On Managing Loss and Grief

For many, this is the time of year when we pause, reflect, and express our gratitude. But this year, we are experiencing significant loss and grief. For some, this grief is complicated.

According to the Mayo Clinic, complicated grief is “an ongoing, heightened state of mourning that keeps you from healing.” Stressors, including social isolation, financial hardships, and myths about the grieving process increase our risk for complicated grief.

And, it’s not necessarily a response to the loss of a loved one. Loss of income, status, or identity; loss of what we considered normalcy; unmet expectations; any significant change or loss can trigger a grief response.

Getting stuck in grief is a very real problem. It can affect you physically, mentally, socially, and professionally. Fortunately, it can be corrected, and even prevented. We need a better understanding about the process of grief, techniques to manage our experience, and the time required for healing.

A Brief Review of Grief

In the late 1960’s, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified the stages of dying which she published in On Death and Dying. In 2005, David Kessler expanded on her hypothesis in their collaborative work, On Grief and Grieving, identifying five stages of grief:

  • Denial: shock and disbelief that the loss has occurred
  • Anger: that someone we love is no longer here
  • Bargaining: all the what-ifs and regrets
  • Depression: sadness from the loss
  • Acceptance: acknowledging the reality of the loss

According to Kessler, the stages “were never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.”  In other words, these five stages “don’t prescribe, they describe.” Have you found this to be true for you?

Although we grieve in our own unique way, we may experience these responses in the process. None of the stages are easy, including the acceptance stage, and we may move through each one more than once throughout our grieving process.

In his newest book, Finding Meaning: the Sixth Stage of Grief (Scribner, 2019), Kessler points to a crucial sixth stage to the healing process: meaning. This is the stage that allows us to transform our grief and find a path forward. Although the grief may never end, it does lessen, and through meaning we can make sense of our grief. We can stay hopeful, strong, resilient, and resistant.

A New Model for Loss and Grief

At some point in our life, we will experience a process of grieving. It may be individual, collective, or even anticipatory. Our grief may lead us to ask, “What’s it really all about, anyway?” Debunking the myths of grief can help us manage the process, for ourselves, and others.

Critics argue that there is no sound scientific basis for Kübler-Ross’s stage theory. Placing expectations on yourself or others about needing to experience stages of grief can be harmful. Grieving is not a sequential, orderly, predictable process across time. It is not a set pattern of specific reactions. Most bereaved people adjust to their loss in their own manner (i.e. not through stages) over the course of time, while others experience some of the described stages.

One thing we do know with certainty is that while there are different patterns of “normal” grieving, experiencing loss can involve complex, fluctuating, emotions. Researchers have found that patterns vary greatly in terms of specific reactions, time-related changes, and duration of acute grieving period.

The Course of Grieving

The aim of theoretical models is to understand (and try to explain) the grieving process, not to be prescriptive about what people have to go through.

There are alternative scientific perspectives that better represent the course of grief and grieving. Chronologically, these include:

  • Trajectories approach (Bonanno, 2004)
  • Cognitive stress theory (Folkman, 2001)
  • Meaning making approach (Neimeyer, 2001)
  • Dual process model (Schut & Stroebe, 1999)
  • New model of grief (Walter, 1996)
  • Task model (Worden, 1982)
  • Two-track model (Rubin, 1981)
  • Psychosocial transition model (Parkes, 1971)

The search for meaning (meaning making approach) is a common response when we encounter loss, face challenges, and work through our grief. For many, it is the best model to understand their grief.

Acceptance: Where the Power Lies

Grief is extremely powerful…there is even more power in acceptance.” – David Kessler

2020 has been a year of change. Sure, we know that life is about impermanence. But the changes many of us have experienced this year have been a real loss, and we are truly grieving. How do we keep moving forward?

While there is no one-size-fits all prescription for the grieving process, we know it takes energy, time, and reflection. Finding meaning in the process fuels our focus, direction, passion and perseverance. Meaning becomes more powerful as it moves from being negative to positive, external to intrinsic, and from self to others. How?

In a Harvard Business Review article (March 2020), Kessler offered four practical tips: 

  • Find balance in the things you’re thinking. Recognize catastrophizing, rumination, denial, anesthetizing, etc.
  • Come into the present. If you haven’t already, practice mindfulness and/or meditation. State a feeling, identify an object, but don’t attach yourself to either. For example, rather than say, “I am angry”, say, “there is anger.”
  • Let go of what you can’t control. Focus on what you can.
  • Stock up on compassion. If you find yourself judging the behavior of someone else, add the word “yet” to the story you are telling yourself about their behavior. For example, “They are taking a huge risk by ___. I have never ___, yet.”

Ask for help when you need it. You’ll know you’ve moved into a state of acceptance when you can acknowledge what has/is happening and take steps to move forward.

Regenerate Your Power

Only you can make meaning for yourself. When you are ready:

  • Practice compassion for self and others: your loss is not a test/lesson, or a gift/blessing, rather, it is a loss. Making meaning is your response to a loss.
  • Allow your meaning to be personal and relative to your unique experience; understanding “why” is not necessary.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to make meaning: months, or even years.
  • Understand that making meaning is not the same as obtaining justice; there will still be loss after meaning is found. But meaningful connections can heal painful memories.

Strengthen Your Workplace Teams

As a leader, what is your strategy to strengthen your workplace teams?

The way we live and work has changed tremendously over the past nine months. In many organizations, this shift occurred in a matter of weeks, if not days. As leaders offered greater flexibility, employees quickly adapted to new demands and learned and improved their skills.

