Grace Under Fire: How to Handle Departures to Build Team Confidence

It’s the start of 2022, and we’ve been hearing about the Great Resignation for the past six months. A new year often brings people thinking twice about whether they want to stay, and this year, doubly.

For the next few months, we’re going to focus on topics relating to why people quit, how to keep them, and how to hire great people when you do have to replace folks. We’re collecting them on our Attracting, Hiring, and Keeping Great People resources page.

By Jeff Schwaber

February 15, 2022

It starts quietly. A moment of uncertainty at the beginning of a regularly scheduled meeting. The dreaded “hey, can I talk to you later?” from an employee, with no context. It’s the equivalent of a manager sending a meeting invite with the title “Update.” Employees fear those meetings because they know some of them are firings, and managers fear the equivalent, knowing some people are going to quit. It’s a little like, for parents, when the house gets too quiet, and a worried inkling settles into the back of my mind that I’m not going to like what I find.

As a manager, it’s easy to get caught up in that whirlwind of feelings when an employee tells you they’re leaving. “I failed,” you think. “I should have noticed. I should have found a way to get you a bit more money or a more interesting task. I wondered if I wasn’t taking your ongoing conflict with Kevin seriously enough. I wish I hadn’t said that thing last 1:1 about how I hope you never leave.”

Of course, we also have to run the risk calculation of whether it’s worth it trying to get them to stay. Most diving saves don’t work out—you get them a raise or a new role, and they leave anyway, six months later, because fundamentally, they had already gone too far down the path of being done working here.

And then comes the planning. It’s in the nature of management to worry about how others will see this latest event, how they will turn it into a story. Are you leaving for a dream job, or to be closer to family, so I can at least excuse your departure, or will this departure encourage everyone else to start looking around? What story will I tell when people ask? What story will my colleagues assume or believe?

Maybe they’ll look around and connect up several people leaving as a story that they should join by looking for their own new job. Or they can build a story about how they can help hire someone who will teach them something new. Or about how eras shift, priorities change, and this is a chance to move the company in a direction that they are excited about. All of these may well be true, and more! Which one do you want to encourage in them? Which one do you want to connect to and suggest that you’re thinking of?

Back to the main event. Your employee has told you that they’re done, and some part of the storytelling has happened, so you have started to understand why—or at least, their current story of why— they’re leaving. If you’re anything like me, at this point, a bunch of thoughts are clamoring to take over: What actions will I have to take? Who will take over this person’s work while I look for their replacement? How out of date are my hiring and onboarding processes? I have to talk to HR. How backed up are they on recruiting?

The questions continue, each of the process steps that have to be dealt with and challenges in the way of getting back to normal rising in the managerial brain like rocks to be avoided on a road.

The grace you show to one person leaving encourages others to stay

In the midst of your focus on yourself and your problems, don’t forget that this person isn’t just leaving you. They’re leaving the team. There are many options for how you deal with this departure, both 1:1 with people and in public—whether that’s Slack channels or the office. Your team has their own feelings about this person leaving, but they’re also watching you to see how you react and taking cues from that reaction in terms of where the team is headed and what it’ll be like to work with you when other challenges arise. How you communicate and deal with this situation is going to be a highly relevant story in their head of who you are as a manager when they have to decide whether to start looking for themselves. This is a moment where you can lose more people, or your team can slide into a low-motivation/low-effectiveness state, but it’s also a moment when they can pull together and remain effective or even learn from the experience.

Do you hide the departure until the last possible moment? Do you act apologetic about it, as if it were your fault? Do you become angry that they’re leaving and seem spiteful or vengeful? If you’re reading this blog, I hope it’s because you’re someone who doesn’t want to take out your feelings on your team, but it’s often hard not to let them leak through in your behavior. You are allowed to have feelings too! But dealing with those emotions in a healthy way will demonstrate that you’re someone they can trust. Letting them spew all over the place, on the other hand, will destroy psychological safety. It’s your responsibility to be as transparent as you can and to help your team work through their feelings so they can remain effective.

One of my favorite bosses let me in on a secret at his departure party when he was leaving for a new job. “Going away parties aren’t for the person leaving. They’re for the folks who stay.” This is the chance for the team to remember the person, incorporate their contributions into the story, and then, most importantly, get ready for and even begin the next stage. This is when they look around and see each other.

Unfriendly departures, either firings or people who are leaving in a huff, are even more important to manage. While you often can’t have a great going away party for them, you still need to sit with your team and talk to them because they have feelings about the event, the person, their interactions with the team, the worry that the problem that led to this person leaving will continue, or worsen, and a million other things. Perhaps this person was an asshole but was kind to one of your teammates. Perhaps they were incompetent but funny. Perhaps they seemed competent to their team because you were doing a ton of rework to save yourself the trouble of dealing with their work being bad. Your view as a manager isn’t the same as the teammates’ views. They saw their own side of this person, and they’ll have their own feelings about them.

I often liken aspects of management to therapy, social work, or other forms of emotional labor because for people to do great work, they have to bring their best selves, and their emotions about the work often get in the way of that. Great managers inspire, encourage, and support all forms of emotional labor, all interactions with the worker’s story.

So don’t forget how your team feels when you’re caught up in your own worry. They need you to let them have those feelings, to listen, and to help them see the next stage of the team’s evolution and the story of how you get there together. The grace you show when handling one person leaving is part of what encourages the others to stay.

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