How Personal Is Too Personal?

“I can’t talk with my employees about their personal problems.”

Usually, when I hear people say this, they’re actually not going personal enough. The result is lost time and money while people talk around personal problems instead of addressing them head-on.

There’s a great deal of confusion about what is okay to talk about in business settings, and because of that confusion, mostly people err on the side of safety.

As you know, playing it safe has a downside. With risk, comes reward. Risk aversion has a price, and this is no exception.

It’s simple (but not always easy) to know whether or not you can “go there.” Here’s your rule of thumb:

If the personal issue is affecting the employee’s business competence, it’s fair game. (And be familiar with what’s illegal to ask about)

It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable it makes them, or you. If their personal problems affect their work, it’s your job as a manager to bring them up. And if you’re the employee, it’s your responsibility to report what’s happening to your manager and get whatever help you need.

If you don’t yet have a safe, trusting relationship in which to do this, you have a different issue. The goal is to create a working relationship healthy enough where you talk about personal problems in business.

If you talk about deeply personal things that don’t relate to or affect work, you’re doing a friendship or therapy session inside a business setting. If you avoid personal problems that affect work in a business context, you’re doing supervision, not management.

Supervision is about getting people to do what they already know how to do. Read this for more on that subject. It’s bad. When someone has a personal problem in the way, a supervisor avoids the discomfort of the issue and looks for ways to motivate the employee–to somehow trick them into getting it done anyway, rather than actually helping them with the personal problem.

On the surface, a supervisor says, “Their personal problems are none of my business, I don’t want to pry,” but on a deeper level what’s usually going on is, “I have no idea how to talk with the employee about this, and I care more about my own comfort than my people, so I’ll just focus on the work.” The tragedy is that what is intended as respect and care actually expresses the opposite: a manager that cares about an employee does inquire about personal matters that obviously affect their work.

When a supervisor ignores obvious personal issues in an employee, they unintentionally send the message that they don’t care, often making it worse. It makes the employee feel alone and increases the split between their personal life and work, causing them to be less engaged, and do poorer work.

So while the idea is simple, navigating the line between personal and business can be tricky. It’s an art and a skill, and takes practice. Eventually, you learn to feel your way through the myriad subtleties and the moment-to-moment changes in the conversation. But you already know how to do this, somewhere in your life.

  • You’ve been on first dates and navigated how deep a question to ask.
  • You’ve known someone who had a death in their family and delicately expressed your care without tearing open a wound.
  • You’ve known someone going through a divorce and asked how they were without expecting them to go through all the painful details.

Uncomfortable conversation is a part of being human. What if becoming a better manager is as simple as not avoiding them? In the Clear and Open Community, these are the kinds of issues we explore together. Find out if becoming a member makes sense for you.

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