I included this piece in my newsletter this morning (which you can sign up for here) and it seemed to really resonate with people, so I’m including it here.

I’ve always had a high tolerance for pain, but breaking my collarbone at the end of February really sent me crashing down a mountain. Lying in bed, I got thinking about the emotional side of workplace performance. I don’t have brilliant insights here, just maybe some thoughts that will get you thinking.

Skiing with my family in Vermont, it had been a very good week. My wife and I, skiing together on our next-to-last day on the mountain, went to look for the kids who told us they’d be skiing in the terrain park (where the jumps are). My wife skied down first, then I went. There was a little jump, about a foot high, of the kind I’d jumped many times. But this time would be different.

As I sailed over the jump — slowly because I’m wary of going too fast and flying too far — I looked down and saw, NOT snow, but stairs. WTF? Every other time I took a small jump there was snow on the other side. Not metal stairs. Not dry metal stairs. In mid-air my thought was, “okay, just stay calm, you’ll ski over the stairs back to snow.” Alas, what happened was that I came crashing down on my left shoulder, collarbone splintering into five or six pieces, and lay 20 feet down the hill. I knew right away that things were bad. I knew that my life would be upended for weeks or months. I knew that miserable times lay ahead.

I got up quickly. I was in shock and knew it. I looked up the mountain back at the jump. Freakin’ stairs!! What they hell were they doing there? I was rip-roaring mad! One of my skis was still on the stairs. The dry surface must have grabbed it, preventing me from skiing further down the slope. I retrieved my ski. A few people skied by me. My wife was long gone down the mountain. I was in shock and I was mad as hell and I couldn’t think straight, but I knew I shouldn’t sit down so I just stood there for five or ten minutes in a daze. Finally someone asked if I was okay, and I yelled crazy loud for the whole damn mountain to hear, “NO!” He was nice, said he’d contact the ski patrol.

I’ll spare you the details of the long road to recovery — a recovery not yet complete — but the notable events are that I had badly broken my collarbone, badly sprained my right thumb and mildly sprained my left thumb, couldn’t button my shirts or pants for a while, had to lie in bed in one position or the pain would be too great, watched a ton of Netflix (I highly recommend Seven Seconds!), couldn’t do my work, couldn’t help around the house, got surgery on my collarbone, got pneumonia, went to physical therapy, etc… Enough!

Feeling completely useless, I couldn’t help reflect on the emotional side of learning, development, and workplace performance in general. In L&D, we tend to be helping people who are able to learn and take actions — but maybe not all the people we touch are emotionally present and able. Some are certainly dealing with family crises, personal insecurities, previous job setbacks, and the like. Are we doing enough for them?

I’m not a person prone to depression, but I was clearly down for the count. My ability to do meaningful work was nil. At first it was the pain and the opiates. Later it was the knowledge that I just couldn’t get much work done, that I was unable to keep up with promises I’d made, that I was falling behind. I knew, intellectually, that I just had to wait it out — and this was a great comfort. But still, my inability to think and to work reminded me that as a learning professional I ought to be more empathetic with learners who may be suffering as well.

Usually, dealing with emotional issues of an employee falls to the employee and his or her manager. I used to be a leadership trainer and I don’t remember preparing my learners for how to deal with direct reports who might be emotionally unready to fully engage with work. Fortunately today we are willing to talk about individual differences, but I think we might be forgetting the roller-coaster ride of being human, that we may differ in our emotional readiness on any given day. Managers/supervisors rightly are the best resource for dealing with such issues, but we in L&D might have a role to play as well.

I don’t have answers here. I wish I did. Probably it begins with empathy. We also can help more when we know our learners more — and when we can look them in the eyes. This is tricky business though. We’re not qualified to be therapists and simple solutions like being nice and kind and keeping things positive is not always the answer. We know from the research that challenging people with realistic decision-making challenges is very beneficial. Giving honest feedback on poor performance is beneficial.

We should probably avoid scolding and punishment and reprimands. Competition has been shown to harmful in at least some learning situations. Leaderboards may make emotional issues worse, and generally the limited research suggests they aren’t very useful anyway. But these negative actions are rarely invoked, so we have to look deeper.

I wish I had more wisdom about this. I wish there was research-based evidence I could draw on. I wish I could say more than just be human, empathetic, understanding.

Now that I’m aware of this, I’m going to keep my eyes and ears open to learning more about how we as learning professionals can design learning interventions to be more sensitive to the ups and downs of our fellow travelers.

If you’ve got good ideas, please send them my way or use the LinkedIn Post generated from this to join the discussion.