Drawing a line in the sand. An old metaphor.
“Marissa, one of my employees is bringing a lot of personal drama to work. How can I deal with that?” This is a common challenge in businesses of all sizes. As CEOs and leaders, we are naturally personally invested in the health and happiness of our employees. However, where is the line of demarcation for emotional support?
When I started Information Experts 20 years ago, this was one of my biggest challenges. I often sacrificed the health of my company for the protection of my employees. I held onto them too long when I needed to make cuts, which jeopardized the company’s financial health & well-being. I became involved in their personal lives, and often took on their personal struggles.
Today’s workplace is the perfect storm for over-involvement and oversharing. We spend more hours enmeshed in work than ever before, and the lines between work & home are totally blurred. Through social media, we now know more about our employees’ lives than ever before, and they know more about us. The employee-employer connection has never been more blended.
This is why it is critically important to establish clear boundaries.
CEOs are not “Chief Emotional Officers.” They are not there to be friends or therapists for their employees. In doing so, this undermines the hierarchical relationship, and compromises reporting structures across the organization. It can confuse employees regarding roles, responsibilities, and expectations.
In three of my current client organizations, the business owners are grappling with this. One client has a new hire that has recently wrapped up a messy two-year divorce. Another has an employee whose daughter suffered a head injury and can’t drive herself to school. Another is struggling with elder care challenges.
How can leaders maintain empathy & compassion for their employees, yet still maintain a professional relationship and institute accountability?
It is the leader’s job to establish the boundary. This begins with clear job roles and expectations. In work environments where people are hiring friends more than ever, this is especially important. A leader must be careful not to set an unhealthy precedent by showing favoritism to any employees. This opens up the possibility of lawsuits or harassment claims.
When an employee brings a personal issue into the office, the way the leadership responds will dictate future behavior. If the leader allows herself/himself to become engaged in the problem, this will create more problems.
For example, if an employee comes to work on a Monday morning complaining about a personal situation that occurred over the weekend, you may be inclined to respond, “I can’t believe that happened! Tell me more!”
This opens the door for additional conversation that may not be appropriate, and may ultimately confuse the employee about the relationship. Instead, an appropriate response may be, “That must have been frustrating for you.” There is a way to respond empathetically without being enmeshed.
A long-term client has a key executive that is in the midst of a bad divorce. It’s very difficult for this employee to compartmentalize what is happening in his personal life. A strategy we developed that has been very effective was to give the executive time and space each day to deal with what is happening in his life. We carved out a block of time.
My client proactively approached him and said, “I know you are going through a very difficult time. It’s important to contain the negative impact it is having on the work environment. What do you think of the idea of setting aside a brief block of time each day for you to step back, make phone calls you need to make, and address your situation?” He greatly appreciated the sympathy, and my client’s willingness to give him daily space to manage his crisis. In doing so, he was much more focused on his work, because he knew he would have time set aside to deal with his chaos.
Emotional boundaries are also essential in large businesses. In a Fortune 500 organization, my client who reports directly to the Chairman and CEO has had the same Executive Assistant for 19 years, through 6 jobs. They have been through a lot together. However, my client has shared with me that they are both well aware of the emotional boundaries, and are careful not to overstep. While they know what is happening in each others lives, they both have strong support networks outside of the office.
It Goes Both Ways
On the flip side, it is not the employees’ responsibility to provide emotional support for the leadership team. Speaking from experience, the CEO role is extremely lonely & isolating without strong outside support. This is why peer groups are so vitally important for CEOs and executives, which provide a safe place for emotional support, experience sharing, strategic planning, etc.
Employees have a right to expect an emotionally safe work environment. They have a right to expect an emotionally stable leadership team that shows up 100% whom they entrust with their careers, and who is strong enough to steer the company through turbulence. It is not their job to shoulder any emotional burden that the leadership team may carry.
Establishing clear emotional boundaries is essential for today’s workplace, where employees are connected 24/7. This is another complex piece of the work-life integration balance. Whether you are an employee or an employer, you need sufficient outside support so that you can show up 100% engaged at work.
If you ever have to stop and ask yourself if you’re emotionally in too deep with a co-worker, employee, or employer, chances are…you are. Take a step back, assess the situation, and re-position yourself. Ultimately it’s the best way to serve your company, and you.
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About Successful Culture
We work with business owners, CEOs, and leadership teams that want to achieve their greatest personal & organizational potential. Through coaching, strategic consulting, retreat facilitation, and workshops, we equip leaders & emerging leaders with the mindset, tools, strategies, and processes they need to excel.
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Please check out my Inc. Magazine columns on my Author Page too.
– In my latest Inc, article, I share The Essential Guide to Avoiding Workplace Text, Email, & Social Media Disasters.
– Learn about the 9 Leadership Behaviors that Lose Employee Trust & Respect here.
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