produce consistently excellent work. Raise your hand to participate in organization-wide task forces and cross-functional teams. By adding value to important strategic projects for the organization, you’ll build your skillset, add to your experiences, and interact with new people. That way you can develop a reputation for being a reliable, growth-minded leader who is focused on the organization’s objectives. Make it clear that it’s in the organization’s best interest to retain and advance you.

Build your network inside and outside of the organization. The plain truth is that the best leaders have what I call 360° advocacy — that is, advocacy from those above them, those beside them (peers), and their direct reports. Don’t underestimate the value of your peers and your direct reports in bringing your name up and speaking well of you. Being good to people and doing the right thing by people — especially those who may lack formal power in your organization — can cause them to want to advocate on your behalf. Finally, being an engaged citizen beyond your workplace in your industry or your community can help as well. You never know who is connected to whom and how. Sometimes, generating positive buzz beyond the workplace can prompt your organization to take stock of how great an asset you are.

 We all need champions who are willing to advocate for us when we cannot speak for ourselves. And when your boss doesn’t do it, it can be downright challenging. But it doesn’t have to stop your progress and career advancement. You could be just one project, one committee, or one conversation away from getting noticed for who you are, what you do, and your potential to achieve even more.

Nicholas Pearce is a clinical associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He’s also the CEO of The Vocati Group, a global executive consultancy. Follow him on Twitter @napphd.


How to Develop Empathy for Someone Who Annoys You

  • Category EQ

urself Leadership Institute. “Using empathy, you can maintain a balanced and well-calibrated approach to working with difficult people,” he says. Here are some pointers.

For starters, keep in mind that your colleague isn’t getting under your skin on purpose. It’s more likely that “they are reacting to things going on in their lives,” Fernandez says. “You need to depersonalize the situation,” he says. And look inward, McKee adds. “When someone is driving you crazy, it helps to ask yourself, What’s causing me to react this way?” Your frustration “might not be about that person at all; it might be about you,” she says. Perhaps your colleague “reminds you of someone else you don’t like.” Having “self-awareness” and a deep “understanding of our own psychological makeup” strengthens your capacity for empathy, she adds. After all, cultivating compassion — both self-compassion and compassion for others — is your primary objective.

Stay calm
Next, “lean in to your emotional self-control and willpower,” McKee says. When your colleague shows up late, interrupts you, or is just being all-around obnoxious, you may feel a physiological reaction. “Recognize the clues that you’re getting triggered,” she says. “Maybe your breath quickens, or your palms start to sweat, or your temperature rises.” Giving in to these symptoms risks “amygdala hijack,” where you lose access to the rational, thinking part of your brain. Instead, take a few deep breaths to “help you regulate your stress hormones and make it less likely that you’ll engage in behavior that you won’t be proud of later,” she says. Keeping your “demeanor calm and open” puts you in a better frame of mind to conjure empathy for your colleague, Fernandez adds. “You’re not caving, and you’re not shutting down”; rather you’re staying cool and collected and “maintaining awareness of the situation.”

Be curious
There are two types of empathycognitive empathythe ability to understand another person’s perspective, and emotional empathy, the ability to feel what someone else feels. “Both of these tend to shut down when you feel annoyed or frustrated,” McKee says. But you must fight against that.

  • To summon cognitive empathy for an annoying colleague, McKee recommends generating theories that might explain “why this person says what he says, thinks what he thinks, and acts the way he acts. Unearth your curiosity,” she says. Ask yourself: “What motivates this person? What excites and inspires him?” Go “beyond your own worldview” and reflect on “what may be in his cultural background, education, family situation, or day-to-day pressures that’s causing him to behave this way.” Remember: The goal here is to “understand this person’s perspective,” Fernandez adds. “It doesn’t mean you have to adopt it, validate it, or agree with it, but you do have to acknowledge it.”
  • To muster emotional empathy for that colleague, “find something in them to care about,” McKee says. One way to deal with someone who irritates you is to “picture that person as a six-year-old,” she adds. In other words, remember that “they’re only human.” The hypotheses you generated to explain your colleague’s behavior could be helpful here, too, according to Fernandez: “Maybe this person is stressed or under pressure, or maybe this person is just not having a very good day.” You don’t have to “become a psychologist and get into their childhood,” but you do have to make an effort to experience “emotional resonance.” The result is often, “I get it.”

Focus on your similarities
Using both cognitive and emotional empathy, you must also try to “get to know the person” and deepen your “understanding of their perspective,” McKee says. Rather than “focusing on your differences, look for the similarities” you share. “Start small,” she advises. Perhaps you and your colleague have children the same age. Maybe your colleague lives in a neighborhood or town that you know intimately. Use those connections to strike up a conversation. If all else fails, “riff off an exchange you both seemed to find interesting in your last team meeting.” Work often provides a neutral “common ground” for conversation, Fernandez says. Presumably both of you share a similar goal: “You want the organization to be successful.”

Be kind
The fact is, “it’s easier for you to be empathetic toward people you like because you give them the benefit of the doubt,” McKee says. When dealing with someone you dislike, you often assume the worst, and that mindset shows up in your behavior. Try to short-circuit that reaction and “do or say something that’s surprising and nice,” McKee adds. Compliment the person on an idea they raised in a meeting, or offer to help out with a project. It shouldn’t be forced, however. “It has to be authentic.” Let’s say, for instance, that your colleague arrives late — yet again — to your weekly team meeting. Don’t complain or roll your eyes. And don’t be passive-aggressive with a comment like, “Nice of you to join us.” That may be your instinct, but fight it. Instead, McKee recommends, say something along the lines of, “Welcome. Get a cup of coffee before you sit down, and we’ll get you up to speed.” This type of generosity of spirit is good for you and your colleague. And remember, Fernandez says, empathy is a choice you can make in any scenario.

