A boss is worried about a struggling employee – and finds inspiration at sea
A contingency plan helps keep a team afloat in the event of a real crisis
My company is a multinational with a regional office here. We are a tight unit and rely on each other. Recently, however, one of my team member has been going through significant personal turmoil, to the point where it is adversely affecting their professional performance. The individual appears distracted and disengaged, which in turn is affecting the team’s overall ability to perform at the highest level. How should I best handle this?
RB, Abu Dhabi
As you are experiencing, when one team member is absent or not able to operate at their full capability, the effect on the entire team is immediate.
This is especially true in the current regional economic cycle where many organisations are streamlining their structures, leading to lean teams with very little or no capacity buffers. It’s important therefore for teams to discuss these inevitabilities, so when they do arise they have a contingency plan in place. The contingency may not necessarily be an interim resource, although this could be an option, but probably more likely a team commitment and agreement to cover and support each other.
This exact scenario recently played out with one of the Volvo Ocean Racing teams (Abu Dhabi was a host city during the 2014-15 around the world race), where one of their sailors sustained a back injury and was confined to her bunk. In this intensely competitive environment with very clear team roles and expertise, having a team member out of action had an immediate effect on their performance and placed significant strain on the rest of the team. Fortunately, during the race preparations, the team had discussed how they would handle such a scenario and when it did arise, although tough, they were mentally prepared for it.
Exemplary leadership by Bouwe Bekking, the Dutch skipper of Team Brunel, whose race blog said: “Don’t worry, we are a tight unit, we have spoken beforehand that this could happen to anyone, and we cope together with it.”
This ability for a team to
improvise and have built-in team resilience is essential today.
As a manager in this situation, it is important to find the right balance between offering support and understanding while maintaining professional boundaries and performance within your team. By handling this situation properly, you will avoid a personal crisis transforming into a professional one.
You experience the individual as distracted and disengaged, so consider how these behaviours are affecting the person’s work and address this accordingly. Share the effect their behaviour is having on them professionally as well as on the team and see how they may be able to change it.
Ask what support they may need from you to enable them to change this; simultaneously, you need to be firm about the expectation that it needs to be addressed for the sake of the team.
Be specific in the ways that you are able to offer help.
It is important to be approachable and allow the individual to talk. At the same time, you do not need to know all the specifics of the situation, and be mindful to stay clear from offering your own opinions and recommendations. Show empathy and understanding, give assurance where you can and provide them with any available resources.
Quite often, people dealing with a crisis need some time to accept and address the issue at hand, without having work stress added to the equation. So if possible, try to agree on a lighter workload that they are currently able to manage, with appropriate back up from colleagues during this period. Careful consideration should be given to what can
reasonably be expected from the rest of the team without it affecting their morale and motivation.
Our professional and personal lives inevitably cross over, and your task here is to balance compassion with your professional responsibilities. Respect and validate this person’s situation, make him/her feel understood and supported and check in regularly to show your concern. Handling this professionally to maintain the effective performance of the team while providing the appropriate support to this individual, will help to preserve the relationships within the team and their performance overall.
Yolande Basson is an executive coach at Ashridge Executive Education – Middle East