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Approaching a boss who’s clearly in a personal crisis

Dear J.T. & Dale: It’s clear my boss is going through some kind of personal crisis. He looks terrible and has been very distracted. I asked him if everything was OK and he said, “Sure. Why do you ask?” I didn’t have the courage to get specific, so I just said, “You’ve been quiet lately.” His response was that he was fine and to not worry. But I do worry. Our department can’t afford to make any mistakes right now. I need this job. We’ve had problems in the past and have been told staff changes would be made if it happened again. Should I go to HR? – Lensa

J.T.: I would set a meeting with your boss and come clean. You need to say something like: “I’m saying this because I care about you and this department. I asked you once before and you said nothing was wrong, but clearly something is. What can I do to help? I love this job and want to keep it. I don’t want us to make any more mistakes, and I’m concerned you need some additional help. Please know I’m here to help!” I think if you can convey your sincerity, support and concern, your boss will likely open up a bit more. My guess is that he is feeling the weight of the ultimatum and is just as worried as you are about keeping your jobs. It will be good for him to know you see this as a team effort. It could be just what he needs to turn things around mentally!

DALE: Or it could end up being a dramatic confrontation. After all, Lensa, you go into this believing that it’s a personal crisis affecting him. Let’s think through a couple of other scenarios:

1. Your boss could be on the emotional edge, and your intervention could push him over. He might burst into tears and personal revelation. Perhaps he’s battling disease or addiction, maybe agonizing over a forbidden love.

2. Faced with your insistent questions, your boss could turn resentful and bitterly accuse you of prying. This could lead to a dramatic downturn in the relationship.

So, Lensa, given those unknowns, I’d soften J.T.’s approach and gently focus solely on the workplace issue. Tell your boss that you are troubled by the threats from the higher-ups and you’d like to step up your performance and be of help to him. Come to the meeting with suggestions and you are likely to end up as the sort of ally that every manager loves.

Dear J.T. & Dale: What is the difference between an “executive” and a normal professional? At what point in your career do you get to call yourself an executive? – Arthur

DALE: I love any question that lets us take a look at the origin and evolution of a word – its etymology. For “executive,” the root is “execute,” the Latin “exsequi,” which is “ex” or “out,” combined with “sequi” or “follow;” thus, it’s related to our “follow-up” or “follow-though.” Because early uses were mostly legal, we see “execute” being used for signing documents and, yikes, for capital punishment. As for “executive,” this suggests a person responsible for making sure things get done. However, everyone who works is responsible for executing something, so the definition goes wobbly. That lets us make our own. How about this? Executives are the ones making sure the group carries out the mission of the organization. Said another way, you have these three levels: employees, then managers, then executives.

J.T.: It used to be simpler; in the past, those who made over $100,000 per year or held a leadership role one or two levels from the CEO were seen as executives. That said, I think it’s really up to you. Designating yourself as an executive is something that defines your commitment to your career. People on the executive track tend to be very driven and put a lot of emphasis on their career as a way to define their success as a person. So I suggest you don’t call yourself an executive unless you want all the responsibility that comes with it.

Jeanine “J.T.” Tanner O’Donnell is a professional development specialist and the founder of the consulting firm jtodonnell. Dale Dauten resolves employment and other business disputes as a mediator with Please visit them at, where you can send questions via email, or write to them in care of King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., 15th Floor, New York, NY 10019.