NextGen Know-How: Everyone Has a Story

female colleague holding the hands of another employee to show care and support
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence LLC

5 minutes

Take these intentional steps to show care and empathy for employees dealing with “backstage” struggles.

The past month has been challenging for my family. My nine-year-old son has been sick since early August, and we have been visiting many doctors. He has had several medical procedures to determine what is causing his symptoms. After weeks of anxiety and uncertainty, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s, an autoimmune disease. Witnessing his pain and struggle has been very hard, and my compassion for those who have children with even more serious illnesses has deepened. I am grateful that we have the resources and doctors to get him on a path of recovery and to manage this illness long-term.

While all of this was going on, I was running my business, facilitating leadership workshops and coaching executives. I compartmentalized the struggles in my personal life and showed up prepared and engaged with each of my clients, as I always do. But it wasn’t easy to navigate an unexpected personal challenge while doing business as usual. My clients didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. My Facebook and Instagram profiles show the fun, happy moments—our recent vacation to New York, our wedding anniversary (14 years!), sunsets from our time at the beach, and our kids’ first day of school.

Every single one of us has a story. We are human beings living a human experience, and sometimes that experience is tough. Most of what we see are people’s “front stage”—the positive, happy moments that show up on social media. We generally don’t see the “backstage”—the challenges and issues behind the scenes, or the private pain that stays hidden. Your employees may be compartmentalizing and holding it together at work all day, only to go home to deal with their personal struggles at night.

Your employees have a story. No one has a perfect life. Behind the scenes, each of your team members could be dealing with something: an aging parent, a messy divorce, a child leaving for their first year of college, navigating school resources for a child with special needs, an ill spouse or the death of a parent. One of my close friends lost her dad unexpectedly a month ago. She started a new job the week after her dad died, and none of her new colleagues know about her recent loss and the grief she is experiencing.

As leaders, our job isn’t to know all the intimate details of our employees’ lives. Some may not want to share their private struggles. But you can treat each day and each interaction with compassion, understanding and empathy. You can take the time to get to know each of your team members and what is going on behind the scenes if they are open to sharing. Understanding each other deepens the connection, trust and bonds of your team.

Every member has a story, too. That member who came into the branch frustrated and upset about a late fee could be dealing with the death of their spouse. If we can approach each person and each day with the perspective that everyone has something going on, we can embody more compassion and empathy in our daily interactions.

We should also celebrate the happy moments—the birth of a new child or grandchild, a marriage, finishing the college degree, a child’s soccer championship or a cancer remission milestone. When we care about our employees and their personal well-being, we create a culture that embodies love and care.

Take Action on Compassion

Our daily interactions are what make the difference. Simple actions like walking around the office to check in with employees or starting Zoom meetings by asking about a team member’s life can be effective; however, there are also structures you can also put in place that cultivate an environment of connection and compassion.

  1. Start team meetings with a short exercise. Whether in person or virtually, starting your team meetings intentionally can be a great way to create connection with your employees and among your staff. A few of my favorites:
    1. New or Good: What is something new or good that has happened over the past week?
    2. High/Low/Grateful: We do this every night at the dinner table as a family. Each person shares a high of the day, a low for the day and something they are grateful for. I’ve used High/Low/Grateful as an opening exercise with several teams I work with, and it’s amazing how openly people will share a personal win or struggle. For example, on one recent call, a team member shared that his dad was moving into hospice. No one on the team had known this, and it allowed for a deeper conversation and connection to support that team member.
    3. One Word: What is one word that would describe how you are feeling today? This is a great way to take the temperature of how your staff is doing.
  2. Start individual meetings by asking about an employee’s personal life. Get to know your employees and their families and interests. The purpose is to show care and concern, not pry for personal information.
  3. Foster team activities inside and outside of the office. Take time to plan social gatherings where your employees can connect on a personal level, not just about work. Several of my clients hold virtual coffee chats or lunches during work hours where employees can connect without an agenda.
  4. Educate your team about the credit union’s Employee Assistance Program. In a recent leadership program, a participant confided in me that she would like to start therapy for a challenge she has been dealing with, but she couldn’t afford it. I suggested she contact her HR department to see if her credit union offered an EAP. They did, and she was able to start therapy sessions at no cost. Most employees don’t have a true understanding of the value of an EAP. Many individuals have struggled during the pandemic, and an EAP can provide many helpful resources such as webinars, workshops and therapeutic services.

What are ways that you create connection and deepen relationships with your staff? Please share in the comments. If leaders approach their interactions with empathy, compassion and support, the benefits are not only a more engaged and committed team, but a healthy culture of employees who feel valued, appreciated and acknowledged.

Everyone has a story. Take some time today to find out the backstage stories of your team.

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or

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