Focus Please!

                 I’ve started and erased this blog several times now.  Usually I can sit down with a topic and whip out a blog post in about twenty minutes that I’m happy with.  I don’t seem to have the focus that I normally have.  So that is now my topic!  I think I know why though – like much of the United States, I’ve been keeping tabs on Hurricane Sandy and its effects on the East Coast.  This type of storm brings up many emotions.  I rode out a Category III hurricane about ten years ago in Virginia so there are the memories of that storm.  No major damage to her house but it was an experience!  My husband and I have many friends that live on the East Coast so we are concerned for their safety.  Lastly, I have the utmost empathy for the people affected by the storm right now due to our experience with the Joplin Tornado last year.  I saw firsthand what massive devastation looks like, as well as the outpouring of humanity and good will from fellow human beings helping each other during a time of need.   Why would I bring this up in a blog that normally centers on leadership thoughts? Because this is the perfect time to talk about how leaders have to deal with people when they are sidetracked.

                I won’t go into the leadership aspects of a catastrophe. I think we all can understand the need for solid leadership during a crisis.  I want to focus on everyone else when they are distracted by personal emotions and issues.  Right now, my mind is thinking of many other things than focusing on my work at hand.  To put it bluntly, that is unacceptable, especially when there is work to be done.  However, as leaders we have to deal with the fact that people are emotional and everyone has their own individual history and issues.  If someone on the team is having a hard time at home, it is likely that struggle will impact his or her performance at work.  Work performance problems will likely spill over and affect other members of the team which just cascades the issue.   

                    This is not an easy line to walk for leaders.  We want to support our people because we care about them but we are all working because it is work.   Many times, people in leadership are looked to for all of the answers – both at work and at home.  I admit, I’ve given advice to people regarding their personal issues because I thought I could help.  Unfortunately, that may not have been the wisest of choices.  Now that I’m a little more seasoned I see two big problems with being overly helpful in that type of situation: 1. I am not a trained counselor.  While I have the best of intentions and may have experienced a similar situation, I need to leave that type of thing to the experts.  2. By offering support that delves into someone’s personal life, there could be an impression of favoritism towards that particular team member which breaks down the trust relationship between the entire group.   We, as leaders, need to get the focus back where it belongs but do it in a supportive manner.  

                  It is silly to expect a leader to ignore the fact that life happens and people need help.  In fact, leaders can have a great impact to help a team member, but it should be in line with the established precedents and policies for the group.  For example, if someone is struggling in their relationship at home, the leader could help him or her get counseling.  The counselor could then deal with the relationship issues, and the leader could support the team member by arranging the time off needed or being more flexible with assignment due dates.  The leader is then supporting that particular team member in ways that are appropriate without damaging the rest of the team.  In this way, the entire team can get their heads back in the game and re-focus on the work at hand.  Now look at this.. I am refocused and feel good about my blog for today!  I still have my concerns but I am also getting my work done – it can happen!   
– Lori Buresh

CEO, The Professional Development Team

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  1. #1 by Ikonographi on October 30, 2012 - 2:06 pm

    Being “in charge” can mean so many different things…I agree that as leaders, we have to measure our responses carefully; no matter how good our intentions, it can be irresponsible (and down right dangerous) to expand our roles into that of surrogate therapist, parent or legal counsel. There are times that one’s position will require that level of involvement…we both know that months out at sea blur the lines between professional and personal accountability for one’s sailors. In a civil environment, the tasks at hand are rarely “life or death”…people have internally constructed partitions that divide their work and private lives, and a leader should respect them. However, I personally feel that one of the greatest ills pervading modern leadership is the lack of personal interest. We have so many “regulated” responses, it is difficult to build a truly cohesive team mentality. I would disagree that allowing the “personal personnel” issues enter your scope will by definition detract from focus-I think that even if a leader cannot or must not intervene at that level, a good leader will recognize their presence and include into their management tool box.

  2. #2 by Noble3 on November 1, 2012 - 11:44 am

    Great points. I’d add #3 to your list of problems associated with being overly helpful. “3. When a leader becomes overly helpful in a particular area, that leader becomes less leader and more follower.” When you spend too much time as a leader (or a teacher) trying to solve someone’s problem for them, you lose focus on the greater task at hand and on the team as a whole. The eventual result is that you lose control of your own destiny as you grow increasingly reactive to the continual flood of issues that present themselves: the truest sense of Overcome By Events.

    To stay ahead, a leader must carve out time to look ahead, plan ahead, and steer. If members of the team are hindered by personal problems, a leader can take some time to address them, but if that time carves into the “vision” part of being a leader, then the whole team will suffer as a result. For me, this is personal because I’m 1-1 as a Dept Head doing this. Sadly, I lost the second time, not the first. It’s an easy trapto get into, and a hard one to get out of, especially as the leadership challenges get harder with time. Best to stay out in the first place.

    • #3 by The Professional Development Team on November 1, 2012 - 2:16 pm

      That is an excellent point Noble. As Josh earlier stated, we need to get to know our people and we have to be able to support them but (and this is a big BUT) we have to balance the leader/follower relationship. I submit it is not possible to be a good or great leader without getting to know people on a personal level, how else can we understand how to motivate and inspire them? However, getting to know someone and involving oursleves in his or her personal issues is beyond getting to know someone. No matter what it is, when we go ‘beyond’ there will be ramifications – sometimes good and sometimes bad. I think we just have to be more cognizant of that fact and respond appropriately to the situation at hand. Like you said, the best response may be to stay out of it at all.

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