It’s Okay to Ask Someone at Work How They Are REALLY Doing

Image by Ayyub Jauro

Something’s wrong. He’s been late to three out of five daily team standups this week. (He’s never late!) When someone on the Zoom call cracks a joke, he smiles, but not with his eyes. (He’s usually the ringleader of hilarity in your department!) His work product isn’t suffering, though. He’s hitting his numbers. But your “Spidey Sense” tells you something is off. “He’s probably going to be fine,” you muse. “He wouldn’t welcome his manager delving into his personal life, would he?”

Sometimes my hunches have proven ridiculously false. Like my recent long position in Silicon Valley Bank. Or that I thought wearing 4-inch inseam shorts to the company picnic would be a good idea.  My instincts about the people in my life, however, tend to have a higher batting average. 

Malcolm Gladwell maintains that your intuition about life is often correct, because it is based on pattern recognition.  A stimulus in this present moment sparks memories of similar scenarios in the past. When you work on a team with someone long enough, you begin to sense their moods, anticipate their reactions and read their body language. 

There’s a good chance your gut is correct that something is eating at your work colleague, but to what extent should you insert yourself into their personal business?

Last week, I noticed that three different individuals I work with (or work around) seemed to be weighed down by an invisible backpack full of boulders. I approached each with what I hoped was perceived as a concerned casualness, and checked in on how they were doing. One told me that everything was fine. Another essentially told me to pound sand, and that he didn’t want to talk about it. But the third . . . she opened up in a deeply profound way that allowed me to offer her some energizing hope.

I’ll accept a 33.33% conversion rate on playing my people hunches as a manager.

Why I Ask – An Extreme Example

I once let someone drown. 

Here’s the scenario. It’s an extremely hot summer day. You head with some friends to a local swimming hole, and when you arrive you can see that hundreds of other people have the same idea. The water is amazing, and you swim out towards the center of the lake. You are enjoying yourself immensely. All of a sudden, you hear this commotion, and about 50 yards away from you, in the deep part of the lake, you see a gentleman, a stranger, thrashing around in the water. He’s screaming for help. You can see, by the look of terror on his face, that he is convinced he is drowning. Someone needs to help him, but no one is moving. There are literally dozens of other swimmers much closer to him than you are.  Should you swim out to him? You’re not exactly an Olympic freestyler, and you have no idea how deep it is out there. You’ve heard all of those stories of someone trying to rescue a drowning person, only to get pulled down by the very one they were trying to save. Besides, other people are a lot closer. They aren’t moving. You begin to panic. You start to have weird thoughts. Maybe he’s not drowning. Maybe all those people near him are his friends. They know he’s just playing a joke. That’s why they’re not helping. “Somebody help him!” you plead. No one notices. Do you go?

That scenario is a true story. I was in that lake. Tears started streaming down my cheeks. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t bring myself to go to him. After I started to wonder whether or not it was a joke, time passed. Maybe it was just 60 seconds, but it felt like an hour. All I could do was watch him flail, hear him choke, and finally I witnessed him give up.  In a lake full of able-bodied people, just half a football field away from me, I watched a stranger – someone’s son or father or brother – drown. That was over two decades ago, and I still carry it with me to this day. And you can pat me on the back and insist that I probably couldn’t have saved him or that it was too dangerous or someone else’s job, but I know what my heart was telling me to do that afternoon. I was supposed to be part of the solution.

We’re More Comfortable as Bystanders

Over the years I have given much thought to why I never responded to the drowning man or why the dozens of others ignored the emergency. I’ve looked for the rationale for why we evade responsibility for people who are hurting or are on a destructive path; even when they are in our families, circle of friends or on the team we manage at work. Social scientists refer to this phenomenon as the Bystander Effect, which can be defined as when there is an emergency, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that any of them will actually help. Researchers Darley and Latane developed the hypothesis that during an emergency, or in moments when aid is required, bystanders assume that others will help. They sat a series of college students alone in a cubicle amongst a number of other cubicles in which there were tape recordings of other students be amplified. One of the voices would cry for help, and make sounds of severe choking. When the students thought they were the only person in earshot, 85% rushed to help. When they thought there was one other person to help, 65% got involved. And when they thought there were three other people who could rescue, a mere 31% acted. 

