Three Tips for Managing Employees when “Life” Happens

This is different from my normal blog style. A little more personal. Can you hang with me a minute? 

Because I think there are things here that we all need right now. We all suffer loss, and change. 

And if you’re a manager, you’ll certainly have someone on your team face loss. 

Here’s where I’m coming from…

Last month my dad passed away. He was 90 and had lived an incredible life. 

He was a career Air Force pilot with 255 combat missions, a Distinguished Flying Cross, and a 56-year marriage with my mom. He was full of wry wit and zest for life. 

Now suddenly he’s gone. And our family is left with a vacuum.

The loss of an elderly parent probably pales compared to other experiences. The loss of a child or spouse… The loss of a marriage… The loss of health. I can hardly imagine. 

But even in loss, there’s learning.

So, here’s what I’m learning about how loss affects us at work, and how as leaders, we can help others.

Three Tips for Managing Loss in a Work Environment

1. Expressions of condolence matter. Act on that urge.

Flowers, food, notes, texts, emails… all of it is balm for a weary, grieving soul. 

When you’re the sender it can feel insignificant or paltry.  “Will this matter? Am I close enough to this person to reach out?”. 

The answer is yes. It matters.

I was blown away when a company that is a client of mine sent a gorgeous flower arrangement. None of the people at this company knew my dad or know my family. But this cross-over into my personal life was more meaningful than I can explain. I admire this company more than ever now. They truly walk their talk as a culture. Be that kind of company!

2. Grief is exhausting. Give room for rest.

On top of all the things that must be done in the wake of a family member passing (and it’s a LOT), grief all by itself will knock you out for spells. 

So, what do you do?

If you’re the one grieving, give yourself permission for little breaks. Take a rest. Take a walk. Cry. 

If you have a team member going through loss, give them some room to rest. Grant them grace, and pick up some slack until they’re ready to ease more fully into things. This won’t last forever. 

3. Loss forces a transition. Understand the process.

Loss and change are interwoven. Almost any change has an element of loss. Whether it’s a personal change (moving, marriage, career shift) or an organizational change (a new process, a new boss, a new product line) there’s something that is lost or left behind as a result of the change.

William Bridges, a renowned expert in the study of how people and organizations react to change, says transition has three stages: Endings, the Neutral Zone, and New Beginnings.


Kind of surprising, but every new beginning starts with an ending. 

The death of a loved one is an obvious ending. It can elicit shock and denial. Organizational changes can cause this emotional reaction, too. Think mergers, acquisitions and restructuring! 

Even positive transitions begin with endings. My son started college this fall. That’s an exciting beginning. But it starts with a necessary ending (high school, living at home, life as he and we knew it). Before this “ending” things were pretty predictable. There was a routine. Familiar patterns and people made up the fabric of life. Much of that comes to an end.

The Neutral Zone

Here we’ve left the old and familiar, but the new hasn’t taken shape yet. It feels like a murky mire.

This is where we try and figure out our new way of being. What are our roles now? What are new processes and routines? This can be disorienting and distressing – whether you’re a new widow, an employee whose work has been restructured, or a first-semester freshman. 

This is a tough zone to be in. It’s bewildering, and often we’re sad to let go of what we had before. 

As a society we’re in this zone with the global pandemic. Things aren’t what they used to be, and they aren’t yet what they will be. This zone of the unknown can really sap our energy and focus. That’s natural. In fact, some experts have defined our reaction to COVID as grief.

But… it is the necessary path to new beginnings.

New Beginnings

At last, new patterns begin to emerge! We feel a rise in engagement with life and work. Things begin to solidify and we have what’s often called a “new normal.” 

In time we return to high energy and commitment. 

Conclusion: What does this mean for leaders?

As leaders, we’re mindful of progress and productivity. But when the performance of a team member, or a whole team, declines due to loss it can be hard to know how to lead well. Especially if we’re experiencing the same in the zone of the unknown.

Here are a few thoughts…

In our Launch! manager development cohorts, we talk a lot about the importance of balancing the task and the person. We have to attend to both. 

Vector stress management skills icon — Stock Vector

Sometimes operational urgency demands that we lean more on the task side of the continuum. But when the intensity of the moment has passed we need to thank the person (or team) and check on their well-being.

Other times, someone (or a team) suffers a personal loss. Then we need to slide more to the person side of the continuum. We need to acknowledge the loss. Send condolences. Offer help. Give grace. 

In both cases, when normalcy is restored, you’ll have not just their performance but their hearts. That goes a long way to increasing genuine loyalty and engagement. 

What about the happy times?

Acknowledging personal celebrations is important, too. When a team member gets married or has a baby, it’s time for expressions of congratulations! Recognize that even with happy change, they’ll be in the “zone of the unknown” for a little while. 

Here’s the thing…people thrive in work environments that honor humanity. As leaders we need to foster that. We need to acknowledge when episodes of change and loss invade our lives and affect our work.

Create an environment where people’s grief, and celebrations, are honored. You’ll be rewarded with a healthier culture!

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