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How to support your staff during personal crises

A little-discussed aspect of leadership is how to support faculty and staff during times of trouble. Here, Helen Norris offers advice for making space and effective communication

Helen Norris's avatar
13 Feb 2024
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Empathetic leadership

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One might assume that senior leaders at universities spend most of their time developing and implementing strategies. As a senior technical leader in higher ed, my experience is that most of our time is spent on people issues. That’s what being a leader is all about – the people. The job means you spend your time developing, coaching and supporting people.   

But here I’d like to focus on something we don’t often talk about: how to effectively support your people during personal crises. This is of interest to me because throughout my career, I’ve had my own personal crises and seen how my leaders have dealt with it, in good and bad ways. I’ve also managed hundreds of people over the years and have supported people through all sorts of crises – family tragedies, devastating illnesses, mental health challenges and divorces. I’ve dealt with this issue as a first-time supervisor and as a senior leader and everything in between.

So, I’ve outlined my tips for supporting your people through a crisis, which I hope will be valuable for everyone, but especially for those new to leadership.  

Be genuine in listening and expressing empathy  

When someone shares a personal struggle with you, take the time to genuinely listen to them. Express sympathy for their situation and offer help and support. I once had a colleague write an email to her boss asking for a day off, sharing that she would be attending the funeral of a family member. Her boss’ one-word reply was: “Approved!” It would have taken another 30 seconds for her boss to add: “I am so sorry for your loss. Please let me know if we can help.”  

Whether it’s in person or via email, communication must be genuine, which of course reflects the critical leadership quality of truly caring about your people. So, be attentive and genuine when they come to you and follow up with them to ensure that they are doing well. Simply reaching out, even via email, to ask how someone is doing goes a long way to making someone feel cared for.  

Provide space 

When a person is in crisis, they will often need space to take care of that crisis, especially if they have to step away from their work. Leaders can take practical actions to make that happen. It’s easy to say: “Take the time you need”, but true support is when you as a leader have designated the appropriate resources to cover the work that must get done in their absence.  

You can also provide space by enabling appropriate flexibility where it works in the environment and helps the employee through a difficult time. This is easier if you already have a culture in place that allows for flexibility, whether it’s the ability to work remotely or to adjust work schedules to accommodate a special situation. So, creating a culture that balances the employee’s needs with the needs of the organisation can make a difference. 

Accountability and clarity  

Not everyone will need or want time off to deal with a crisis; others may prefer to continue working. In the second case, it is vital to be crystal clear about expectations. A good leader makes sure that they and their employee understand what’s expected in terms of attendance and workload.  

A lack of clear communication can frustrate everyone involved. I recall a situation where I had a person on my team who was going through a divorce. I gave him a vague response to “take the time you need”. That resulted in frustration for me, him and his colleagues. It diminished his reputation with his peers at a time when experiencing success in the workplace would have been good for his own self-confidence. A clear conversation to set boundaries and manage expectations would have been a better way to go.  

Respect confidentiality  

Finally, people have a right to privacy. So, when someone shares a struggle with you, treat it as confidential unless they tell you otherwise.  

Also, if the issue requires a person to be absent or change their work schedule, discuss how you will present that information to their colleagues.  

When an individual is more high profile and visible, more transparency might be required. The more high profile the person, the more visible any change in availability will be. For example, several years ago, I suffered a sudden and devastating loss in my family. I decided to share that information widely. As a CIO, I was engaged in many highly visible initiatives across the campus. I needed to take care of the surviving family members, so I knew that my availability and my responsiveness would be severely impacted for a period of time. I also knew that people were worried about me, and that the absence of information was a distraction for my team and my colleagues, so transparency was the best approach.   

In summary, supporting staff through a personal crisis is all about communication and empathy, and works better when you’ve already built an authentic and caring relationship with the individual. With that in place, you can support a staff member through a tough situation in a way that shows caring for them and minimises impact on the organisation.  

Helen Norris is vice-president and chief information officer at Chapman University.  

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