Why are we more prone to inaction when others around us refuse to intervene? According to Darley and Latane, bystanders monitor the reactions of others in emergencies to see if those others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since these bystander are doing exactly the same thing, everyone concludes that no help is needed. The researchers also postulate that people may fear “losing face” in front of the other bystanders, being superseded by a “superior” helper, or offering unwanted assistance. In other words, they fear the wrath of the individual in need turning on them . . . “I don’t need your help. How dare you!” See, it’s not necessarily laziness, cowardice or lack of compassion that keeps us from stepping into someone’s pain. Sometimes it is the failure to see the need as our own personal responsibility. 

As a Manager, Empathy Is in Your Job Description

Clearly, there are boundaries in a supervisor-direct report relationship. You’re not their buddy. You’re not their licensed therapist. You don’t have the time or expertise to interpose yourself into the personal heartaches and trials of everyone on your team. Ultimately, you are paid for your team’s ability to produce results.

A recent McKinsey study reiterates what the research has been telling us for decades, the quality of an employee’s relationship with their direct supervisor positively correlates with satisfaction, productivity and engagement.  One statement in their study stands out above the others: “In many ways, there is only one question any manager need ask: How do I make my team members’ lives easier—physically, cognitively, and emotionally? Research shows that this servant leader mentality and disposition enhances both team performance and satisfaction.”

Another study published in The Journal of Management looked at the outcomes of bosses seeking to help employees during times of personal hardship with emotional and instrumental support, along with creative work/life balance management.  Employees with these types of manager interventions had higher rates of job satisfaction and lower rates of turnover. 

See Something, Say Something

If you want to grow in your intentionality in demonstrating care and compassion to team members who are struggling outside of work, here are a few small steps in order of progression.

1.      During 1on1 meetings, show interest in their lives outside of the office.  Ask about their weekend. Know what sports their kids play. Inquire about the highlight of their holiday vacation. Celebrate the things that make them happy. There’s always a power dynamic imbalance between a boss and employee, so don’t pry. Keep it light. Simply let them know that who they are in the “real world” is important to you.

2.      Crack the door open by making an observation. When you notice a shift in their usual temperament or energy level, pull them aside privately, and tell them what you’ve specifically observed as it relates to your typical positive experience with them. Here’s an example: “I noticed in our sprint planning meeting today that you were pretty reserved. You’re usually the one leading the charge with all of the ideas. Is everything okay?” Be careful to word your observation without judgment so that you are not implying that they are lazy, stupid or not a team player.

3.      Make an offer. Offers put the power of decision in their hands and give them agency. “I’m here if you’d like to talk about it. I’d be glad to be a sounding board if you ever need it. If you need to throttle back a little here at work, I’m open to discussing your workload. I’m willing to help you find the assistance you need.” As a manager, you cannot be emotionally tied to their response to your offer. “Let me think about it,” and “No, thank you,” are perfectly legitimate responses.

4.      Listen, don’t prescribe. Often, the simple act of listening and responding in empathy makes the other party feel like they are not alone. Your first responsibility is not to solve their problem. If you do feel strongly about a suggestion or new perspective you want to propose, follow #3 above – make an offer. “I have an idea that you can take or leave, do you want to hear it?”

5.      If appropriate, lend a hand with reprioritizing and adjusting job requirements. In some instances, events in their personal life may limit what they can offer your team at this time. Talk about what can come off of their plate temporarily, or how others in your department might be able to free up some bandwidth for them.

“Pound Sand!” Is Rare

As a manager (and a human), you never really know what enormous challenges someone else is facing when they turn off their workstation for the day. When you get a sixth sense that someone on your team is suffering, take a risk. Make an observation. Extend an offer. The fear of rejection in such circumstances is usually unfounded. What you will most often receive is a sincere, “Thanks for asking.” 

And once in a while, in one of those beautiful moments that makes the difficult calling of being a people manager all worth it, someone will say to you, “Hey, remember that time you noticed I was drowning, and you reached out and offered to help? That changed my life.”

#management #servantleadership

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