It seems that the quaint days of working happily in a physical office, with the most challenging non-work conversations being debates around the merits of the latest version of The Office, or the antics of the local sports teams. Now, just as leaders are seeing glimmers of light at the end of the COVID-19 crisis, the United States is literally in flames, and our workers are facing a supercharged cocktail of volatile emotions, all while many are still in some level of isolation from friends, family, and coworkers.
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Here are some approaches that can prove helpful when difficult topics arrive in the workplace.
Acknowledge the inevitable
Work has most definitely entered the home, with most of us now “commuting” a half dozen steps to a home office rather than a distinct physical location, and it’s not surprising that life is now mixing with work, including complex political and societal issues. From a simplistic, practical level, these issues can affect your team’s mood, productivity, and emotional state. From a deeper, personal level, with fewer fellow humans to talk with, you may find yourself in a conversation about race, politics, or an employee’s emotional challenges and mental well-being. In the good old days, it may have been simple to wall off these conversations as not work appropriate, but they may be boiling into the workplace precisely because your team members have few other options.
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Start with empathy
Empathy is a good start when these situations emerge. Often confused with sympathy, or feeling sorry for someone, empathy is the ability to walk a mile in another’s shoes. You may not look or feel like your team member, or agree with his or her interpretation of current events, but merely seeking to understand what they’re going through can allow you to be open to a conversation that can ultimately help your employee.
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Respect the fact that your team member has decided to confide in you and share his or her feelings, and rather than trying to refute or argue their points, seek to understand their situation and interpretation of events. Asking what they’re experiencing, what they’re feeling, and how their life is being affected are good starts. Just as you’d approach a new technology with an open mind, trying to determine how it works and is designed rather then immediately comparing it with a competing technology, so too should you attempt to understand the challenge your team member is facing rather than convincing them there’s a superior conclusion.
Provide a sounding board rather than explicit guidance
As leaders, we’re often naturally wired to assess a situation then quickly provide a course of action. When challenging topics arise at the workplace, it’s likely not that simple. If an employee is expressing feelings of helplessness with his or her position in society, it can be tempting to relay some version of how you once felt that way, and heroically overcame the challenge through grit and determination. Unless asked if you’ve experienced something similar, ask what approaches they’ve tried, or how they’ve changed how they look at the world in response to these concerns. Ask questions and attempt to “nudge” rather than giving your answer, even if it worked for you after deep introspection and diligent effort. On deeply personal issues, a person must take their own journey. Be a helpful guide rather than sharing the photos from your trip and suggesting they duplicate your path.
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Don’t get dragged into a debate
Even though your team member may come to you with a deeply personal issue, and you may be talking after hours and not on company time, there’s still an employee-boss relationship at play. What you see as a friendly chat and interesting debate could be interpreted by an employee as a direct assault on a deeply held personal belief. Even if you’re diametrically opposed to something your employee espouses, debating their position will likely cause more damage than anything else. In this case, simply asking why they hold that position, or if they’ve considered any other points of view is as deep as you should go in challenging their position. Ultimately, your function as a leader is to keep your team performing and stable, not to win hearts and minds, and shift thinking, however wrongheaded it may be.