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When Life Spills into Work

Compassionate Leadership

December 12, 2022

When it comes to the workplace, culturally we try to compartmentalize the various aspects of our lives. “Leave your personal life at home.” “Just show up and do your job.” On the surface, these seem like reasonable expectations. After all, most of us don’t want to bring our junk to work with us. It’s stressful, sometimes embarrassing and knowingly hurts our performance. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to fully separate our personal life from our professional life.  

Whether we like it or not, we can’t escape our personal life … even when we go to work. Or perhaps more appropriately, ESPECIALLY when we go to work. Regardless of what we do for a living, our work requires some degree of physical, emotional and mental focus. There’s nothing that will rob us of the three like personal life baggage.  

Truth is, we cannot escape our lives. The common thread between you and all the various facets of your life is, well, you! When we’re dealing with personal issues, relational tension, financial stress or any number of other afflictions, it can be nearly impossible to bring our best to work.  

Practicing Compassionate Leadership 

When people are dealing with things outside of work, it will inevitably impact their work. They may lack focus by thinking about these other things or get distracted by the ongoing need to address their issues while at work. Team members may lose motivation in their work because its importance pales in comparison to what’s going on outside of work. They may be exhausted due to a lack of sleep or get sick more often because they are simply worn down. As leaders, we expect high performance regardless of personal issues … which can further add to the stress and tension. It quickly turns into a vicious cycle of stress, stress and more stress.  

While it’s not a leader’s role to fix someone’s personal issues, we can play an important role by practicing compassionate leadership. First and foremost, be aware. This comes from forming genuine relationships, building trust and engaging with our team in conversations that transcend work. When there’s a relationship, with trust and ongoing interaction, these non-work issues become apparent. People’s natural instinct is to hide their issues out of fear. Fear of judgment, fear of consequences or fear of the unknown. When we as leaders knock down those walls and build a culture of trust, an opportunity is created for these issues to surface.  

The following are four things we can do to exhibit compassionate leadership when someone on our team is struggling: 

The Gift of Time 

When we are dealing with issues, life feels even more tightly wound than normal. Time may be what the doctor ordered. Time to create some margin. Time to address the issues. Time to seek external help. However, in the minds of business leaders, lost time equals lost productivity. On the surface, this is correct. However, we can also look at it through a slightly different lens. Would you rather have someone lose a handful of days of productivity by being absent or for them to give you half-hearted effort and partial focus for several months, possibly eroding the team’s culture in the meantime? 

Increased Communication

When leaders keep the dialogue open and create an atmosphere of honesty, this act alone creates a release valve for their tension. It doesn’t change their situation, but it does eliminate the pressure to maintain the facade and deepens trust amongst the team. For example, at your next one-on-one, take it to a more casual level and don’t bring up work-related topics unless your team member does. Use this opportunity and space for personal conversation, offering them time to share.  

Modified Expectations 

No one can provide 100% productivity 52 weeks per year. Our work delivery is an ebb and flow. When life hits hard, productivity may be dinged for a bit. For this reason, temporarily adjusted goals may be warranted. That’s what makes a team a team. Someone steps up when someone else needs to step down, then vice versa. If we expect exceptional performance when a team member is dealing with life, we knowingly set them up to fail.  

Practical Resources 

Sometimes, what life throws at us is bigger than we can (or should) handle on our own. As leaders, we have an opportunity to connect people with mentors or resources to help them grow. Referrals to counseling services are sometimes available as part of your company’s Total Rewards program. The situation may lend itself to continued education, a work mentor or a professional counselor. Other ideas are to bring in experts on-site to speak on specific topics, providing support to multiple team members. Providing recommended books or starting a book club is a practical way to learn new skills together. Lastly, sharing relevant podcasts and investing to send team members to a conference are great ways to learn new skills or challenge a new area of growth.  

All of these can add value to team members’ lives and provide our organizations with healthier and more productive cultures. Not all these things have a direct connection to your business, but they do have a direct connection with your people … which have a direct connection to your business.  

Life is messy, and it’s impossible to fully separate life from our work. As leaders, we can either be a victim of lost productivity and erosion of culture, or we can step into the void and be part of the solution. It can be messy, but it’s worth it.   

Looking for tools to help grow your startup or small business? Visit the Small Business Resources Hub to find the information you need or sign up for Mentor Connection to build relationships with a trusted group of mentors.  

Travis Shelton

Travis Shelton is the host of the Meaning Over Money podcast, speaker and professional financial coach, helping families and businesses navigate the tension between the world's way and a better way. He works with a wide range of clients who are ready to redefine the role money plays in their life. Listen to his podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.