I manage a team of very experienced and talented people. One of my people is particularly essential to the work we do and has vast institutional knowledge. A couple of other teams also depend on her.
She is having a really hard time right now. Her father died a few months ago and her mother is bereft and is suffering from dementia. One of her adult children is in some kind of trouble—she doesn’t elaborate—which is taking up a lot of her time. She is often late with her work, flustered, forgetting things, and basically falling apart.
I really think she should take time off to grieve her father, take care of her family, and get a little space for herself. She would need to train another team member in some of her tasks, but I think we could limp along for a little while.
Every time I try to talk to her about it, she gets defensive, blames her errors on others, and acts like I am the enemy, when really all I am trying to do is help. The mistakes she is making are causing our whole team to look bad. What’s worse, I have to double check everything she does to make sure nothing goes out that could cause a problem. I am putting in way too many extra hours because of this and I am getting cranky about it. How can I get her to see that I am on her side, and only have her best interests at heart?
Trying to Help
Dear Trying to Help,
I have noticed lately that almost everyone I work with, including my own team, is so maxed out that no one can take a vacation, let alone personal time for bereavement or taking care of essential life stuff. In an effort to cut costs and be efficient there is simply no wiggle room anymore. It strikes me as nutty that there is no cross training and no backup. It is a recipe for burnout and is simply not sustainable.
I know when my mother died, I was walking into walls and making bad decisions. I messed up two very important client meetings—to this day I’m not quite sure what I did wrong, but the clients weren’t happy. I had the luxury of being able to pull away from client facing work until I felt more like myself. Your employee is clearly strung out. And you’re right, she needs to take a step back and take some time.
You are the boss and you’re correct that it’s your job to have her back and point out the realities, as unpleasant as they may be. In short, you have to tell her what’s what. If it comes down to it, you may need to give her a list of the problems she has created—not in a mean way, of course, just the brutal facts—including the extra time you are putting in to cover for her. Get help from HR for language, contact info for your employee assistance program, and any other support that might be available to her.
Nobody wins if she ends up with a serious health problem or quits in a moment of desperation. Be sure to tell her she is deeply valued and you have only her best interests at heart. And tell her she is not allowed to get mad at you for simply trying to help.
You might also see what parts of her job can be temporarily put on hold or reassigned to others, even if you have to hire a temp for awhile. For the long term, it might be time to revisit the job design for each role on your team and plan some cross training so that you aren’t so dependent on one person. Years ago, we had a brilliant office manager and we used to joke that we would all be in big trouble if she ever got hit by a truck. It was all in good fun until her minivan actually did get hit by a truck and we were, in fact, in big trouble. (She was fine in the end, but it took a long time.) It took months of scrambling to get her systems figured out and get back on an even keel. I won’t make that mistake again—and I don’t joke anymore about people getting hit by trucks.
It’s great to take our work seriously, and we certainly want employees to care about their jobs. But there are whole lives to consider. Living in a constant state of panic serves no one in the end; it can easily become a habit and is almost impossible to see in ourselves.
Your employee needs you to stand up for her since she clearly has lost the ability to do it for herself. It will take some courage on your part, but you are capable and can rise to the occasion. She may or may not thank you in the end, and that’s fine. It’s your job and you’ll know you did the right thing.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.