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Don’t let people issues hold you back as a creative leader.

Photo of Susie Hall
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Being a creative leader is not just about the work anymore. It is about being more than just a boss. As a leader of a creative team, you already have some very important jobs to do:

  • You have to make sure your team has the tools and information to do their work.
  • You have to keep them engaged, challenged, and learning.
  • You have to build a workplace culture in which they can thrive.

While handling HR and people issues was always part of the gig, leaders supporting teams during this pandemic are now faced with addressing major issues that could arise in their staff’s lives, often personal and serious in nature.

Below are tips to finding a balance between being a boss who wants to help and still being a responsible leader. DISCLAIMER: Since every organization has a unique approach to people issues, be sure to discuss any plans with your own leadership and HR teams first.

Create boundaries

Though in today’s virtual work environment it’s nearly impossible to avoid being exposed to your team’s personal lives, be careful with personal information. Handling situations with a “friend hat” on can prevent you from being objective and may create issues for your employee, your company, and for you. As a best practice, keep your inquiries and discussions focused on the work.

When you do hear or see things that concern you, listen and show empathy, but avoid the temptation to try and solve complex issues on the spot. Instead, reach out within your organization and get the assistance you need to support the individuals on your team legally, ethically, and fairly. Having clear boundaries will allow you to respond appropriately and ensure everyone involved knows exactly what to expect.

This approach may seem callous — and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t acknowledge and encourage your staff to bring their whole self to work — but without absolute clarity on what’s expected in your professional roles when it comes to issues, you simply open yourself up to risk as a leader.

Look for change

Changes in behavior or temperament can be a sign that help is needed. Is your top performer suddenly showing up ten minutes late for every call and missing deadlines? Does your most animated team member suddenly spend a lot of time on mute during video calls?

As a leader, you generally know how each of your employees is likely to act based on interactions in your one-on-ones and group meetings. Using that behavior as a baseline, noting changes will alert you to potential issues that your staff may not be raising to you directly. And when you take the time to notice the nuances of their behavior, you create an opportunity to check in and be sure that they are getting what they need. The real question is: Once you’ve discovered those changes, what can you actually do?

Remember your role

There’s nothing more critical than this advice. When you do reach out to staff based on what you see (never based solely on what you suspect), or when they reach out to you for aid, be prepared. Once you’ve been told “I need help,” you are involved — and you have a responsibility as a leader to take action. This is another important time to use empathy since your first reaction might be to think about all the time resolving this issue will take and how that may impact your ability to get work done.

Whether or not the issue disclosed is about work, make sure you approach your response as a leader in the organization. Starting out with words like, “ABC Company cares about you. How can we help?” can remind staff that you have a specific role to play as a manager within the company, which goes beyond just being a supportive ear.

Get help

If you are immediately concerned about what is being disclosed to you, do your best to stop the conversation and get your internal HR team involved right away — maybe even have someone join your live call. However, if the issue isn’t clearly urgent and severe, listen carefully, take notes and resist the urge to offer solutions until you understand the situation and know your options.

Based on what you learn, be sure to involve the right partners and follow the best practices set by your organization. Most companies are in favor of offering the employee time off to handle their issues — so that could be an immediate option for you while you figure out the next steps. If your staff member refuses your offer of assistance, but you remain concerned, you have some decisions to make. If their behavior is impacting work, their safety, or the safety of others, you will need to find a way to resolve the issue.

Remember: As a leader, your job is to support both your staff AND the organization in achieving business goals. Being kind, honest and HUMAN when handling issues is important — just as important as being transparent about the next steps and upfront about your responsibility to work with your organization to figure out the best ways to take care of your employees.

If your company hasn’t specifically offered you training on handling these issues, don’t wait for that. Reach out and ask your manager or your HR team what’s available. The more you know, the more confident and effective you can be as a creative leader when you’re faced with a challenge. And chances are, you will be.


It may seem easier just to go with your gut, but even with the best intentions, you could end up making the situation worse. If any of the above sounds out of character for you, look into resources like “Radical Candor” by Kim Scott or “Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown, both of which address how to have tough conversations and bring your heart with you.

On the bright side, design leaders are by nature in tune with their audience — and they’re trained to consider human behavior to build user-centric experiences that solve difficult problems. Although it might be tough to take a step back and apply that same skill to a challenging people issue, it can be the very skill that illuminates all sides of the situation and leads to a positive outcome.

Make no mistake: Handling people issues is not easy. But by creating boundaries, looking for behavior changes, reaching out to internal partners, and showing empathy in all your interactions, you CAN be a great boss who wants to help AND a responsible leader.

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