When life intrudes on the workplace

Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that a critical measure of a manager isn't always found in hard metrics, productivity or profit, but in humanity. I've also learned that this humanity often shows itself best when life intrudes on the workplace.

Many years ago, I went through a rather painful divorce (not that there's any other kind), and I was astonished at how my boss handled the situation. His human kindness showed through in how he dealt with me when life intruded on work, and the way he behaved turned out to be not only humane but good for business.

At first I tried to hide my marital problems. Even though I was separated, I didn't tell anyone at work about it. I didn't want people to think of me as unstable or unreliable, although I knew that I was both. Plus, who wants to start telling all their co-workers about what a dirty so-and-so their soon-to-be ex is only to reconcile and then have to sheepishly explain why they were totally wrong about their prior grievances?

At the same time, I was a basket case. I couldn't focus on work, only on the waves of emotion that seemed unstoppable. Anger, fear and sorrow were my ever-present companions, and the petty details of work seemed overwhelmingly unimportant. I couldn't focus on anything but my crumbling personal life.

By the time I realized that I hadn't accomplished a single thing in a month, I decided that I should talk to my boss about what was going on. But I was still reluctant to do it. I was afraid that I'd be fired for my poor productivity or marginalized as a mental case. I imagined the meeting many times. All the scenarios in my head ended with embarrassment, shame and humiliation, and some even included impoverishment.

So, prepared for the worst, I went to my boss's office, slunk inside and shut the door. The conversation started out much like any other one: There was the normal amount of small talk, some observations on the project I was working on, his listening, my fidgeting. Finally, I let out my awful little secret. I explained that I knew that I hadn't been very productive lately and apologized for not telling him about my personal issues sooner. I confessed that I didn't know what to do about it.

Then I shut up and waited for the ax to fall.

But it didn't. There was no "Pull yourself together, man" talk. Instead, he started telling me about his own personal life, about the time that he and his wife had separated and almost gotten divorced. He talked about the challenges of divorce and of reconciliation, of work and home, of planning for a life and then reconstructing it after the plans fall apart. It was most reassuring.

But despite the reassurance, I still waited for the ax to fall.

As the meeting progressed, my boss never brought up the subject of work. He kept the conversation on my life and his. So I turned the conversation to work. Knowing that my attention was elsewhere, I still felt the need to decide what to do about my lack of focus and production.

My boss agreed that we probably should reassess my workload and task assignments. He told me to first worry about my life and to take the time I needed to get things together in that area. He would continue to keep me on the project, but in a less-central role, for now. My critical-path tasks would be reassigned, and new, less-critical ones would be assigned to me. That way, if I was late or my work quality was poor, it wouldn't be as big of an issue.

I walked out of his office in a stunned daze. I hadn't dreamed that he would be so supportive. Of course, I was half suspicious that his kindness would wear off at some point and I'd be out on the street.

But through the long summer, he was true to his word, never intruding on my life, never complaining about my sorry state.

Many times that summer, I wanted to quit, leave town and start a new life, but I didn't. I stayed with the company for many years and went on to head up its West Coast operation. The professionalism and kindness my boss had shown helped keep me at the company, and I like to think that I repaid it well.

Paul Glen is the director of the Developing Technical Leaders program (www.developingtechnicalleaders.com) and author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2002). Contact him at info@paulglen.com.

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