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Karin’s Leadership Articles

No one “forgets” their cancer diagnosis, their sick mother, their midterm exams, their custody battle, their abusive relationship. And yet, one of the most frequently uttered phrases in call centers is to instruct reps to “leave their home burdens at home, they won’t help you serve our customers.”

I get it, but I refuse to say it. The truth is, I don’t believe life works that way. Asking employees to “forget” that they’re a human being with burdens and fears does not help them to be more productive.

Sure, no one calls into a call center to hear someone else’s troubles, and we certainly don’t want suffering translating to bad moods and nasty service. But real connection between leaders and employees (burdens and all) creates richer relationships and yes, better productivity.
I don’t know anyone who’s successfully shoved their burdens down indefinitely and showed up brilliant, energized, and ready to connect full-on.

What If You Could See Their Burdens?

“Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

(maybe… see other options)

My sister, a Speech Pathologist and Director of Rehab in a hospital, uses this short video to reinforce empathy with staff, Empathy, The Human Connection to Patient Care. Anyone who’s ever walked down a hospital hallway with their burdens can relate.

The truth is, this story exists across every organization, in every hallway and in every meeting. If your team members wore their burdens on their sleeves what would they say?

  • What’s the cost of not knowing your team members burdens?
  • How can you understand your employees, without understanding what weighs most heavy in their hearts?
  • What opportunities do you have for a bit more connection and kindness?

Team members may push their concerns down for a minute, but human beings need connection. Sure there’s HR and great Employee Assistance Programs (EAP),” those are necessary, but not sufficient. I’m not suggesting creating co-dependency or assuming parenting roles, just a bit deeper level of listening, empathy, and connected-solutions.

The best opportunity for real connection starts at the team leader level. Begin with connection and understanding, then bring in reinforcements as needed.

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today?


  1. bill holston

    Wow, that’s powerful. I’ll tell you what inspires me, my wife who was undergoing radiation treatment for (all is well now) for breast cancer. Her bosses were ok, but gave her a hard time for missing a meeting, when she was getting over pneumonia during this time.

    I ask myself, do I want to be that kind of leader? I try really hard not to be.
    It seems to me this is the best example of emotional intelligence. Do I know my staff’s moods, and what might be going on in their life.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Bill, Thanks so much. Your wife’s example is exactly what I worry about. I’m glad your wife is doing okay. We’ve had more than our share of breast cancer in our family as well.

  2. David Spell

    No arguments here. When a person’s needs are met, they are then enabled to help meet the needs of others. While the leader may not be the one to meet every need (avoiding co-dependency as you mentioned) they can be good listeners, and they can be flexible in some areas to allow their followers to take care of what needs taking care of. The job still has to be done, but…

    • bill holston

      well put David. Good balance.

    • Karin Hurt

      David… so agree, it really is a balancing act.

  3. Joy Guthrie

    You can try very hard to segment your life; but, eventually parts of your life will leak into one another. I don’t want to be the kind of leader that would lambast an employee for missing a meeting like Bill talks about above. Achieving the balance between bringing your whole self to work and getting the work done is where the sweet spot is. I think everyone has times when they can be in that sweet spot and others where the balance shifts to “focus on work” or “focus on the self.” That’s true for everyone. Really great post Karin, focusing on a topic that is tricky and important at the same time.

  4. Bill Benoist

    As with Bill and David before me, no argument here.

    In reality, there is no work/life balance of 50/50 proportion. Our lives at home are very much integrated into our lives at work, just as our lives at work are part of our life at home. When leaders recognize this and invest compassion and empathy with their employees, the net result is often increased engagement and productivity.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Bill, Thank you… compassion and empathy is such an important “investment.”

  5. Jim Ryan

    Compassionate employers are the best employers. There will always be the few employees who use their troubles as an excuse not to preform. But for every 1 like that there are 10 who suffer quietly and could use some compassion.

    Thanks for sharing this video, perfect timing. I’m in the process of developing a customer service training for my health center and plan to include it.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Jim, Awesome! I’m so glad the video works for you. I thought it was really powerful.

  6. Dallas Tye

    The cost of not knowing your employees well enough will be the angst generated out of the assumption you might make about them ‘slacking off’ or not have their head in the game. Probably out late last night, right, or watching sports too late.

    This situation is a lose – lose for all concerned in the service chain.

    You may not need to know details, but you at least need to know when something is off. Bottom line.

    This negative can be turned into an opportunity of giving the gift of care (but not over-care). Doesn’t have to be over the top, but just enough to show recognition of their situation. This will also build or maintain rapport, and possibly even improve engagement with the org.

    Plus it feels good too, and since emotions spread through a team quite quickly, you want them to be the positive kind. What a beneficial environment for this employee to be while they are in need of positivity.

    Win- win.

    Next,, we just need to support these team leaders!

    • Karin Hurt

      Dallas, Such an important point, without knowing we can make dangerous assumptions. And yes, yes, yes… those team leaders REALLY need support.

  7. Jon Mertz


    This is why empathy is an essential leadership trait and one that makes a leader stronger along with the teams they are engaged with. Empathy is not to be ignored or be used as a sign of weakness in leading. Quite the opposite. When we understand, we can solve, resolve, and move forward in more meaningful, successful ways.


  8. Terri Klass

    This is such an important topic, Karin and one that I constantly hear leaders challenged with. My question is- how much of our personal lives is appropriate to share in the workplace?

    Leaders owe it to their teams to be open about personal challenges because they do impact our work. Empathy is essential to building meaningful relationships. A strong leader will empower others to share and then refocus energy on the job at hand. I have always found that when I delve into an important project, it can help me feel better about the other challenges I may be facing in my personal life.

  9. LaRae Quy

    Very important post, Karin. Well said!

    While it is a fine line on many fronts, the more you know about your team, the better you will understand what motivates them so you can help them move toward peak performance.

    I have found, however, that once you turn on that spigot, it can hard to turn off if a team member is a “needy” type…

  10. Bonnie

    I think it is important that people have the opportunity to talk about some of these issues at work. I think it is dependent on leaders to let people know how to do that. When and how that information is shared can make it easier for employees to share without worrying that their issues will be blasted to the entire company unless they are comfortable with it.

  11. Baz from Oz

    Great subject. Work-life balance is something rarely achieved because everyone has a different perspective. I get frustrated when I feel staff are a little too self-centred (i.e. seek too much time off for various appointments etc) but I know it’s because I am too work-centred.
    In the end it’s a matter of keeping the Goose that produces the golden eggs happy, and everyone is different in that respect.
    The starting point, as always, is communication. You have to know your people and what makes them happy and therefore productive. Bosses so often think that means spending a great deal more money but that isn’t necessarily so.

  12. Lloyd Lopez

    It seems that organizations at time will undermine the well-being of an employee’s work life. It is as important as their well being away from the job. Building relationships and understanding your employees level of well-being can not be underestimated. Think about it. It can also have an impact on our level of well-being.

  13. David Tumbarello

    Lloyd, Baz, Bonnie, LaRae – I truly appreciate your comments. You talk about how communication issues like empathy, sharing, relationships, and valuing each other are complex, especially in the work-place. There is no cookie-cutter answer to these interpersonal issues, especially when the Call Center or any enterprise has its own priorities and goals. I suppose one fundamental & overlooked approach is to have conversations Like This One and through structured and safe discussion, all parties will appreciate the nuances & needs of each other.


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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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