Trying to Be Careful with Counseling a Direct Report? Ask Madeleine

August 20, 2022 Madeleine Homan Blanchard


Dear Madeleine,

I lead a team of eight employees. One of them is dealing with a personal crisis outside of work and I can see he is struggling. This isn’t the first time I’ve had an employee dealing with crisis, given COVID, but somehow I have managed to get by.

I want to be the compassionate, supportive leader he needs, but I also don’t want to pry too much or blur the lines on our professional relationship. I just don’t have training to be a therapist or counselor and I need clear direction.

Can you help?

Wanting to Up My Game


Dear Wanting to Up My Game,

The problem with managing humans is that they are—well, humans. Being human is complicated and often hard. No one is immune from accidents, illness, addiction, mental health crises, emergencies, or acts of God (Fire! Floods! Earthquakes! Tornadoes!) that happen to them or a loved one. Most employees will have a spouse/partner, children, and/or aging parents who will inevitably need the kind of attention that will bleed into workdays and cause distraction. On my own team of seven we recently had one person whose husband, a police officer, was shot and killed in the line of duty, one person whose mother was in hospice care, one whose brother-in-law died suddenly, and yet another whose brother was in a tragic accident. And the rest of us all had happy distractions—graduations, engagements, weddings. As you can imagine, getting the work done was chaotic and a team effort.

My experience is that as organizations seek efficiencies, teams get leaner and leaner and there is absolutely no wiggle room. People can’t take vacation time because there is no backup for them. Employees can’t afford to get sick, can’t afford for a child to get sick, and don’t have the time to deal with a parent who has fallen and been rushed to the hospital with a broken elbow. So not only are employees stretched to the max with work commitments, any added personal commitments can feel completely overwhelming.

How, as a manager, do you address this?

The first order of business is to get very familiar with whatever support is available to employees through your EAP. I will admit that I don’t pay any attention to all the emails I get from HR about the amazing benefits available to me and my dependents until I need to. This will be true for most people. So the more you know, the quicker you can direct people to the kinds of support that is probably free for them, and the better.

The next step is to build your relationship with your HR Business Partner (HRBP), if you have one. Again, most of us don’t think about them until we need them, but it is literally their job to help you navigate difficult situations and avoid potential legal traps. In my career as a manager, I have lost two employees to cancer and the cases were totally different. One employee wanted to come to work until she literally couldn’t anymore and another wanted to step out of the job right away. In both cases, our HR team was with me every step of the way to offer clarity on short-term and long-term disability insurance, honoring the wishes of the stricken employee as much as possible, and making sure they were properly taken care of all the while juggling the need for backup resources so the work still got done.

Once you know what your options are in terms of where and how to direct people who could use help, you need a clear guide to diplomacy so you can have the hard conversations. There is a fine line between being empathetic, having compassion for someone, and giving them the space they need to take care of a personal issue—and feeling taken advantage of. Here is an article about Leading with Empathy that sheds some light on how to avoid crossing that line.

In Leadership is An Art, Max de Pree said “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” The last thing you want to do is pretend that everything is okay when it isn’t, so ultimately it will be up to you to gather your courage and take the plunge to address the situation head on. For this, I would direct you to our wonderful Conversational Capacity model that urges finding the sweet spot between candor and curiosity.

You don’t mention in your letter just how much your employee’s “struggling” is affecting his performance, so it is important for you to assess your own needs and needs of your team before you have a conversation. You want to be crystal clear on what you hope to achieve by having the conversation. So—what do you want?

  • Do you want to simply extend empathy? Do you want to let your employee know that you have noticed that he is struggling, you can see that he is valiantly trying to cope, and you want him to know you are there for him if he wants to talk?
  • Do you hope your employee will get help? And you want him to know about and take advantage of the support available to him? He might be insulted, but the fact is that it is your job as a manager to make sure that employees know and use their benefits.
  • Do you need to make a request for your employee to get back on track performance-wise? Hard to do without feeling like a monster, but again, reality is reality.
  • Do you think your employee should take time off? Be ready with details on short-term disability options.
  • Something else?

The clearer you are about what you want to achieve going into the conversation, the better off you will be. So, in your case you might plan the conversation like this:

Start with Candor

State your position: This is what I am noticing, this is the impact on your work, this is the impact on the team, this is the impact on our ability to meet our deadlines and commitments, and something needs to be done to address the situation. Focus on what’s true with no judgment or blame.

Explain your thinking: Share the evidence you used to arrive at your position and how you have interpreted that evidence. Keep things strictly evidence-based and not personal. There is no reason you can’t say to your employee exactly what you said in your letter: “I want to be the compassionate, supportive leader [you] need, but I also don’t want to pry too much or blur the lines on our professional relationship.”

Follow with Curiosity

Test your perspective: Ask if there is anything you have missed, if you might have a blind spot, or if there is something you should know.

Inquire into the views of others: Ask if there might be another perspective. Encourage your employee to be truthful and candid without sharing anything that doesn’t need to be shared. Invite ideas on how the situation might realistically be addressed. You might say: “I need your help to brainstorm the best path forward so that you can do what you need to do to take care of yourself and I can do what I need to do to take care of the team and meet our deadlines.”

It may be very hard for your employee to face the reality of his situation and to admit his struggling is affecting his performance. It is possible that the hard conversation will help him face the truth and leave him open to considering options. If he seems to feel exposed, is sensitive and thoughtful, and seems unprepared, you will want to be ready to offer him time to think about his options and come back for another conversation. Take it step by step.

I have been teaching coaching skills for almost 30 years to managers in organizations and I have lost count of the times I have heard the statement: “It sounds like you are asking us to be therapists.”

No. Asking managers to be able to have personal conversations with other humans about the human condition, and their human experience in particular, is simply asking them to be human. Just listening to someone does not constitute therapy. You are not required to offer therapeutic services or counseling. You are required to listen, understand, offer any options and available solutions, and craft a reasonable go-forward plan to best meet the needs of all stakeholders.

Just because people experience emotions when talking about what they are going through doesn’t mean you are now a psychologist. It just means they are having emotions. It took me a long time to remember to always have tissues available in my office, but I finally got that memo. Let’s face it, we are asking our people to bring themselves—their whole selves—to work. This is how we get the passion, the innovation, the commitment, and that magical discretionary energy. We can’t then turn around and ask them to leave parts of themselves at home (or these days, in another part of the house).

And just for the record, you managed to “get by” through COVID, so I would argue that you are already doing something right.

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.


About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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