By Steve Touhill, Partner.
The other day I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and someone posted a quote that stood out from the endless stream of humble brags and self-marketing. It said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
As an executive recruiter for nearly six years now, more people have confided their battles to me than in my previous 25 years in the working world. When most people respond with a reflexive “fine” to your “how’s it going?”, I often hear about aging parents, sick children, relationship struggles, financial difficulties, and personal health problems. The Catholic in me wants to attribute at least part of the reason for this intimate disclosure to the explicit confidentiality I guarantee — the phone serves as a kind of confessional screen between me and the person on the other end of the line. But I think it’s simpler than that. I think it’s because I am willing to listen and because they know I care.
So I got to wondering, why are they telling me about these struggles, and not their managers? Surely an understanding manager cares about her people as much if not more than some recruiter, right? And what about me? I’m the same guy who managed people in my life before executive search; why are people telling me this stuff now, when they didn’t before?
Once again, I discovered the answer is simple: before I became a recruiter, I never asked. It was always about goals, performance metrics, deliverables, action items. Anything else, in my mind, was irrelevant drama. I know better now. You may not realize it, but you probably have at least a couple of people on your team who are real fighters, doing their best to compartmentalize their personal priorities to stay focused on meeting your expectations day in and day out. In an industry that tends to pay lip service to the concept of work-life balance, it can be a Herculean task to stay focused when things at home are stormy.
So what can you do as a manager? You don’t have to invite yourself into your employees’ personal lives, but your communication style and body language needs to be receptive. When someone does confide in you, be willing to listen without judgment and with empathy. Sometimes just getting it off their chest is all the person needs. Second, be willing to help to the extent possible, recognizing you still have a business to run. Familiarizing yourself with company leave policies, health benefits (including mental health), and other support services before that stressed person walks through your door will help you exude a reassuring calmness that will surely be appreciated. And lastly, get HR involved. It’s one of the things they do best, and they may even have training available to help you learn to improve your ability to handle these sensitive situations when they arise. Guess what happens when you are there for your team members? They in turn are there for you. A beautiful irony that one of the best contributions you can make to your own career is unselfishly serving the best interests of others with whom you influence.
The next time one of your employees’ performance slips, dig a little bit below the surface. Not all battle scars are visible.