Pre-Grievers vs. Post-Grievers
What’s the adage… “the only thing that stays the same is that things change?” I think it was Heraclitus who originally penned the phrase, “The only constant in life is change.” The very idea makes some folks a little energized and others a little wistful.
When we talk about change in an organizational context, we talk about progress. Organizational change relies on forward movement, and brings with it some optimism (even when it can be hard to find), some hope, some glimpse into a brighter, better tomorrow, regardless of the work it will take to get from here to there.
But not all changes feel “better” all the time. There’s a process we have to go through when something ends and something new begins, and we each go through that process individually, at our own pace, and with our own set of emotions and responses.
Emotional intelligence is such a critical skill because we have to discern where emotions are impacting our interactions with the world around us - regardless of whether they’re our emotions or the emotions of someone else - and how to navigate them effectively.
I often say, emotional intelligence isn’t about being "in touch with your feelings" or crying at sappy movies; rather having emotional intelligence means if you’re planning on attending a sappy movie with another human, you anticipate in advance which of you is likely to cry, and you come equipped with the appropriate number of Kleenex.
Causes of Big Feelings
Sappy movies aside, what else can cause big feelings that manifest in tears?
- Outside of work things that make us cry might be…
- something big: kid graduating and heading off to college; leaving the day-to-day comfort of the work environment to retire; helping your parents downsize from the house they’ve lived in for 60 years; an anticipated move from one location to another, or
- something small: coming to the end of a good book; watching the last episode of a good series; accidentally breaking that coffee mug you got on that family vacation all those years ago; finishing up the last of this year’s Cadbury Crème eggs, or running out of the last carton of eggnog with no more available until Christmas.
- At work things that make us cry might be…
- something big: merger or acquisition activity bringing an end to a working team that has worked together for many years; changing market demand closing down a product or service line; new system replacing a system that we built with our own two hands all those years ago, or
- something small: a team member moving to another team or department; a change in that process we’ve been using pretty effectively for the past several months; the newest release of that software just when we’d gotten used to how the toolbars were laid out.
See how all of those are losses? They all could be part of a bigger change, and that change itself might even be positive or forward-moving. But before we can embrace the joy of progress, we have to allow ourselves (and those around us) the chance to grieve the loss of something we valued.
Pre-Grievers vs. Post-Grievers
Maybe you’ve heard about the difference between pre-grievers and post-grievers. Maybe you haven’t. Let me offer some thoughts here.
- Pre-grievers - these are folks who know that something sad is coming, and they grieve in advance of the sad thing. Think of parents of high school seniors who plod through their senior year, getting misty-eyed at the “last football game”, the “last Christmas break” the “last prom”, “the last band concert”, the “last last day of school”.
- Post-grievers - these are folks who, once the sad thing has happened, grieve after the sad thing. Think of parents of college freshmen who plod through the freshman year, wistfully thinking back to “when we used to go to football games,” “when we used to go to concerts”, “when we used to…”
Many of us have a little bit of both, though I know some full-on pre-grievers as well as some full-on post-grievers.
Here’s why it matters.
If someone you work with is grieving the loss of something (big or small, at work or outside work), it’s possible that their grief is showing up differently than yours.
It’s possible that you’re so excited about the features of this upgrade that the inconvenience of learning the new toolbar layout doesn’t even hit your radar as important.
It may be that you’re so caught up in the anticipated loss of that day-to-day relationship with that special team that you can’t see how that other person can find anything good in this whole merger.
And you might be somewhere in the middle.
Or they might.
The truth of pre-grieving and post-grieving means that our grief can show up before the sad thing happens or after - and sometimes both.
So the application of emotional intelligence here is to anticipate who might wind up grieving the thing and when they might grieve, and then to come equipped with the sensitivity to handle it.
I was once invited to help coach a team in which a group of ten 15+year employees were being led by their new leader into a whole new approach to the way they do their work. The leader was so excited about the opportunities and efficiencies the new approach would offer that she kept talking and talking about how great this future state would be. Every conversation for weeks was about the greatness of the future way of doing things. And all ten of those employees became more and more dejected, more and more frustrated, and with every conversation they had, they became more and more detached from their leader, and less and less willing to move forward with the transition. Finally, in a group coaching session (that felt a bit more like a therapy session, as they sometimes do), one of the employees said, “with all this talk about how great the future state will be, I feel completely devalued. It’s like the contributions I’ve made over the last 15 years have amounted to nothing and simply don’t matter.”
In her exuberance to energize the team towards how great the future state would be, the leader had completely neglected to allow the employees a chance to grieve the loss of what had been.
So what do we do about it?
Here are some tips I’ve found useful when dealing with changes at work.
1 - Figure out who is losing what and how they grieve.
Especially if you’re involved in a significant change at work, make sure you’ve thought through who is going to feel that loss and how they are likely to demonstrate those feelings based on your experience with them in the past. Use your emotional intelligence to discern if the loss will feel big or small, if they’ll likely grieve sooner than later, how their grief might manifest in the workplace; then be prepared - with Kleenex, with a listening ear, with kind words, with patience, with actions and words that will help them process their grief effectively. Don’t forget to include yourself in that list of “who is going to feel loss.”
2 - Acknowledge that letting go of things can be hard.
Don’t assume that everyone grieves the same things or in the same way. Instead, acknowledge that it’s okay to be sad about letting go. Offer a listening ear when someone wants to share their pain. Give someone a chance to grieve, a chance to say goodbye, a chance to express their sorrow so that they can move on. A project manager friend of mine once held a funeral for a project that was shut down mid-flight so that the team could grieve the loss of their months invested in this project and be able to move on to the next thing. Give yourself a little grace if you’re sad, and allow yourself time to grieve.
3 - “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”
The expression has been around since at least the 6th century BC, and it’s still pretty useful. The idea behind it is that it’s best not to criticize or say unkind things about one who is gone. In this context, the application would be that because you don’t know who might be grieving the loss of the thing that’s gone, it would be better to not berate it or bash it, instead allowing for those who will miss it a chance to celebrate what was. Find something nice to say, and if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all about it around those who may be grieving its loss.
4 - Have patience.
You can’t hurry grief, and in an organizational context, the grief window begins with the first tear of the earliest pre-griever, and doesn’t end until the last tear of the latest post-griever. They say major organizational paradigm shifts take seven years to implement. I’m pretty certain a part of this is the grief cycle. We can’t embrace the new until we’ve grieved the loss of the old. And even if the “old” is something you couldn’t wait to get rid of, or something to which you never even gave much thought, there’s likely someone involved in this change who thought about it a lot and who valued it greatly.
What would you add? Join the conversation in the comments below or on social media!