It happens every time. You occasionally face a problem or challenge so big, so important, so critical that it requires your total focus, and that's when one of your employees is most likely to feel he must talk to you--right now.
Tell me I'm wrong.
(Didn't think so.)
For example, say you own a manufacturing facility. A truckload of parts just arrived. As pallets are getting unloaded, your quality team performs random sample inspections and determines the defect rate is too high.
Normally, you would reject the shipment, but you desperately need the parts to meet a critical ship date for your biggest customer. You can sort in-house, but that means pulling employees off other work so you can go all hands on deck.
Should you eat the cost and suffer delays on other jobs so you can satisfy your biggest customer, or do you reject the shipment and miss that customer's ship date? The clock is ticking, and employees are waiting.
So you sit staring at your desk, knowing you have about 20 minutes to make a decision, and knowing that no matter what you decide, you're kinda screwed. In walks an employee who says, "I really need to talk to you."
Not now, you think, and you automatically start to say, "Can I get with you a little later?" but you look up and see he's really upset.
That pause allows him to keep talking. "I call the babysitter every day at lunch to make sure she gets my son home safe from preschool. But this week our lunch break got moved to a different time, so now that doesn't work. My supervisor won't let me leave the line to make calls, and that means I have to sit and worry for an hour until I go on break..."
Maybe you empathize. Or maybe you think it's pretty silly that he doesn't trust his babysitter (if he feels like he needs to call every day, maybe he needs a new babysitter).
However you feel about his problem, right now you have your own problem to deal with: deciding whether you should eat thousands of dollars in cost or whether you should upset your biggest customer.
And that's when you take a key leadership test: Can you approach the employee's problem as if it was just as important as the problem you face? Because it is: To him, his issue is just as important.
Give his problem the attention and consideration he feels it deserves, and you pass. Assume your issue is more important and brush him aside, and you fail.
To a shop-floor employee, a change in break schedules, an interpersonal problem with team members, not having the proper tools, etc., can seem like major issues. To you, losing a major customer or incurring thousands in additional expense is a major issue.
You have very different points of view, and both of you are right.
Great leaders treat an employee issue, no matter how "small," as a major issue. Great leaders give employee concerns the same attention they give business-critical concerns.
When an employee comes to you with a problem, no matter how minor it may seem to you, to that employee it's a major issue. Whether you can view a problem from the employee's perspective, and not just from your own, is a key leadership test great leaders pass with flying colors.