Ignoring Your Teammates Personal Lives Does More Harm Than Good
When managing a team, we tend to look at what we see in the office. For those of us that are road warriors it’s a bit harder to gauge. Are employees completing their duties—meeting KPIs or delivering on sales targets? Are they working well with others in the team? Are they focused and engaged overall? We can assess this easily; from checking concrete deliverables to observing a person’s input in meetings, workers show what they do (or don’t) have to offer every day.
What about what we don’t see, however? Behind the professional façade, every boss, colleague, and subordinate has a private life, full of its own ups and downs. While there is something to be said for separating the private and professional, it’s also essential to maintain an awareness that a personal sphere outside of the office exists—and may be rife with challenges.
Such challenges can impact employees deeply and influence their performance at work — or even their ability to work at all. If disaster strikes and the team isn’t prepared to rally when one member falls, business operations falter—and the ability to meet monthly, quarterly, or even annual targets may suffer as a result. I speak from experience.
Learning a Hard Lesson: 30 Days That Gave Me a Fresh Perspective on Life & Work
In just 30 days, I came to appreciate my teammates more than ever. On day 1 of that period, my father was rushed to the emergency room; he had a blocked intestine and was admitted for a week. With my father incapacitated, I became the primary caretaker for my grandmother; at 99.5 years of age, she was likewise in failing health and ended up in the ER herself just days later.
On day 21 of those 30 days, my wife went into labor. My still-hospitalized grandmother’s situation was touch-and-go at this point so I said my last goodbyes before rushing to be with my wife. The joy we anticipated when welcoming our baby into the world was quickly dashed when concerns were raised about our infant child’s flagging heart rate. A lifeless grey baby with a cord around its neck is what was delivered. Luckily with the emergency response team our baby was resuscitated. We were one of the lucky ones and only had to stay 7 days in the Natal Intensive Care Unit and got to come home with our beautiful baby girl.
Needless to say, in these 30 days, I essentially disappeared from the workplace. If I had shown up, I would have been more or less useless—unfocused, emotional, and in no state to make smart business decisions. Luckily, my two teams didn’t miss a beat. They stepped up and provided the support needed to keep day-to-day operations running, no questions asked.
Checking the Science: Strictly Separating Work & Life Harms Individuals & Teams
In scenarios like these, it's clear that separating work and life isn't always possible. I had to let my teams know that I was dealing with problems at home and that I couldn't be at work. Admitting this isn't a fault; what’s more, it’s good business sense. A study published in the journal Human Relations analyzed the impact of employees' delineating their private and professional lives. Specifically, the researches examined “cognitive role transitions”.
This term refers to moments when you are engaged in one role (for instance, a work meeting) but mentally focused on another role (for instance, being by an ailing loved one's side). Researchers found such transitions to be a source of stress at the workplace (stress that can then trickle down to others). They further found that persons who tried to strictly separate work and home life required more effort for cognitive role transitions and that their performance suffered as a result.
Building Resilient Teams: Acknowledge the Personal & Prepare for the Fallible
The takeaways are clear: We have no idea what our teammate, boss, or subordinate is going through in life. Thus, we need to be supportive and prepared to step up as needed. We must also provide our corporate structures, from companies as a whole to individual teams, with a system of checks and balances in case of emergencies. In my situation, I was lucky to have redundancies built into my team—just in case of such situations. This is something I strongly advise.
As business leaders, it’s easy to focus on corporate objectives. Don’t forget the teams doing the work so that those objectives can be met, however—and don’t ignore the individuals who make up those teams. By acknowledging that they have private lives and that these are important, you can prepare for the worst when fallible moments occur. This is how strong teams, resilient and reliable, are built—and it’s on the backs of strong teams that strong companies are built.