Managing People: Don’t Become a Therapist (part 1)

Geek 5, Managing people

There are a lot of rules you have to learn when you become a manager of people.  Some of them are legal rules like knowing the proper questions for interviews, the basics of EEOC and FMLA, etc.  If those acronyms don’t mean anything to you, you should sit down with an HR person and get a quick refresher of the basic legal stuff.   Some rules are guidelines or processes for tasks like how to have a difficult conversation or put someone on a corrective action plan.

There are also a lot of unwritten rules.  One of those rules is that you should never become a therapist for your direct reports.  Huh?  What does that mean?  It means that you need to know where the line is between helping a direct report with work-related issues and getting sucked into their personal dramas.  The complication is that the line is fuzzy and sometimes hard to see – you need to use your managerial judgment about this.   Why is this important?  Some reasons include:

  • It’s a time suck for you
  • It can be uncomfortable to know personal details about a direct report
  • It can cause you to be too lenient and not hold the person accountable
  • Your other direct reports could see it as favoritism
  • It is distracting for work during work hours
  • You might find yourself too involved in a personal situation

As a manager, you are responsible for helping associates with work-related issues.  One filter for you is to consider whether or not an issue impacts business performance or other associates.  With projects and tasks you might sometimes needs to run interference to get something back on track.  But if an issue is drama-based, you should coach the associate to deal with it or at least set the expectation that work performance needs to stay solid.

Drama can take many forms and is often spun to look like it is job-related.  Drama can be about family – such as an associate coming to you to unload about her divorce proceeding and about how the soon-to-be-ex spouse is evil incarnate.  Drama can be personal – such as the associate who comes to you to complain about his sciatica, corns and acid reflux.  Drama can also be tangentially work-related – such as the long-term associate who feel entitled to a cube by the window due to seniority.

Caring and listening does not have to translate into becoming someone’s therapist.  You can listen compassionately to drama-related issues when needed, but don’t let it become an ongoing role.  You have to draw the line.  As a manager your must also continue to hold them accountable for their work.  If you become a therapist, you might feel compelled to give them too much of a break when they are not performing well.  In today’s workplace, we’re all faced with too little people for too much work.  If you continually excuse one worker due to personal drama, the weight falls on everyone else.  You should expect solid work performance regardless of outside drama.

You need to be fair and balanced in your approach.  It is different to give some a day or two off to care for a parent who just had a heart attack versus dealing with weekly absences due to marital trouble.  As a manager, you are responsible for complaints that cross a legal line such as harassment, hostile workplace, violence, discrimination, etc.  When you encounter these, get HR help.  You are also responsible for the work of your team.  You are not responsible for solving someone’s personal problems.  It is okay to coach your associate about work performance, even if you know there are other issues.

In the next post, we’ll cover some common “therapist” traps and how to respond to them.

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