If you lead for very long, you will find yourself leading when you, members of the team, or the entire team are facing something difficult. Heck, if you are leading now, you’ve had to deal with the pandemic and its fallout. But more specifically, how do you lead when grief is involved? Leading while grieving or through the grieving process is something we likely didn’t think about when we took the job. But when it happens (and it will happen), we must step up to the situation.
Challenges are normal and expected. But emotional losses, like the sorts of catastrophic losses from tornados, a pandemic, a large layoff, or loss of teammates or family members lives present a much bigger challenge – it is these that I want to speak of today. While the specifics of the situation will always impact the leader’s response, here are some specific actions that will help you in leading while grieving:
- Bring your ears. Depending on the source of the grief, you may need to be sharing information and insight. But in most cases more than your words, people will need your ears. Stop talking and start asking questions. You don’t have to always have answers. People need to voice concerns and feelings and you may serve them best by saying nothing at all. Your empathy is the best starting place and sets the table for the rest of these ideas.
- Offer professional help. While not always necessary, consider the possible need for professional help. If you are starting with empathy, you will likely be in a better position to know what additional help and resources some or all the team might need. If needed, provide that support individually and collectively as soon as possible.
- Provide time and space. Some people will need time to process. Allow that space in the work whenever possible. Look for ways to adjust timelines and deadlines. Some will be more mentally and emotionally impacted than others. If that is your situation, look for ways to shift workload in the short term.
- Create a forum. Depending on the event, you may need to provide the chance for the team to process or grieve together. Make sure people know they can do that informally and spontaneously, and perhaps scheduling time for something more formal will help too. Consider having someone less affected (if possible) facilitate the discussion to help create space for everyone.
- Use your heart as well as your head. If you are leading while grieving by leading with empathy, you are off to a good start – but this point goes beyond that. As you look at business and operational decisions, consider timing, capacity, and readiness of your team to engage and succeed. Realize too that one of the best ways to use your heart is to continue to engage the team by getting their input and perspective on the decisions you might face.
- Don’t shoulder it alone. Being a leader can be a very lonely situation – perhaps never more than in these situations. As just mentioned, you don’t have to do it alone. Yes, there are decisions you will need to make and there may be information that you can’t share (or share yet). Even so, the more you let others into your thought process and ask for their perspective (even if you must make the call), the better it will be for the team and the result – in the short and long term.
- Take care of yourself too. You can’t help the team through their grief if you are stuck in the grieving yourself. Too often leaders become so outwardly focused on the event, the team, and the business imperatives that they don’t take care of themselves. Just like the team needs to process and heal, so do you. Make sure you have someone to help you, just as you offer to help the team. Ultimately, you can’t be at your best for others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
While I hope you never are faced with leading through grief, the odds are it will happen. Hopefully these ideas will help you prepare for and be successful during these important and stressful situations.
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