Many teams tolerate “brilliant but difficult” people. I have little time for them. I don’t see the point of having someone who can carry 20 gallons of water if they’re pushing over the people carrying 5 gallons. The team comes before the individual. If someone is threatening the unity and trust in the team, that’s a problem that needs to be taken care of. There’s a related belief that “personal problems” have no place in the workplace.
I’d like to reframe “personal problems” and substitute it for “things I don’t want to deal with”.
So instead we can say that the related belief is that “things I don’t want to deal with” have no place at work. This makes a whole bunch of situations more clear :
- Employee crying at their desk has a personal problem they shouldn’t have brought to work => Employee crying at their desk has a thing I don’t want to deal with that they shouldn’t have brought to work
- Employee who has a problem getting into arguments with co-workers => Employee who has a thing I don’t want to deal with, getting into arguments with co-workers
- Employee who has a problem being late => Employee who has a thing I don’t want to deal with being late
You get the picture. The truth is though, we’re all human beings and we have a lot of stuff going on. Whether you’re brilliant but struggle to get along with others, or a personal trauma leaves you crying at your desk or you habitually show up late, you aren’t choosing to do those things. In most cases, you would operate differently if you could. This is why empathy is an important quality in managers, much though we might like to avoid this stuff. It’s real and it happens every day.
Empathy is acknowledging that the people showing up in your workplace every day are humans who have stuff going on beyond work. Empathy is accepting that those things will affect their ability to do their jobs. That can be a big thing like a relationship break-up. A regular irritation like not getting up on time. Or a small thing like failing to eat breakfast in the morning.
I believe one of the responsibilities of a manager is total care for their employees.
That doesn’t mean being a counsellor, therapist or dietician. It means treating these “symptoms” as they show up at work with tolerance, kindness and a sincere desire to help your team member through them.
Now people tell me – and this has really happened – “Oh but James, if we dealt with all this stuff, how would work ever get done? We need gritty, determined, people who can tough it out”. Yes, I get it. Empathy is hard because it takes real effort vs. telling someone to “suck it up”. Few schools or workplaces reward or recognize empathy so you’ve been taught that it’s not important. In fact, you’ve been rewarded for being tough and getting things done.
When my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I went to my then manager to tell him I wanted to work from the UK for as long as it took. Without hesitation, he gave me unequivocal support to go there and figure out the way to contribute to the team while I was remote.
This showed incredible empathy and trust.
My team stepped up and managed the small decisions that came up day to day. I kept calling the long plays and making sure we were thinking ahead. It worked. It gave my team the opportunity and confidence to step up and drive the ship more.
I already had a good relationship with that manager. After that experience, once I knew he had my back and he trusted me, it transformed our work together. I was now able to take more risk and be more courageous in my work. That next year I kicked off a major new initiative to save the company millions in operations cost, and transformed our scalability and redundancy in services.
This is what empathy does, it builds trust by reminding us that we’re all human beings, not automatons.
When you develop empathy, it helps you connect with your employees and meet them where their needs are. When you treat your employees as fellow humans, and help them work through their problems, whether it’s a terminally ill parent or a tendency to drink too much coffee, or getting to the office late, you get repaid in loyalty and commitment many times over. And more broadly, you give that person the tools, space and trust they need to succeed and survive in their lives.