To have a spirit of caring as a leader is indeed a strong attribute. People now are looking for a leader who can lead with their heart and also their mind, to connect with them on a deeper level and to show them that they are valued. It’s a fine line for a leader to walk in terms of being too personal with their employees or maintaining a purely professional relationship.
Recent times have certainly disrupted the ability to simply maintain a professional relationship, and not only the ability but also the desire and the need. Over recent times, it seems that employees are more willing to bring personal situations to work and discuss these with their leader as opposed to the times you would never let on that you were struggling emotionally. Times have certainly changed impacting on the demands of a leader.
Studies have shown that a leader will spend up to 2.5 hours per week responding to requests for help with employee personal issues ranging from marriage and family situations to mental health issues. Given how much time we spend at work this isn’t surprising however, these studies have also found this has a detrimental affect on leaders.
Imagine you had an employee come to you to review their sales results. After doing the review you asked them how they were because they seemed a little off. The employee then asks you for advice about their child who was being bullied at school and having a lot of trouble coping. The child seemed to be withdrawing and the employee just doesn’t know what to do and became visible upset. Did you have any words of wisdom for them?
How would this make you feel? You’d feel saddened, helpless and perhaps a little anxious yourself. No doubt you’d be wishing you could help and want to help with this situation. It would also make you feel very distracted and less engaged in your day. If you had a child of similar age or who had been through something like this, you could have a strong desire to try and help too much through coaching, supporting and offering specific advice. This is understandable but can also be dangerous.
Situations like these are not uncommon because people now believe that it is a leaders responsibility to deal with and assist with emotional issues at work. What a leaders needs to realise is where they can help and where they can’t. Caring about your employee and their well-being is certainly a leaders responsibility but getting too involved and overstepping the mark isn’t. You can demonstrate care and concern without getting too heavily involved, particularly if you don’t have experience in what the person is going through.
A great way to care is to know where you can point and employee to in times of needs. Whether that be your Employee Assistance Program, directing people to the relevant help lines or Beyond Blue for example. Caring is also having boundaries in place.
You Need Boundaries
There needs to have clear boundaries in place for 2 reasons:
- Your emotional health – the demands on a leader are enormous and more than likely you are leading many rather than one person, whether directly or indirectly. You need to look after your mental health also. By simply listening to an employee’s personal issues, particularly if it’s something distressing like in the example above, it can cause you to pick up on negative emotions and ‘take on’ how the employee is feeling through what is called emotional contagion. This impacts your mood and your ability to lead others. Leaders need to be aware of this and know what to do to compensate for it. They also need to know where to draw the line in terms of how deeply they get involved and if they have the experience, skills and expertise to help. Sometimes people can do more damage when trying to help as they are ill equipped to do so.
- You still need to lead your employees. This is a fact of business. You are the leader and you still need to lead and manage this employee and maintain a sense of fairness and equity across the board. This is a challenge when you are aware of personal situations made even worse when you get too involved. The danger is that your advice or support can contribute to a non-favourable outcome with the situation and the blame could be pointed at you. Or you can become far too involved and then if a performance issue arises you feel that you are unable to address it for fear of upsetting the person further. So what happens then? You let things go and then be seen to be playing favourites by your other employees?
Recognising that helping employees with personal situations may impact your emotions and your ability to lead is important but it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t help and avoid having these conversations. Ignoring is certainly not caring. It is important you understand the boundaries, which will be different for different situations, and understand that you can’t always ‘fix’ things, which can be a tendency for a leader. Show care for your employees by being concerned, checking in with them, offering support where you can and directing to professionals as needed. People will know you care through your actions, not how deeply you get involved. It’s an important distinction and one that can protect your mental health too.