The death of a loved one is not the only type of devastating loss that leads to grief. Your own company’s initiatives can also be emotionally traumatizing to employees.

When you understand that any significant change to a person’s current reality can trigger grief, it becomes easier to see how company initiatives can trigger the stages of grief in employees. Cost-cutting and “right-sizing” efforts, from reducing benefits to layoffs, are emotionally traumatizing events for your people. Significant changes in job responsibilities can also be a culprit. 

Here is a scenario: Your company has decided to implement a new computer system resulting in a reduction of waste, rebalancing work, changes in job responsibilities, and layoffs. Your boss needs you to “sell” the resulting changes to the team. After the first couple of meetings, you feel the team is not dealing well with the proposed changes. Some people seem to be in denial that the changes will ever transpire. They are saying things like, “We tried this before. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.” Others seem to be angry, telling teammates that they will not adhere to the new system rules, layouts, and responsibilities. Still, others seem to be bargaining with you. They ask for exceptions to be made to the processes to protect certain aspects of the old systems. Others are upset and depressed by the situation. They know layoffs are coming, and they are worried they will be unemployed when the project is implemented. A few seem to have accepted the new processes and are supportive.

To better understand change and change management, you decide to research how people respond to change in the workplace. After a quick Google search, the images that appear on your computer screen all seem to revolve around or contain elements from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief. This surprises you, but as you look at the images and think about your employees, terms begin to overlap and jump out at you, DenialAngerBargainingDepressionAcceptance. You realize that your employees aren’t sabotaging the effort deliberately; they are grieving. The changes that do not seem overwhelming to you are overwhelming and emotionally traumatizing to your people. You realize “selling” is not what is required. Compassion, open and honest communications, and support are what your employees need from their leader.

As is true when dealing with any grieving or emotionally traumatized employee, this situation will require the leader to engage in the grieving process with each employee. Departmental meetings and project information websites filled with answers to frequently asked questions are not going to help. They will only serve to further add to the grief, as employees will interpret these as an even greater lack of engagement by the company and the leader.

Leading people through these times will require the ability to adapt your leadership style to deal with each employee personally and individually. When done well, this approach leads to the building of trust in both the leader and the company. When you engage and acknowledge what a person is feeling and dealing with, employees will feel more emotionally secure. This security then leads to greater loyalty, higher engagement, and higher morale, which will lead to the initiative achieving its full potential.

Here are some tips for leaders dealing with leading employees through emotionally traumatizing change on the job:

  • Recognize the behaviors you are witnessing are likely the stages of grief playing out in the workplace and not only resistance to change or an attempt to sabotage the initiative. Acknowledge and engage in your employees’ grief process.
  • If there are layoffs, make sure your company is doing everything possible to transition those people fairly, graciously, and generously. Every employee is watching to see how the company treats those who leave the organization.
  • Meet with employees individually and engage them in the awkward, emotional, and uncomfortable conversation about what they are feeling. Often, having a discussion with a genuinely compassionate leader who listens and just being heard will help the employee move to acceptance more quickly. Additionally, these discussions will provide you with insights into how best to address the employee’s concerns.
  • Adapt your leadership style to provide coaching and support each employee’s needs. Strive to lead each employee with compassion.
  • Don’t sell. Communicate the positives and negatives openly and honestly. Employees know when a leader is applying spin to the messages.