Accountability Issue with a Team Member? Ask Madeleine

This letter came to Lucy Dannewitz and me as a result of our podcast, “Leaders Who Influence,” in Blanchard Community. Blanchard Community is a space created for all who are interested in Blanchard, where you can sign up for groups that suit you, network with others, and access special events. Lucy’s and my podcast is designed to explore how generational differences affect leadership. I will provide my take on the question, and then Lucy and I will discuss it in our next podcast.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_______________________________________________________________

Dear Mad and Lucy,

I find myself in a tough situation as a manager. There’s a person on my team who is a talented kid, but lately the quality of their work has taken a pretty serious nosedive. They’ve also been snapping at their coworkers. Someone told me that their father is in the hospital, so I’ve been trying to give them some room to sort things out. But yesterday they missed an important deadline, and I know I need to say something.

I’m at a loss, though. Here’s the kicker—this person has been open in the past about having serious struggles with mental health issues in their previous job.

I still need to keep them accountable, but I don’t want to push them over the edge. I want to support them. I guess I’m part of the typical Boomer generation—I have no idea how to talk about mental health. Am I even the one who should be doing that? If so, where do I start?

Not a Therapist, Just a Worried Manager

_______________________________________________________________

Dear Not a Therapist, Just a Worried Manager,

It can put a lot of pressure on work systems when people’s lives blow up. I had a question similar to this recently, although the employee wasn’t a “kid.” I am trying to figure out how much of this issue is generational and how much of it is just regular manager stuff. I will address each separately.

Let’s talk about how this is a generational issue. You call the employee who is falling short of expectations a “kid.” To me, a Boomer like you, that could mean anyone under 35! So if this person really is a kid—just out of college, somewhere between 21 and 25, say—there is a good chance they are overwhelmed, afraid of losing their job, and not feeling equipped to sit down and have the hard conversation with you about what is going on. On second thought, this could be true of someone at any age.

Clearly, they felt comfortable enough to mention past issues with mental health to you, so at least they trusted you on what might have been a good day. They may have succumbed to magical thinking—and there is no age limit on this coping mechanism. It goes something like “I know things have slid downhill, but I am going to get it together soon and go back to being good at my job, and we can all pretend this never happened.”

I see two ways the generational divide might be at play here:

  1. Your employee is young and inexperienced and does not know how to broach the topic with you about what is going on.
  2. You, as a Boomer, are not comfortable navigating what may or may not be a mental health issue.

The first may help provide a little bit of context for you to be empathetic and let your employee know that your job is to help them be as successful as possible in their job.

The second, forgive me, is a story you are telling yourself. It’s probably based on what you have heard in the media, which, in my opinion, is a massive generalization and untrue. I would submit to you that your discomfort with talking about mental health is due to a lack of knowledge and experience with people who struggle with it. All that means is that you are lucky, not old. This particular instance is a perfect opportunity for you to educate yourself and expand your frame of reference.

One piece of good news about the changes since you and I were kids is that mental health issues are now, by and large, seen the same way as physical health issues. The secrecy and shame that used to be associated with mental health issues are simply no longer a norm. This is a positive generational shift, I think, because almost everyone’s life is affected by mental health concerns. Just ask people you know if they have a loved one who is affected, or if they are personally. You may be surprised. When I started speaking openly about a loved one who struggles with mental illness, it turned out that every single person I spoke to had more experience than I could have known.

Now, the manager stuff.

 I am a huge fan of the adage from Max De Pree: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” And the current reality is that your employee is not meeting deadlines and is unpleasant to work with. The worst thing you could do is pretend that nothing is going on. So an observation of reality might be “You have not been yourself,” and the questions are “What is going on?” and “How can I help?”

You don’t have to be a therapist, but this does involve being willing to talk about the human condition and how challenging it can be sometimes. It is perfectly acceptable for you to admit that you do not have experience with mental health issues and that you need your employee to help you help them. Teaching people how to help them is one of the first skills anyone with a challenge or disability needs to learn. You can admit that the last thing you want to do is to make things worse. You can state that your intention is to do everything in your power to help your employee get back to a place where they can bring their best. And you can do all of this without your employee having to share more than they are comfortable with.

Our company is a small one, and there are at least five pages of our employee handbook detailing how an employee should proceed if they need to take a short-term, flexible / intermittent, or long-term leave to deal with their own health issues or to care for a family member. I suspect yours is similar. Locate your company’s employee handbook and find out.

Detailed information about the health challenge is not required. There is always an emphasis on privacy. A note from a medical professional is required, however, so what is not allowed is employees who are not getting any help at all who claim they can’t work. You can consult with your HR representative to get clear on what benefits might be available to your employee, such as counseling, therapy, etc. Since there is such a large uptick in mental health issues among all generations, many companies are providing much more generous EAP benefits. If it turns out that your company isn’t, you can share the National Alliance on Mental Illness website and the NAMI Teen and Young Adult HelpLine. There is help available. You may want to use the website yourself to increase your understanding of and comfort level with mental health difficulties—not as a professional, but as someone who cares and seeks to be informed.

Be prepared to present the options to your employee and then help them craft a plan to get them back on an even keel. And (yay!) you can do all this without ever having to delve into the gory details.

Are you the one who should be talking about mental health with your employee? Good question. And no. Are you the one who should be talking to them about what steps they might take to take care of themselves and their loved ones, and how to keep their job and get back to the kind of performance they demonstrated they are capable of? Yes. That is a manager’s job.

If simply having the conversation about reality and how to make it tenable pushes your employee “over the edge,” as you say, then they are not fit to be working and you will have to consult with HR to figure out what to do next. If, in fact, the kid has put their head in the sand and is engaging in magical thinking, I suspect they will be grateful for the opportunity to tell the truth and for the help in making arrangements that will ensure their long-term success.

The next time an employee shares that they have had difficulty with mental health, you can take the opportunity to ask how it shows up, what the effect is on them, and how they want to deal with it if it happens again. You can create some clear agreements of how you should both proceed in the event that difficulties rear their head in the future, just as you might with someone who manages a chronic illness or neurological difference. It is all part of creating a workplace where people can bring their whole selves every day.

You are obviously compassionate and thoughtful. This is not a huge stretch for you—you can prove the stereotype about Boomers wrong.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

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.

Leave a Reply