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Mourning, Management, and Metamorphosis

Grief is generally taboo in the workplace, despite evidence that it erodes performance both short and long term.

Photo: “Reaching” by Ellen Feldman

“Grief should not be locked away, because once you put the sadness in the box, if not dealt with, it will reemerge at the most inopportune times and in far less controllable forms.”

Many of us are grieving in some form today. COVID-19 continues to take our loved ones at a horrifying rate, and has crushed our traditional means of preserving mental balance and cultivating human connections. The virus shifted our roles and power dynamics in our family, community and professional context.

The pandemic is bringing many moments of crude realizations — about our society, politics, and economy.

As 2021 opens, managers who themselves may be grieving must help their team members. When tragedy unmoors us and we drift into the dark seas of grief, the stability, structure, and purpose of work offers a raft that can help carry us back to shore. Companies have a moral and practical obligation to find healthy and productive ways to manage their employees’ grief. How can managers do that?

Understand the stages of grieving.

According to the Kübler-Ross model, when we are first struck with loss, we react to our loss with anger. To alleviate our feelings of helplessness and frustration, we often lash out at external forces: God, fate, the enemy, the opposite political party. Then we wonder what we could have done differently to avoid our misfortune and might promise to do better or differently next time.

Each stage of grief drives a personal transition; a leader’s ability to support a team member in this process can reduce the risk of losing personal identity and avoid severe compartmentalization that prevents growth in the grief.

Take stock of your loss — in whatever form it takes — and its impact.

We all, as humans, instinctively know how to cope with pain and what we need for our own survival. Armed with our instinct, we can decide if we want grief to be a constructive moment of renewal or a circle of self-destruction. Supporting renewal in ourselves and then others requires a deep and honest process of self-reflection and introspective questions, such as:

1. Reflect on the impact of your team and company culture.

Workplaces that promote cultures, even identities, of urgency and hardiness are particularly likely to avoid genuine confrontations with grief. For example, invisible injuries have long been disregarded in the military, either as personal weakness or corporate inconvenience. This derision is underwritten by the secret fear that we are not as immune to grief as we like to think. We desperately hope that if we can quarantine the leprosy of grief, we can save the herd, and ourselves.

2. Make it discussable and share your pain.

Managers may be tempted to hide their own grief, out of the belief that they need to keep it together for their employees, but shared grief can be a powerful tool of empathetic leadership. When we expose our grief we free others to open up about their own struggles; just feeling accepted, supported, and heard can help people start to feel better, and reconnect with work. We must give voice to sorrow; the grief that does not speak will break us.

3. Give yourself and your teams the room to grieve in the way they choose.

In The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, Auschwitz survivor Dr. Edith Eger argues that we cannot heal what we cannot feel. Despite this, many of us battle grief with busyness and distraction, confusing numbness with healing. This reduces our ability to emote and to listen to others in pain. We deprive ourselves of feeling. When we are always on, we keep the body in the fight, flight, or freeze mode and make it impossible to start to feel secure enough to embrace change.

4. Use this moment to build resilience and enable transformation.

Sports and the military expose individuals to the transformation that some of us are struggling with — role and identity changes — to create mental models on how to deal with danger and pressure and extend our challenge threshold. For example, the military on-boards civilians and creates Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen through a crucible experience — bootcamp — designed to put trainees under an immense amount of stress.

5. A collective response to a collective tragedy: after acknowledging and processing comes a time for healing. This is our time.

A certain strength can be found and promoted in response to tragedy, for example rallying in response to an attack. A unit going through combat together can genuinely share both the tragedy and the concomitant grief. However, despite the fact that 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, it remains a cruelly individual experience for most. A death in the family feels somehow private and coworkers can mentally isolate the grief to those immediately related to the event, even if that event is repeated millions of times across a community.

When COVID-19 is presented as an individual experience and not a shared tragedy, the grief it creates feels like a thousand pebbles, slowly piled around the afflicted. But COVID-19 also provides individual and teams a crucible moment, which could help transform their capacity for ingenuity, empathy, and resilience.

Compassion, compartmentalization, and patience should encourage managers to create space, provide time, and invest in resources to help their teams work through grief and loss — emerging stronger on the other side.

About the Authors

Dr. Hise O. Gibson is an Academy Professor of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with a B.S. in Operations Research from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a Doctorate of Business Administration in Technology and Operations Management from Harvard Business School. His expertise is the intersection of operational effectiveness and human capital development to enable more effective ways to maximize the integration of Technology, People, and Processes throughout an organization.

Passionate about encouraging human sustainability and equal access at work. Collector and connector of people and ideas.