Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Leave Your Problems at the Door

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010 (so it refers to my experience at my previous organization – but still super relevant!)

In the past two years, I have watched members of my staff go through tremendous personal hardships: life-threatening health crises, divorces, home foreclosures, layoffs of spouses, financial hardships, and horrible relationships. The quantity and severity of these challenges seems greater than anything I had previously witnessed in my seven years of managing employees. Driven by a tough economy and unforgiving housing market, many people are truly at their breaking point.

The reality is, however, that many of our employees were often quietly at their breaking points in the past. It’s not as if employees went from having no problems whatsoever to having suitcases full of challenges they lug with them everywhere. The bad economy has made things worse and impacted more people, but it does not account in totality for the tremendous increase in challenges I have witnessed.

What accounts for the rest of the increase? The fact that we dramatically changed our organizational culture for the better and that I know and understand more now about our staff as complete people with lives and families and challenges outside of work then I ever did before. In my early days of being in the workforce, I was taught that it was expected that when you arrived at work, you parked whatever personal baggage you brought with you at the door. You just found out that you are getting divorced? That’s nice. Leave that issue outside of the office. You just found out that your house is being repossessed and you have to move in three days? That’s too bad, but leave that problem at the door.

I understand where that concept of keeping life challenges away from work may have originated. It is important for all of us to be able to compartmentalize some our challenges so that we can continue to move through life and get done the things that must be done – doing our jobs, taking care of our kids, getting dinner on the table. We can not afford to let ourselves wallow day in and day out in a pool of our problems. In many cases though, that concept of setting your problems aside to get work done has been taken to the extreme and it has turned into an expectation that we all have a super-human ability to not let our personal challenges creep into our work.

When the culture of our organization started to change a couple of years ago, we built those changes on a foundation of trusting our employees. From that trust stemmed much closer relationships between coworkers. Instead of feeling like people we just happened to work with, our coworkers started to feel like friends and family. When a coworker truly becomes your friend or feels like a family member, you tend to share much more of your life with them, both the good stuff and the bad stuff.

I personally know much more now about my employee’ health issues, relationship challenges, and financial problems than I ever did in the past. Some people might say that is not a good thing, that it muddies the waters and makes it difficult to manage because there might always be an excuse to not hold someone accountable for their work. I guess I just see my role a little bit differently.

I absolutely believe in holding people accountable for their work, but I also believe that there are times when employees need help and support and an open ear more than they need a slap on the wrist for not performing up to their usual standards. If I can help someone talk through a challenge or give them a place to vent, then I have helped them as a person, not just as an employee. That person will go back out into the world – whether they are sitting at their cubicle or playing with their kids – and hopefully be in a better place than they were before they talked to me.

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