Organizations that have proven to be most resilient moved to or expanded their online capacities and reconfigured their supply chain and delivery options. Simultaneously, they improved their diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes. Their ability to respond quickly has ensured continuity, and in some cases, increased productivity.

But we’re not out of the woods. All leaders and employees will need to continue to strengthen their organization. As McKinsey & Company reported in October 2020, “corporate stress is now at the same point as it was in the 2009 trough, arriving in only months versus two years.”

Employees will look to their leaders to help them adapt, and while some are well-prepared with knowledge, experience, and a leadership style that inspires others to achieve real solutions, many lack what it takes to overcome the challenges ahead. Why?

Sustainability In Times of Crisis

Traditionally, in times of crisis organizations have relied on a conservative, by-the-book leadership style, and as McKinsey writes, three specific attributes of resilience: margin improvement, revenue growth, and optionality (retained additional optional investment opportunities).

But the divisions and polarization that exist today require a vision, strategy, and the social/emotional intelligence to engage all employees and improve workers’ job satisfaction.

According to a September 2020 report by McKinsey, “Because of the connection between happiness at work and overall life satisfaction, improving employee happiness could make a material difference to the world’s 2.1 billion workers. It could also boost profitability and enhance organizational health.”

The Importance of Job Satisfaction Today

According to McKinsey, “When it comes to employee happiness, bosses and supervisors play a bigger role than one might guess.” The relationship between employee and management is the top factor in the employee’s job satisfaction. Furthermore, their research finds that second only to an employee’s own mental health, the relationship with their boss is the “the most determinant of employee’s overall life satisfaction.”

Unfortunately, research also reveals that many people find their boss to be far from ideal. And to be sure, they’ve got a lot on their plate during this time. But for those who describe a very bad/quite bad relationship with their boss, they also reported substantially lower job satisfaction.

When employees are asked, “What would improve your relationship with your boss?” most want their boss to:

  • Listen better
  • Communicate clearly and with transparency
  • Offer encouragement (rather than doubt)
  • Engage with humor
  • Show courage/vulnerability
  • Demonstrate empathy and compassion
  • Be decisive
  • Take responsibility
  • Act humbly
  • Share authority

Unite Your Team  

A manager’s first step to unite a team is to assess and arrest dysfunctional behaviors and patterns. Dysfunction can take the form of selfishness, arrogance, bullying, manipulation, callousness and/or control. Savvy managers are careful not to overlook their star player’s transgressions.

Sure, they may achieve spectacular results, but when they are disrespectful and harsh with others, they create enemies. Those who bend the rules and push the limits of ethics and relationships actually promote destructiveness. This is a recipe for a toxic team.

Toxic Team Prevention

To prevent team toxicity, try this treatment:

  • Set an expectation that change is possible. Set realistic goals.
  • Model personal accountability.
  • Establish codes of conduct that discourage the use of negative language.
  • Offer training, coaching, and performance reviews weighted for positive leadership and emotional/social intelligence.
  • Recognize small wins.
  • Establish an early detection and intervention process for dysfunctional patterns of behavior.
  • Set expectations, goals, and rewards for collaborative efforts.

Change is possible, but it requires a shift in assumptions and engagement. 

Ubuntu at Work

In times of uncertainty, people search for refuge, and often, a group identity. Groups allow us to connect and share in a meaningful, positive purpose. Great leaders understand this, and foster the conditions essential for group effectiveness:

  • Trust among members
  • A sense of group identity
  • A sense of group efficacy

Some of our greatest leaders have embraced Ubuntu to foster trust, unify those they lead, and achieve great efficacy. At its core, Ubuntu is the acknowledgement of our connection to others, our need for community, and our mutual caring for all.

Bill Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company, once shared a quote in from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a Harvard Business Reviewarticle that captures the philosophy of Ubuntu:

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished…”

Leaders who practice these principles in attitude and action, and support those they lead to do the same, can foster a strong team and a clear path forward.

Narcissism at Work

Of all personality types, narcissists run the greatest risk of isolating themselves, especially during moments of success. Because of their independence and aggressiveness, they are constantly looking out for enemies and sometimes become paranoid when stressed.

As a narcissist becomes increasingly self-assured, they act more spontaneously. They feel free of constraints, and ideas flow. A narcissist believes that they’re invincible, which further inspires enthusiasm from their admirer’s and feeds into feelings of grandiosity and overconfidence.

But the adoration narcissists crave can have a corrosive effect. As their personalities expand, they tune out cautionary words and advice.

Motivate a Correction

Not all narcissistic employees, however, are so entrapped by their personalities that they can’t be open to change and willing to learn. Here are a few tips for leaders and managers.

  • Share the principles of Ubuntu or a similar philosophy with all members of your team. Privately talk to your narcissistic employee about narcissism, and the patterns of behavior you are seeing. Document your discussions, and follow-up as indicated. Hold every member of your team accountable for their actions.
  • Assign a trusted mentor. Many narcissists can develop a close relationship with one person, who can act as an anchor and keep them grounded. But this person must be knowledgeable and sensitive enough to manage the relationship (and not be manipulated.) Narcissistic employees rarely trust other insights and views of reality.
  • Offer counseling or executive coaching. Narcissistic employees who become self-reflective are likely to be more open, likable, and better team players. If they can be persuaded to undergo counseling or coaching, they can work through their rage, alienation, and grandiosity. They can keep their strengths and diminish their weaknesses to overcome vital character flaws.