How Much Should a Manager Know About Their Employees’ Personal Lives? 

How Much Should a Manager Know About Their Employees’ Personal Lives?  1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

Over the past several months, I’ve been working hard to spread the message that what managers need to successfully navigate this new future of work is compassion. 

Compassion connects an awareness of the struggles and suffering of employees with caring actions to help them through it. It’s a big and important step beyond empathy, and I believe it’s imperative to support the well-being of others (and ourselves). 

Since compassion isn’t something you typically find in the standard deck of management advice, I’ve been getting some fascinating questions from people who are intrigued but slightly uncertain about its application in their organization.  

Recently, after a presentation I made about compassion as a new core competency of management, I received a question from an audience member that cuts to the core of why compassion in management feels uncomfortable for many. It also helps illuminate how we got to a place where so many employees are suffering through work experiences that more often harm their well-being and performance than help it. 

So, I’m going to share the question that was posed to me, along with my response. After you read both, I hope you’ll join the conversation and share your thoughts. 

The Question

While I agree that compassion ought to be front and center these days, and it’s important for managers to know what’s going on in their people’s lives, I guess I’m still struggling with how far that should go and would love to hear more from you about it. 

There are so many factors involved. From the comfort level of the manager and how experienced they are managing, to how comfortable people are sharing personal info with their manager (and all the baggage people tend to have from previous jobs when that didn’t go well), to keeping a level of professionalism and accountability to the work that needs to be done, to managers not overstepping scope to take on what should be another professional’s role (like a therapist). 

So, I’m curious what your thoughts might be on how to think about where to draw the line, or if you would suggest that there shouldn’t be one at all. 

My Response

Your concerns are the same ones that HR has been concerned with for as long as managers have existed. Where’s the line between knowing enough about your people and knowing too much?

In the way I approach this work, I start with the foundation that work is a relationship and that everything that happens at work should be seen through the context of relationship. When you frame your question through that lens, the answer to the question about how much a manager should know or how much an employee should share is…it depends. 

If it’s important to cultivating the relationship with that employee in a way that makes it easier and more fulfilling to do the work effectively, then it’s probably okay even if it goes past the traditional lines we’ve drawn (or what the manager is comfortable with). 

The heart of this issue is teaching people, both managers and employees, better relationship skills—compassion being key among those skills. 

When we teach people how to communicate more clearly, how to articulate expectations and demonstrate accountability, how to listen more actively, how to establish boundaries, how to trust and be vulnerable—then we don’t have to spend so much time worrying about how far is too far. The individuals will sort that out. 

They will disclose as much as is appropriate to make the relationship work in a way that meets both their needs. 

What do you think? How much do managers need to know? 

My argument is that we are due for an overcorrection. The past 100 years of management practice have been designed around what makes life easiest for the manager. As a result, we wrote policies and created norms about keeping the “personal stuff” outside of work boundaries. 

And despite how ridiculous that is in actual practice, we all played along. But then along came a global pandemic, and the charade was up. The fake walls between personal and professional came crashing down, and we realized that humans don’t compartmentalize like that. 

So, the old rules about what’s “work related” and how much a manager should know about an employee’s life outside of work are no longer relevant. It’s time to recalibrate.

If we equip managers and leaders with better relationship skills and give them permission to be compassionate and genuinely care about their employees, they will figure out the right balance.

When we start caring more about employee well-being than we do about managing risk, we’ll finally see the path to unleashing employee potential fully. 

And, if we over-correct a little and care too much, that’s probably not a bad thing. 

Do you agree?

 

Related Reading:

Relationships and Accountability

The #1 Management Imperative for 2021

Work is a Relationship, Not a Contract

Management Needs an Upgrade: The Cultivation Mindset

 

 

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