I am writing this entry two weeks after my older brother, Keith, died. I am finding my ability to focus is diminished, my task completion rate has plummeted and my range of creativity has reduced.
And these things happen to teams, too. The recognition of grief by project managers is a significant source of interpersonal connection.
You probably won’t find that people that are grieving are openly sad, crying or down-trodden at work. However, you may recognize:
- a decrease in conversation, especially in group meetings
- shortened attention span, minds wandering at times
- a desire to commit fully to work, denying the personal loss and taking on more commitments than usual
- team members expressing empathy which is met with flat responses from the grieving team member
- no change at all
So, what does a project manager do when they learn their team members have suffered a loss? I recall speaking with a team member about the loss of her husband. The conversation was as free and natural as if she had misplaced a coupon for lunch. She had processed her grieving and was well beyond any pain she felt discussing his death. There were also cultural implications I did not understand. I said, simply, “I am sorry to hear you lost your husband.” She nodded her head. That was it.
In another work setting, a workplace filled with cutting humor and personal slights, I offered a co-worker a word of support when his wife became ill to which he responded, “you are so full of sh**!” Context matters. I was a visitor to the office and hadn’t built up enough trust points with this person to have him understand my meaning. He thought I was making a joke out of his personal situation.
In a third situation, as our team was developing our project’s funding pitch to our executive board our project sponsor suffered a terrible loss. His wife died in an athletic competition the week before the presentation, leaving him devastated. We all mourned his loss. His charisma and energy had moved the project this far along and was needed, going forward, to sustain interest in the new technology we were proposing. The project was not funded.
In addition to death, people experience grief for a variety of other things which may trigger grieving:
- loss of job
- fear of losing a job
- co-worker lay-offs
- loss of a home due to finances, weather, fire or robbery
- sexual abuse
- awareness of the loss of others through social media
- the loss of a family pet
- a poor performance appraisal
If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) you may benefit from knowing if the person you are speaking to prefers Extraversion (thinking as they speak) or Intraversion (thinking it over BEFORE they speak). The Extraverting speaker will tell you lots of information as it becomes available to their minds, which may seem like rambling, while the Intraverting speaker will respond with a short courtesy such as, “I am fine. Thank you.” But you don’t need to know the person’s type to figure out how to best interact with them.
Go with your gut. Listen. Watch their eyes, their body language. You’ll get all the cues you’ll need to communicate effectively with a grieving team member.
How long is “long enough” for a person to grieve? We project managers expect quick results. If we have said we are sorry for someone’s loss, we’ve checked if off our To-Do List, and somewhere inside us we expect them to be “over it” and ready to move on, right? Back to normal. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz! It just doesn’t work that way. Know that the grieving process takes different amounts of time for different people and may change significantly for the same person depending on the relationship with the deceased and other life events the loss may trigger.
There is no fixed formula or schedule of events. A friend of mine, Doug Thompson, COO of Texas Roadhouse, says that love is spelled T-I-M-E, which plays well for those grieving losses of all types.