Where Do You Draw The Line Between Professional and Personal Issues?

Recently, a subscriber dropped me a message and shared a challenge that they’re having as a manager. Here is an edited version of their message:

Where does the professional line end and the personal one start? I find myself being presented with team challenges that are personal in nature, such as their relationship or their finances. This can take up a lot of time and whilst it’s clearly personal, there is an element of these topics impacting their work. 

I occasionally wonder if I’m straying outside of being their manager and more towards being their therapist.

– A New Leader Newsletter Subscriber

It’s a challenge that I feel is becoming more common and a really interesting one to talk about. I sent them a reply with a few initial thoughts, but I’ve taken a bit more time to think about their message and decided to write a fuller answer. I’m sure that this situation either is, or will be, a challenge to many of you too.

With such a nuanced and potentially complex situation, I can’t give you an easy checklist or process to follow here. So instead, below are a bunch of ideas that you can utilise to try to get control of this kind of situation and set appropriate boundaries.

One theme that I think transcends all of these, which I want to call out specifically, is that whilst your focus on a manager is on your team, you should absolutely prioritise your own emotional wellbeing and boundaries when managing people. If a team member is getting emotional support from you that helps them a lot, but takes its toll on you, then that’s not okay for you and is something to address and fix.

As we’re advised on planes, and as is true in everyday life, we need to put our own mask on first. This means that we have to look after ourselves as well as others if we’re going to be effective.

Define your own boundaries

Leading directly on from the point above, I’d recommend starting by thinking about your own boundaries for personal topics and issues. Essentially, you’re trying to imagine (or recall) conversations that have strayed into personal issues and then defining the point at which you’ve felt uncomfortable. 

I wouldn’t recommend drawing such a hard line that you’re never prepared to hear anything at all about someone’s life outside of work. Quite the opposite, it can help you (and your team members) a lot to have a bond on non-work topics and interests. 

But you should think about when things have gone a little too far and you’ve felt uncomfortable as a result. Chances are, this is where your boundaries lie.

To give you an example, I’m comfortable letting someone tell me that they’re having a difficult time at home with their partner, but I’m uncomfortable offering direct advice on how to deal with the situation. 

Be prepared to talk about these boundaries

Once you’re clear on where your own boundaries are, you need to share them – otherwise, they’re not meaningful boundaries. 

This means that you’re advocating for yourself and ensuring that you’re not put into a position that feels uncomfortable and therefore, unable to do your job effectively.

You need to do this in a way that is understanding and empathetic of their situation, as opposed to just saying that you absolutely don’t want to hear about certain things. Again, showing empathy and making a personal connection with your team is very important and valuable.

One way to approach this is to listen to them and understand their issue, but to openly admit when you’re not the right person to be helping or advising them. This is an effective, yet empathetic way to establish a boundary. You’re not saying that you don’t want to hear anything at all, but you are advising that they get advice from someone who is in a better position to offer it. You can help them with this, which we’ll talk about later when it comes to signposting. 

Focus on professional solutions

One very tangible way to draw a line between professional and personal problems is to focus very heavily on the types of solutions that you give. It’s almost certainly appropriate for you to steer clear of offering any advice for their personal problems. You can do this by keeping focused on solutions that are applicable to the workplace.

For example, if someone tells you that they’re struggling to focus because of a family issue that is playing on their mind, you can suggest actionable ways for them to try to focus on their work. This could be using a range of deep work techniques to create their own boundaries between work and personal life.

This means that you actively avoid offering solutions that aren’t about their ways of working and the work environment.

Don’t pretend to be a therapist 

This is an important one and not just actionable, but also a clear indicator of where a boundary exists. Unless you’re a professionally qualified therapist, don’t pretend to be one and probably more importantly: don’t let someone treat you like one.

You can partially do this indirectly by setting boundaries as we’ve described above, but I’m also an advocate of clear communication which in this case, means openly saying to someone that you’re not necessarily the best person to advise them on these personal matters.

It may not be a case of directly saying “I’m not a therapist”. Instead, it’s probably a case of pointing out that the issues they’re talking about aren’t ones that you’re qualified or experienced enough to support. Therefore, it’s not your responsibility to offer advice.

Know how to signpost someone for more help

Leading on from the above, admitting that you’re not qualified to help with personal issues, particularly complex ones, you can still offer support in a useful and responsible way by signposting. 

Signposting means that you listen to their problems carefully and then point them in the right direction to seek help and advice. It’s worth having a few resources to hand that cover most difficult personal situations such as relationships, finance, parenting, mental health, addiction etc. 

I keep a note of the Sanctus Directory which is a big list of useful mental health resources in the UK and will cover most situations where I may need to signpost someone to more help. I’m also fortunate that at Aira, we work with Sanctus as a mental health coach, meaning that  can also recommend that they book a session with a coach if I think they could benefit from it.

This allows you to draw clear boundaries as to where your advice starts and stops, but still gives them some help and support, ultimately showing that you do care about them.

Talk about the time that you spend on personal vs. professional matters

If a team member is consistently bringing personal matters into your one on one meetings and you end up spending more time on these than professional matters, it can be a good way to illustrate that there may be a boundary issue. 

Your role as a manager is to develop them professionally and to help them succeed in their jobs. If you feel that you’re struggling to do this because you’re not spending enough time on professional development, then you can talk to them about this imbalance and agree to work on it together. 

One tactical way to approach this is effective one on one meeting agenda setting and using this to outline areas of their professional development. If you’re not getting through this agenda due to the focus on personal issues, it’s quite a clear way to illustrate the problem to them.

Again, you can do this in an empathetic and understanding way. You need to say to them that as much as you want to support them however you can and that you’re happy to talk about when personal issues are impacting work, your job is their professional development and this is where you need to focus your time together.

Do you have a challenge that you’d like some help with? Simply reply to this email with what it is and I’ll get back to you with some advice.

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