Coming to Leaders with Problems

Key Takeaways:

  • Leaders can get in bad moods when followers go to them with personal problems.
  • But this extraordinary time means more employees might be struggling.
  • Instead, leaders should choose to be supportive and empathetic as much as they can.

We are still grappling with the coronavirus — and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.  The world of work as we know it will be changed in so many ways because of this tragedy.

If you read my last post, you know I wrote about the importance of leaders having empathy toward their followers.  I argued that leaders should always show a bit of compassion, especially in light of the massively extenuating circumstances global social distancing is causing. Today, I want to extend that point. It’s my hope you take what I’m about to share to heart; it could impact your work team in a significant way.

A recent study[1]found that when leaders were asked to help their followers with personal problems, it actually put these leaders in a bad mood.  There were some qualifying conditions, such as it depending on the day of the week, the leader, their level of experience — and it’s interesting to note that this was only the case for helping with personal problems, not task-related problems.

But the main takeaway was that going to your boss with personal problems may not end well for you!

Of course, some might argue that it’s a workplace and you shouldn’t be talking to your boss about personal problems. Under normal circumstances, we could discuss that question (for the record, I’d say employees bring their whole selves with them into their job so at times it’s necessary to talk about personal issues).

But we are not living in normal circumstances right now!

Employees are facing extraordinary personal issues these days due to the challenges of social distancing, working from home, increased family care and the global pandemic itself.  It is completely reasonable to expect employees’ work-life balance to struggle a bit at times due to this.

An empathetic leader is seen positively by followers[2]. Leaders showing compassion during this trying time will be very appreciated by all.

Usually when I write my blog posts, I am a bit descriptive; I talk about a study and describe how humans behave according to the research.  But today, I want to be proscriptive. Instead of me just stating “Leaders are unhappy when you go to them with personal problems” and leaving it at that, I am going to say, “Don’t do what the research says!”

Scientific research only describes general trends; individuals are free to choose to break away from these trends and act as they wish.

Leaders, I urge you to be cognizant of your reactions to your employees when they come to you with problems. Make sure you are being as supportive as possible during this trying time!


[1] Lanaj, K., & Jennings, R. E. (2020). Putting leaders in a bad mood: The affective costs of helping followers with personal problems. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(4), 355–371.

[2] Mortier, A. V., Vlerick, P., & Clays, E. (2016). Authentic leadership and thriving among nurses: The mediating role of empathy. Journal of Nursing Management, 24, 357–365.


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