How to manage people when you are sick

by Jason Reid on 03/23/2010

Being a manager is easy. Being a successful manager is extremely difficult. Having a vision and taking care of your employees, while following company policies and delivering measurable results is not something everyone can do well.

I managed a creative group of people across a large country in a challenging competitive environment with stringent hourly and deadly deadlines and was responsible for content on a television network 24-hours a day, seven days a week. I did it all with a painful chronic illness that made me less than my best… well… most of the time actually. Still, I was able to nearly quadruple the output of the news department over five years with few additional resources. I also increased the quality of the product to the extent where we were winning national and international recognition despite our comparatively limited budget.

managing through illness

Managing your ill health and your department at the same time can be a challenge.

So how do you manage your employees when you are going through a period of illness? Well one of the best solutions is to manage well before you get ill. In fact, the secret to managing successfully should allow you to manage almost seamlessly through relative bouts of sickness and health.

Put together a successful team – As managers we are not expected to do it all. We are supposed to manage others and get them to do the bulk of the work for us.  Some managers avoid hiring exceptional and successful employees because of the worry that they’ll become competition. I have always felt that way of thinking was silly. Our employees are there to do their work well and make us managers look good.  If you can do nothing else but find and hire exceptional people you will still be considered a good manager.

This doesn’t have to be overly expensive. Exceptional people aren’t always the ones with the most experience and the highest salary expectations. Find talent that can understand a vision and when you interview them ask questions that will illustrate their ability to judge a situation. If you like what you hear, hire them.

Allow them to work independently – Is your department so process and policy driven that your employees have to ask permission to do anything that deviates in the slightest from the norm? If so your not really a manager but an operator of machinery. Give them some space to think things out themselves. This will help take the pressure off you when you are ill.

Provide a vision – If you provide a consistent vision and articulate it daily you needn’t fear your employees’ decision-making abilities. For instance, my reporters always knew that I was ideally looking for people-oriented stories, told in a very conversational style with bonus points for original angles featuring diversity (visible minorities, aboriginal people, women and people with disabilities).  By being explicit with the vision, my reporters didn’t have to ask me too many questions. They knew if it fell within certain parameters I was bound to like it. They also knew they had the ability to do something outside those parameters if they were truly inspired to do something creative and original. I gave them permission to fail.

Establish a good relationship –  Permission to fail is one of many ways of developing good relationships with your employees. Relationships that will ultimately make it easier for you when you do get sick. Protecting them is another. As manager you should always take responsibility when your employees make a decision.If your employees trust you and feel you have their backs, they will look for an opportunity to do something positive for you when they can.

Be honest (to a point) – If you have one or two leaders in your department who you trust (and why shouldn’t you if  they’re your leaders?) it might benefit you to be honest with them on days when you are not feeling that great. This is a tricky process as you don’t want to get your leaders so concerned they start talking about it with YOUR boss or mentioning it to everyone. But if you’ve done a good job establishing the type of relationship I just spoke about in the previous paragraph, asking the right employee to help run some interference for you on a day you’re not particularly well can help you out immensely.

For quick questions sometimes email is best

Establish a preferred method of communication – for me email was perfect for simple after-hours “what do you think of this?” type of communication for my employees who were working after business hours or on weekends.  In my case, by the time evening rolled around, I had already spent 8-10 hours in the office spending a lot of energy hiding my chronic pain.  I really didn’t want to speak to people at night unless it was something that demanded the personal touch. Being able to text “I love that idea” was a pretty easy solution. I pretty much always texted that – because my team had a vision and already knew what I wanted from them.

So let us review. You’ve hired good people who can work independently. You have provided them with a vision, which means they know pretty much exactly what kind of work you expect of them. You have developed a trusting relationship and provided an excellent work environment – so your employees are looking  for an opportunity to pay you back. You have also set out a preferred way of communication, so they know how the best way to reach you with the minimum amount of effort for you.

A lot of your job is now done. Once the process is set up, you can back off and much of the work still gets finished, and finished well. While you can’t be totally absent from their work lives for months at a time, having a team like this makes it much easier during those days or weeks when you’re barely able to get out of bed, let alone immerse yourself in the details of the multi-armed octopus that is your department. If I could run a national 24/7 news TV network this way and be successful so can you.

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