What to do when your One-on-Ones get too personal

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

"Uhhhh... that's a bit too personal,” she thought to herself as her team member started sharing a major personal issue they're having.

Her mind turned to the real heart of the question: "what do I do now?”

We all know building rapport is important to strong working relationships with our teams. We need to care about them as individuals and invest in their success to get their best work.

But what do you do if that crosses over to being too personal? What if they're over-sharing into areas you're neither qualified nor comfortable discussing?

too personal makes us uncomfortable

Get outside your comfort zone.

You're not Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, or a trained psychologist. To be a great manager doesn't mean you have to try to be, either.

Yet, in our always on, emailing on nights & weekends world, it's impossible to separate work and personal life completely.

If you were going through a difficult divorce or breakup, had a death in your family, serious money issues, or something else that consumes your mind, you're not always going to be able to completely leave that at home.

Everyone on your team is human. We are all fallible. Life is not all sunshine and rainbows. At some point, someone you manage is going to hit a hard time that will affect them, and their work.

At that time, there's a good chance that if you're a manager they trust, they'll bring something that's "too personal” to you. Here's a good way to approach it.

What to do if your team member gets too personal

You are their manager, not their best friend. And even if you are friends outside of work, you have to wear your leader hat at work.

When your employees get too personal on an issue while you're in the employee-manager relationship, there's a few key things you can do to best handle the situation.

showing you care about your people is okay even if they get too personal

1) Show Empathy.

Your people want to feel heard. That they came to you with this problem is a good thing. It's a sign of a much bigger, positive trend:

getting too personal is bad, but it's very good they come to you.

As Gallup research reported in the chart above, if your people don't feel they can come to you with *any* problem, there is no chance they're engaged. Therefore, the fact that they are coming to you with this issue means you have built enough trust and rapport with them. Bravo.

A little rapport goes a long way.

Even helping them a little with this issue (or simply being a good listener) will make all your work conversations better. If they feel comfortable coming to you with this, they're much more likely to come to you with work issues you need to know about, too. It's a package deal.

your people getting too personal is a good sign as David Marquet knows

Former Capt. David Marquet turned one of the worst submarines in the Navy around in a single year. And one of the key things he did was make sure that he showed he cared about each of his sailors. This combined with a radical form of autonomy and authority, helped his submarine become one of the best in incredible time.

So while you feel a bit uncomfortable as you hear about the issue and squirm in your seat, remember that this is a good thing. Your team member trusts you enough to come to you with something that personal and important. Even better, you now know about a key issue that may be affecting their work and performance in ways that puzzled you before.

Show them a little empathy, and you'll cement that trust going forward for a great working relationship.

if your team gets too personal, take action

2) Redirect to Taking Action.

You are not their therapist, and shouldn't let your one-on-ones become therapy sessions. Instead, redirect the conversation from going deeper and darker into the issue to taking action. Start working together on solutions.

Try to see how they can do something to start helping themselves. You don't want to be a therapist, but you do want to show you care.

Some suggestions to get you thinking:

  • Bad breakup? Tell them to take an early Friday, and use the weekend to get themselves collected. Encourage them to call a friend or family member for support.
  • Death in the family? Make sure they have the money for a flight to attend the funeral. The $500 you give them to take that flight will mean more to them than a bonus 5X the size later. (See also what Google does)
  • Depressed? Encourage them to get professional help like counseling or a therapist. You can also try encouraging them to pursue things they're passionate about and love doing in their free time. Suggest they sign up for a class, attend a meetup, plan a trip they've always wanted to take, etc.
  • Feeling stuck in life? Redirect them to their passions, and suggest steps they can take in and out of work to change things. In work, that may be a new responsibility or project to try. Outside of work, suggest they try a night class, or shake up their routine in some way.

Small acts can mean a lot in these moments. Use these as an opportunity to demonstrate you care about them, while channeling it towards them owning the solution.

when they get too personal small amounts of money and time are your two best solutions

At work, this means the biggest resources you have are time and small amounts of money. As you see in the suggestions above, the simplest acts are often small financial moves (like helping them pay for a flight to a funeral), or being flexible with their work schedule (ie- take a day or afternoon off to collect yourself).

A story: Getting a day off when I needed it most.

Before Lighthouse, I had a high-pressure job in a new city. Two weeks into the job I was just barely getting settled in, and found out my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Then the same week, I got a text from my mother that my father had a heart attack scare. I was a mess.

At work I was distracted and distant. I couldn't focus, but I kept all of this to myself. It was only after a one-on-one conversation with my manager that I finally told him.

Recognizing what was happening, he gave me the next day off, and encouraged me to take the weekend to clear my head and get away from work to focus on everything else. It was a huge help that I did not soon forget.

The actions you encourage your people to take, and small investments you make, can have a huge, meaningful impact for your people. When you take an issue that's too personal and shift from talking deeper and deeper about it, to actions to address it, you redirect energy to positive change.

when its too personal take action and then check back in

3) Check back in

Once you've channeled this "too personal” issue into action, the last thing to do is to check back in.

Now, you're probably feeling a little dread; if what they brought up with you made you feel uncomfortable, then you're not exactly looking to make it a recurring discussion topic.

However, checking in shows you really care. And if you're willing to get out of your comfort zone a little to ask again, they know you really meant it.

The key is to frame how you check in.

Focus on results and outcomes.

Don't ask a vague, open-ended question about the "too personal” problem. That's how you end up back in the uncomfortable part of the conversation.

Instead focus on the actions and positive results. Find out how things turned out, and what's changing going forward. Ask things like:

  • For a death: How was the funeral? What were the best stories you heard about them?
  • For feeling stuck: How did your first class go? What class did you choose?
  • For depression: Where have you planned to go on your trip? What are you most excited to do?

These questions help hold them accountable, and give them an opportunity for a more optimistic outlook. You're focusing on the change and action you discussed, which is a great way for you to show support, without playing therapist.

they come to you with something too personal ? get over it says colin powell

Work Life is messy.

Managing people is never easy. The challenges in the workplace alone are enough to keep any manager busy.

Yet, we're all human. And those factors outside work are bound to impact us, and our team members as well. Remember that the rider can only direct the elephant for so long, so if there's an emotional issue, they must do something about it.

Acknowledging this, and accepting that sometimes your team will have issues outside work that bleed into work, is a key part of great leadership.

While you don't have to, and probably shouldn't play therapist, having a caring, effective approach for when discussions get too personal can make all the difference. If they'll come to you with these problems, they'll come to you with work issues, too, which is crucial to great leadership.

How have you handled situations that get too personal on your team?

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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