Have a (difficult) conversation 
If you still find this particular colleague challenging, you might “have to have a conversation about how you work together,” Fernandez says. But, he adds, “if you approach it through the lens of empathy, the conversation won’t become charged.” What’s more, if you’re “even-keeled and fair, your message will likely be received in a pretty good way.” For instance, don’t say, “You take up too much air time.” Instead, Fernandez suggests, say, “I’d love to figure out a way for us both to get our ideas out during the weekly team meeting.” Don’t lose sight of the fact that your colleague probably feels the same way about you. After all, McKee says, “if they drive you crazy, chances are you drive them crazy, too.”

Principles to Remember 


  • Make a concerted effort to understand your colleague’s perspective and feelings.
  • Engage in acts of kindness and compassion toward your annoying colleague.
  • Learn to recognize clues that you’re having a negative emotional reaction toward your colleague. Take deep breaths and stay calm.


  • Take your colleague’s behavior personally and lash out. Instead, look inward and ask yourself: What’s causing me to react this way?
  • Focus on the differences between you and your colleague. Rather, concentrate on similarities and things you share in common.
  • Shy away from having a conversation with your colleague about how you can best work together. If they drive you crazy, it’s likely that you drive them crazy, too.

Case Study #1: Be kind and be curious about your colleague’s perspective 
Gloria Larson, the president of Bentley University, says that having empathy for others is almost second nature to her. “I grew up an Air Force brat, and I was often the new kid in school,” she says. “I was constantly having to get to know and like people who are very different from me.”

Over her long career, her empathetic ways have been put to the test. Years ago, when she was an attorney in Boston, Gloria chaired a committee in charge of building the Massachusetts Convention Center, an $800 million construction project along the waterfront.

Paul (not his real name), a fellow member of the board, was an incredibly difficult personality. Gloria suspected he was leaking things to the press and undermining the efforts of the other board members. Gloria, however, was determined not to let Paul get the best of her. “If someone rubs me the wrong way, I put in extra effort to get to know them and like them.”

Gloria reflected on Paul’s possible motivations. “But I didn’t spend too much time thinking about that — I didn’t want to project.” So instead, she tried kindness. “I invited him out for a drink.”

Throughout the conversation, Gloria remained calm and collected with an open demeanor. Her objective was to get to know Paul on a personal level but also talk about the project itself. She didn’t accuse Paul of leaking; instead, she talked about their mutual goal of “figuring out a way to get this project over the finish line.”

Over the course of their conversation, Gloria also learned more about Paul’s perspective on the project. “He was concerned that our efforts publicly pilloried the past leadership,” she says.

Paul’s points were a revelation to Gloria — and perhaps even to Paul himself. “I realized I should lighten up on my public criticism of the prior leadership. And I think he realized that we didn’t need to be enemies. We could work together.”

Case Study #2: Make a special effort to learn your colleague’s backstory
Sandra Slager, chief operating officer at MindEdge, an online learning platform for companies and colleges, says that whenever she works with a challenging colleague, she reminds herself to “assume the best” about that person. “I try to remember that he’s not driving me crazy on purpose,” she says.

She also tries to be realistic. “I recognize that I don’t necessarily have to like the person in order to work with him successfully.”

A few years ago, Sandra was assigned to an editorial project with Louis (not his real name). “He was extremely nervous and stressed out,” she recalls, and that stress manifested “in his snapping at me and acting like a bully.”

Sandra knew she needed to do something. Fostering empathy for Louis was a natural first step — though she admits it was not necessarily out of the goodness of her heart. “My motivation to be empathetic was not entirely altruistic. It was about trying to solve my problem of how to work alongside him.”


She made a special effort to get to know Louis and “understand his backstory.” As it turned out, Louis told her he had been fired from his previous role for something that wasn’t his fault. She also learned that Louis was the father of teenage kids who were in the process of applying to college.

“The job was so important to him, and he was worried about his livelihood and his family,” she says. “Knowing these things, I better understood him and where his stress was coming from.”

Sandra felt more compassion for Louis and his jangled nerves. She did her best to make him feel better about her part of the task. “I told him that we both wanted this project to be successful. And that we both needed to trust each other to do our part well,” she says.

Over time, working with Louis became “less of an emotional task and more of a technical challenge,” she says. “Our styles were not aligned, but our goals were.”

The project concluded successfully. Sandra and Louis have worked on various projects together over the years. “He is still stressed out, but we have a good working relationship.”

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.


Business Travel Can Ruin Your Health. Don’t Let It.

Travelling for work is bad for your health, especially if you do it often. Research shows that business travel can increase your risk of weight gain, anxiety, depression, alcohol dependence, and poor sleep. So if you travel for work regularly, make sure you know how to establish healthy habits on the road. Try to eat low-calorie meals whenever possible, even if your culinary options are limited. You might be tempted to reward yourself after a long day, but resist the urge to order the steak and fries or a late-night cocktail. Those choices will take a toll over time. And don’t skip out on exercise. Stay in a hotel with a gym (and use it), or do simple exercises in your room, such as push-ups and squats. You can also take walks in between meetings, or join colleagues outside for a walking meeting. The physical activity will help prevent weight gain and reduce stress.

Adapted from “Just How Bad Is Business Travel for Your Health? Here’s the Data,” by Andrew Rundle - Taken from Harvard Business Review Newsletter