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4 Ways to Avoid Becoming Part of the Drama

Managers should show empathy, but it’s easy to cross the line.

Let’s face it, some people thrive on bringing their personal challenges into the workplace and baring them all for the world to see. These drama kings and queens seem to revel in sharing their own misery with us in a seemingly never-ending series of scenes from the worst tragic Broadway or faux-Shakespearean play ever.

As distracting and annoying as these people and their gray clouds of doom and dust become, it’s all too easy for the manager to get caught up in these serial soap operas, excusing poor performance or spotty attendance due to the nightmarish circumstances of the latest tragedy, illness, divorce, breakup, melt-down or (insert one you’ve heard before). In some cases, the unwitting manager gets sucked into this black hole of emotional turmoil and productivity loss and takes on the role of counselor. The outcome in this situation is almost always a bad one.

In the section entitled, “The Top Ten Challenges of New Leaders” in our book, Practical Lessons in Leadership, Rich Petro and I served up at number 3, “The personal problems of your associates will become your problems if you let them (and sometimes you can’t help it). It was No. 3, not No. 10 for a reason. Playing the role of counselor or headshrinker without a license is like driving blindfolded down the freeway on the way to work. You’re going to crash.

While I’m supportive of those in leadership roles cultivating strong working relationships that incorporate empathy and the right kind of support for the personal challenges of team members, beware crossing the line from empathy and support to becoming part of the dramatic play. Once you cross this line, you risk sacrificing your objectivity not only with the individual in question, but also in the eyes of your entire team.

Here are four ideas to help you avoid becoming part of the drama:

1. Get to know your team members. They aren’t automatons, human capital or pieces of equipment. They are human beings. Show interest in their work and their lives. Ask questions about the pictures on their desk. If hobbies or weekend activities come up in casual discussion, it’s nice to show interest. It’s better yet if you share interests and can easily share experiences or ideas. While some managers strive to avoid any connection or even understanding of people’s lives outside of work, it’s not necessary to put up false walls. Effective leaders understand that people feel respected and appreciated when the boss views them as humans with lives inside and outside of the workplace.

2. Know that empathy and appropriate support are always in style. If you learn of a challenging situation with one of your team members, it is better to acknowledge your concern and caring and offer the right kind of support rather than ignore the situation. The right kind of support includes extending schedule flexibility or, encouraging the individual to take time off as needed to deal with the challenge. Life happens and people need a break. However, if someone requires a never-ending stream of breaks, you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands.

3. Resist the urge to play counselor. It’s often tempting for managers to play armchair counselor or psychiatrist, but almost all of us lack the requisite training for these roles. Additionally, our companies are paying us to lead, motivate, inspire and perform, however, no organization wants us serving as headshrinker to the personal challenges of our team members. When approached with the problem, display concern and encourage the individual to gain the right type of help and expertise for the situation outside of work. Resist being drawn into the drama.

4. Know that conscientious listening can quickly turn into active enabling for those workplace tragedians who would prey on our good intentions. In my case, I only had to play the part of the enabling manager once, investing what seemed likes hundreds of hours and countless performance exceptions for a talented but seemingly troubled employee before I learned my lesson. The problems and our counseling sessions became the focus of our workplace relationship, with me convinced that if I could help this talented but troubled individual, I would make the team and firm stronger. In reality, I simply funded a chronic problem and created a whole host of new challenges. Listen, show genuine interest, but don’t get sucked into the drama.

You’re there to help, and yes, you’re there to develop others. However, your rights and obligations end at the line where personal problems begin. You are neither confessor nor counselor, and you can’t allow yourself to be sucked into the drama that swirls like a storm around some people. The best thing you can do for yourself, your team and your organization is to offer empathy and flexibility within reason, however even this has a limit. Cross this limit at your own peril.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with top executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. Art writes the Management Excellence blog.

(Image via Peter Bay/Shutterstock.com)

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