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Handling Grief In The Workplace

January 5th, 2021

Many people in the world are experiencing the loss of someone they know because of the coronavirus pandemic. When that occurs, how do you, as a leader, handle the ensuing grief in your organization? Grief is a challenging and complicated emotion, ranging from denial and bargaining to anger and depression and, finally, acceptance.

Another angle to consider is how you have handled your own grief. Many individuals try to avoid the process of grieving and bury themselves in their work. I was one of those individuals.

When I was working on my master’s, my father, who was my best friend, died around Christmas. After the holidays, classes resumed as well as the plethora of papers due while working on my thesis. I thought I was being myself, showing up to class and doing the work. In May, after class, one of my colleagues said to me, “You’re finally back.” I was baffled and reminded him I had been showing up all along. He said, “Oh, you were physically here, but you weren’t here.”

Here’s the problem when we push aside grief. You think you are being yourself, but you’re not. You can’t see it, but everyone else in the organization can. One of the biggest blind spots any of us will experience is this one, pretending we are being strong when we’re really faking it. When you build up a false persona and try to hold the tsunami of emotions at bay, you become less effective by covering up and denying the loss.

Recently, I started working with a client who fit the profile I just described. He was the principal partner of a firm. I was contacted by one of his partners to coach them as a team. After conducting a 360 review of all the partners, I met with them to go over the results. Each had areas they could focus on in more depth to make changes to improve their leadership. One needed to assert themselves more in meetings and confront direct reports. Another needed to be less dogmatically positioned in their opinion of how something needed to get done and be open to input and ideas from others. The main partner had a completely different outcome.

From the review of others, it was unanimous his behavior as a leader changed about two years ago. I asked him what happened then. He thought for a minute, then said his best friend and partner who helped start the firm had died. Immediately, he brushed it off, saying, “It’s too easy to blame it on that.”

Dealing with grief

Here we see the first stage of dealing with grief: denial. His brush-off was a denial of dealing with his grief. I wasn’t going to let him off the hook. After spending time with this issue, it was clear to him how by not dealing with his grief, he had developed behaviors that were working against him, and the respect for him as a leader lessened. Through our exploration and connecting the dots, he said, “I guess I’m not as strong as I thought I was.” When I asked him to reframe his statement, he had the most wonderful and insightful statement: “I guess being strong is different than I realized.”

It takes an enormous amount of strength to allow yourself to grieve. Because this partner did not deal with his grief, no one else in the firm truly grieved the loss of this friend and partner. The other partners admitted that they, too, had fallen into the façade of business as usual rather than partaking in and supporting the grieving process.

So, what do you do to allow and hold space for grieving a peer or colleague? What are some steps you can take as a leader in the workplace? Below are examples to consider.

1. Talk about them. Talking about the person, recalling memories and sharing them with others is healing. I’ll use the name “Scott” as an example of a person who has passed. Example of how to bring up the topic at work: “Scott used to start the meetings like this, and I miss it. Let’s resurrect his way of beginning our meetings.” In this example, we are keeping Scott alive in our hearts and recalling a fond memory.

Another way to recall a memory of Scott could be: “Scott handled these situations like this, and it kept morale up.” When we talk about Scott in a positive manner, we are allowing ourselves to grieve what he meant to us.

Here is an example of what not to say: “Scott would have done it this way. Why didn’t you do it his way?” Attacking a peer using Scott is displaced anger. It’s important to look at yourself and know where you are in the grieving process. Label the emotions you are experiencing.

2. Check in with your people. If you see an employee’s performance taking a nosedive, check in with them. They could be experiencing depression at the loss of someone. Let them know you noticed a change in their performance, and ask them how they are doing and if they want to talk about it.

These are just a few examples of how to be aware of grief in the workplace and how to address the grief someone may be going through. None of us likes to go through the grieving process, but if it is avoided, the emotions build and build. Performance at work goes down in different ways.

If you are shoving these strong emotions down, your effectiveness as a leader can be adversely affected, and your peers will not know how to bring it up. Being transparent as a leader is a vital characteristic of exemplary leadership.

POST WRITTEN BY Melinda Fouts, Ph.D., of Success Starts With You, is author of Cognitive Enlightenment and an international executive coach.

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