John enters your office and shuts the door. He has a worried look on his face. You can sense that something is wrong and that this will be a difficult conversation. You’ve known him for five years and have successfully completed many projects together. To you, John is a straight shooter that meets his commitments. He’s always been quiet about his life out of work. You respect his privacy, it’s really none of your business.
Over the course of 10 minutes, John describes for you a personal problem that he’s suffering through. His tone and mannerisms convey the “hell” that he’s currently experiencing. He’s worried that his commitment to your project will suffer and he doesn’t want to let you or the team down. He finishes talking and looks to you for reaction and feedback.
Dealing with personal problems in the workplace is a given. As a leader you need to learn how to manage these situations. How you proceed might be critical to your project, your organization, and to John. Move carefully here – there’s a lot riding on your next actions. How should you proceed?
First, it’s important that you listen to your teammate while they talk. You need to be an active listener, show empathy, be concerned, and engaged – after all this is someone who is bearing their soul to you. It takes a lot for someone to admit that they have a personal problem that may negatively impact their work, career, and life. They’re sending up red flags for your project – thank them for confiding in you. Let them talk, and think through your next steps. Try to determine the impact this will ultimately have on the work of this individual.
Second, determine if the issue in question represents any type of safety risk to this individual, his/her family, anyone in your organization, or the general public. For instance, if your teammate has an issue where his/her personal safety is in question (say an ex-partner is stalking and/or harassing them), advise this person to go to HR immediately. You are not equipped to deal with these situations – bring in someone who is better trained in this type of emergency. Offer to personally accompany them to HR, and offer your support (make them feel protected). Don’t try to fix this yourself.
Third, if personal safety is not an issue make clear to your teammate that your loyalties are to the project (or business). As the project leader you need to ensure that the project is delivered to the satisfaction of your sponsor and stakeholders. However, you are willing to look for a “win-win” solution for the individual and your project…a way to move forward while the issue is addressed.
Fourth, discuss and identify what you can expect to get from this individual in terms of time, dedication, quality and effort. If you had planned for 20 hours of work per week for your project, but now will only get 10 hours, you need to consider the impact on your plan. Look to get a firm commitment – you need to determine: can they continue, will they give you their maximum effort, can you count on them at critical moments?
Fifth, if you cannot get a firm commitment or you just feel that the situation is unstable – you need to recommend that this person not continue with (or take a break from), your project. This is hard to do – but you must have resources that you can count on to be successful. Remember if they cannot deliver then it is up to you and the team to make up the difference – this is not fair to anyone involved. Discuss with this person that they must step aside, help them to develop a plan as to how best to communicate this – be supportive. Please remember that John’s actually doing you a favor by telling you now, not later when your project could be in big trouble. You need to be supportive, but firm that they cannot continue on your team.
Sixth, if you think you can go on with this person, and you are comfortable with their commitment, then revise the plan, ensure there are clear milestones and check points. Create a monitoring system that is appropriate; maybe a 10 minute “check-in” each day to see how this person is progressing. You should increase your monitoring of the agreed activities to insure commitments are being reached.
Seventh, what you’ve been told is confidential, and unless safety is involved, you need to hold this information in confidence. It’s up to the individual to make any public proclamations of their specific problem. However, if you cannot go forward with this individual, and they are not willing to address their problems (or safety is involved), then get HR, and your sponsor involved – immediately.
It’s never easy dealing with personal problems in the workplace. As a leader, you’ll be pulled in many directions, but ultimately your focus needs to be on fulfilling your project obligations. Helping a teammate through a difficult time can build loyalty, trust, and admiration, but it can also build resentment within a team if the situation is not properly handled. Move carefully, use your listening skills, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. The solution is always within reach.
What do you think? Have there been challenges like this that you have faced? Can you share any suggestions? I’d like to hear from you.