The days of domineering and aloof managers are gone. In today’s workplace, managers must be available, good listeners and attentive to their teams. Even if your interpersonal skills are faultless, however, showing you care without crossing the line can sometimes be tricky. Whereas some people might perceive your attention as thoughtful, others might see it as a violation of their privacy. As the old saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” To keep from getting burned, here are a few tips to help you to come across as caring rather than just plain nosey.
The importance of setting healthy boundaries
Boundaries at work are often thought of in a physical sense, such as an unexpected hand on your shoulder, an invasion of personal space or an inappropriate gesture. But psychological and emotional boundaries are just as important. That’s when someone asks highly personal questions, discusses a touchy subject or invites others to share feelings they would prefer to keep to themselves. It might simply be a case of oversharing with an unwitting colleague. Allison Bottke, author of Setting Boundaries with Negative Thoughts and Painful Memories writes, “Psychological boundaries protect our sense of identity and self-esteem, and…enable us to separate our feelings from the feelings of others.”
An increasing number of companies, meanwhile, are fostering closer relations with a more relaxed atmosphere, less formal dress codes and after-work events. The pandemic has made working from home a necessity for many. This has blurred the lines between home and office, private and professional life, even further.
With management, there’s a fine line between supportive and intrusive—and it’s getting even finer. For example, is it considerate or condescending to say you’ll call back an employee whose toddler is wailing in the background? Would it be inappropriate or thoughtful if you extended your employee’s deadline because their spouse has been off sick? What about playfully inviting your employees to show their home office during a team meeting? Is that fun and light-hearted or creepy and invasive?
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6 tips for finding a happy medium
The recent health crisis has put employee wellbeing centre stage. Perhaps more than ever before, managers must focus on this aspect of their teams as much as overall productivity. “This crisis will leave a positive mark on management, especially because we’ve become more empathetic while advocating a management style that promotes autonomy, responsibility, creativity, intuition and agility,” according to Fabienne Chaboche, HR performance director at the French Red Cross, in a study published on Cairn Info. But how do you become a more empathetic manager without being intrusive?
1. Analyse the corporate culture
Is your office a sea of ties and private offices? Or is it more of a trainers and hot desking kind of place? Corporate culture is normally a good indication of how to be supportive but not invasive. In friendly and casual workplace environments, teams will likely expect closer relationships with managers. In more formal environments, your employees will expect you to be more reserved.
2. Be authentic
Each manager has their own style and way of communicating. Forcing yourself to be something you aren’t can be exhausting—and it’s not recommended even if you could pull it off. Share with your team what you see as supportive and what you see as inappropriate behaviour. Being upfront about boundaries not only invites others to do the same but also lets your employees know what to expect from you.
3. Adapt your style to each individual
Look for clues to understand the needs of each employee in terms of boundaries. Someone who appears to be quite private and stays away from company events may find questions about their personal life particularly intrusive. Even asking them where they live could make them uncomfortable. By contrast, if an employee puts family photos all over their desk, they might be offended if you don’t ever ask them about their children.
4. Regularly challenge yourself
When you’re above someone in the workplace hierarchy, they aren’t likely to be completely honest with you—even more so in uncertain times. In a report by the Today show, Andrew Shatte, the co-founder of meQuilibrium, said: “At a time of great financial uncertainty, people are worried about losing their jobs. As many of us are working remotely, we’re worried about being seen as lazy, unmotivated and uncommitted if we’re not available 24/7.” If an employee feels that you are being overly intrusive, they probably won’t tell you.
5. Go back to the source
The best solutions are often the simplest. To ensure you are supportive in the best way possible, get input directly from the people you manage. That way, you can avoid making assumptions and really learn what others expect of you. For example, use one-to-ones to make your management approach and philosophy clear. Then open the discussion to what your employee considers supportive or intrusive.
6. Get help from HR
If an employee is struggling and seems reluctant to open up, HR can step in. As you are the manager, it may be easier for them to discuss any problems with someone whose position is more neutral. What’s more, HR has the resources and experience to deal with these types of issues.
Today managers are there to do much more than simply give orders. It’s your responsibility to ensure that team members are happy and healthy too. In the same Cairn Info study, Caroline Diard, a research professor in HR management and law, said: “As we emerge from the crisis, our relationship to work will move towards greater autonomy, results-based management, increased trust and reduced control. The unprecedented experiment in obligatory remote working will change management styles. Our managers will never be the same again.”
Translated by Andrea Schwam
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