Articles

What ‘Care’ Requires Of Leaders When Their People Have Personal Problems

March 19, 2019 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology, Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

More than perhaps at any other time, a leader’s sincerity is put to the test when her people have problems of a personal nature. When a genuine personal problem arises – the death of a loved one, a divorce, a serious illness – do leaders notice and do they care?

What a leader should and should not do in these situations is a matter of debate. Should she approach an employee who has a personal problem but doesn’t want to talk about it? When is the best time to broach an issue? How should a sensitive issue be tackled? Is it ever appropriate to speak to someone else about the employee’s problem, especially if he has asked the leader not to?

To none of these questions is there a clear answer. The really critical question in fact relates not so much to the “when”, “where” and “how” of the problem but to the “why”.

When leaders talk to direct reports because their personal problem is affecting their delivery, they are revealing their intent: what they really care about is not their people but what they are getting out of them.

An employee’s personal problem and an employee’s work problem should be separate issues which are not conditional on each other. Care is in fact only care when it is unconditional, when it is delinked from the issue of work performance.

If the employee’s personal problem is impacting on his work performance, what is then appropriate? Now a leader’s sincerity is really put to the test because sincerity, in this situation, requires a leader to be tough, not sweet.

Being unconditional here requires that the leader still holds the employee accountable for his work performance. If the employee’s attention is not on the job because of problems at home, he should be made to understand that this is not acceptable. It may be appropriate, with agreement, to lower the work standards for a while, but not forever. Supporting a person through a personal crisis, while still insisting that he performs at his best, is what unconditional care means here.

In all cases of personal problems of employees, the leadership value which is at issue is Care. Dealing appropriately with personal problems means evidencing genuine concern or care. Care is only care, however, if it is unconditional. Being unconditional means still holding the person accountable for their work performance.

The only thing worse than a lack of care, however, is feigned concern. Leaders who don’t really care about the personal concerns of those in their charge, and who wish that person would leave his problems at home, add insult to injury when they profess otherwise. It is better that they be honest than lay claim to a concern which is not there.

Wendy Lambourne
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