By Michael Skapinker
Once, when I ran a department, I had an office door that slammed shut. To keep it open, I wedged a piece of wood under it. Every couple of weeks one of my team would walk in and kick the wood away to close the door. They wanted a confidential chat.
In my head, I called these “Jonny Wilkinson discussions” because the door-closing reminded me of the former England rugby star’s elegant leg swing as he kicked for the posts.
Sometimes the Jonny Wilkinson talk was about an internal squabble. More often it was about a personal or family problem, of which there was a huge variety.
When I give talks to managers about how to deal with their roles, I always get a smile of recognition when I ask: “Before you became a manager, did you realise that so many things happened to people?”
Employees not only have their own problems; they have their extended families’ problems, too. People get ill. So do their parents. Marriages break up, children fall off bikes or get caught with drugs. These catastrophes, minor and major, affect people’s concentration and mood and often necessitate time off work. There are hospital appointments, care home visits, child psychologist reviews, court appearances.
The problems are often serious and usually confidential. As a manager you carry not only your own problems, but your team’s, too. It is one of the less-discussed burdens of the job. The intensity can overwhelm you. So how can you cope?
First, by realising there is no escaping this part of the job. If you do not deal with people’s worries, their work will suffer, affecting the rest of the team. Left to fester, problems turn into crises.
So that open door matters. People need to feel they can speak to you. If they are reticent, at least give them the opportunity. If someone makes an uncharacteristic series of mistakes, call them in for a talk. After reviewing the work, ask: “Is anything else bothering you?” They may not feel like telling you. They have their own confidences to keep. But at least you have shown you are open to talking.
Second, remember that at work outcomes are more important than inputs. What matters is what people produce, not the hours they spend at their desks. Often, people are happy to work at home, or in their own time, in return for the space they need to deal with whatever is bothering them.
They may need more extended time off, although some resist that, usually because office routine is comforting. “Work is what is keeping me going,” they sometimes say.
If they do need time off, you can reshuffle others’ tasks, get someone in temporarily, or do the work yourself. Those you accommodate usually come back ready to give you far more. If you explain what is happening, maintaining whatever confidentiality is required, the rest of the team generally will not mind mucking in. They realise that if anything happened to them, you would give them the same consideration.
Third, keep your own head clear. However serious your team members’ troubles are, and some of them are distressingly so, you must carry on for everyone else, and for your own wellbeing. There is usually someone your team member knows you have to tell (make this clear) — your own boss and, almost always, the human resources department.
You are not a counsellor or psychologist (unless that is what you actually are) and, while you can offer general encouragement and advice, you are not usually qualified to solve the problem. Do not try to compare the team member’s problem to one of your own, unless you have had exactly the same difficulty and your experience of a facility or helper might be useful. Even then, suggest with discretion.
Your HR department may be helpful in finding the right help, or not. Your company may offer helplines. If there is a corporate health insurance scheme, it will be able to suggest doctors or therapists.
Check regularly how your team members are getting on, regulate how much work they can cope with and how quickly they can return. Remember, too, that they have their own networks and resources. They are responsible, finally, for themselves and their families. They are adults and the best thing you can do to help them is to remember that.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018
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