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Viewpoint: How to Manage Someone Whose Life Has Been Upended

Editor’s Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

The pandemic marks the first time in a century that the entire planet is going through the same disruption at the same time. For businesses, that means every employee is going through a life transition at the same time. Those transitions range from the loss of a loved one to the loss of income to the loss of child care.

These transitions are so widespread that executives and managers alike have no choice but to step in and try to help. The good news: There is evidence on how to help employees navigate these types of events.

I spent the last five years talking to people about the biggest transitions in their lives. What I learned is that the average adult experiences around three dozen disruptors in the course of their lives: that’s one every 12 to 18 months. These disruptors can be involuntary (a downsizing or a cancer diagnosis) or voluntary (starting a new venture, having a child).

We get through most of these disruptors with relative ease. We adjust, draw on our support networks and move on. But every now and then, one of these disruptors — or more commonly a pileup of two, three or four or them — rises to the level of truly disorienting and destabilizing us. I call these events “lifequakes” because they’re higher on the Richter Scale of consequence and have aftershocks that last for years.

The pandemic represents a massive, collective lifequake. But while this lifequake has been involuntary, the life transition that grows out of it must be voluntary. We must choose to take the steps. A life transition, at its heart, is the period of adjustment, creativity and rebirth that helps one find meaning after a major life upheaval.

So what role do managers play in this process? A hallmark of the first century of management theory was that “personal issues” like lifequakes should be kept separate from “office issues”; “work” and “family” need not mix. When private matters did arise, the advice was often: Take a leave of absence; use your personal days; let us know when you’re back on the job.

That strict separation of church and state had already been eroding in recent years with the influx of more moms into the workplace, more dads into the parenting space, and 24/7 connective technology into every space. The once-airtight membrane that divided work life from family life had already become more porous.

The pandemic has blown that membrane to smithereens. Working remotely, supervising children doing remote learning, even something as relatively minor as finding a quiet space for an uninterrupted call have all forced changes. Issues that were once the sole domain of family are now the undeniable terrain of business.

The bottom line: At exactly the moment your employees most need you, you need a plan to address entire realms of their lives. Here, based on my research, are four pieces of advice you can give to help your team members manage their life transitions in a way that doesn’t upend their work lives.

Start with Transition Superpowers

The most valuable thing a manager can provide someone going through a life transition is a calm, empathic perspective: You will get through this. That posture begins with pointing out that transitions have a clear structure that may not always be apparent to someone just entering one.

Transitions involve three phases. I call them “the long goodbye,” in which you mourn the old you; “the messy middle,” in which you shed habits and create new ones; and “the new beginning,” in which you unveil your fresh self. Each person tends to gravitate to the phase they’re best at (their transition superpower) and bog down in the one they’re weakest at (their transition kryptonite). And most important of all, these phases need not happen in order.

The best advice: Start with your superpower. Since managers tend to know the strengths and weaknesses of their employees, helping them determine where to begin would be a simple and helpful step. Those who excel at navigating emotions might start with the long goodbye; those who excel at blocking out noise and plunging into challenging initiatives might begin with the new beginning; those who excel at spreadsheets or complex tasks might begin with the messy middle.

Rob Adams, for example, was a management consultant from Cincinnati who took over the Simon Pearce glassware company 10 days after the Great Recession hit in 2008. While it took him a year to accept defeat in that job, once he did, he quickly pivoted and moved his family to Africa to run a nonprofit. “Saying goodbye was hard for me,” he said. “But once I was done, I relished the messy middle. I’m a consultant; fixing problems is my expertise.”

Use Rituals to Say Goodbye

The long goodbye has proven to be particularly challenging during the pandemic. Early on, most of us expected we would absorb the impact of the virus, then return to normal. After a while, we realized we weren’t going back. The key to navigating a shift like this is to accept that it’s an emotional experience. I asked hundreds of people the biggest emotion they struggled with in their life transition. Fear was the most popular reaction, followed by sadness and shame. Some people cope with these emotions by writing down their feelings; others plunge into new tasks.

But eight in 10 say they turn to rituals. They held memorial services, got tattoos, visited sweat lodges, purged. Following a brutal year in which she lost her job in Hollywood, had a blowup with her mother, and went on 52 first dates, Lisa Rae Rosenberg jumped out of an airplane. “I had a terrible fear of heights, and I thought, If I can figure this out, I can figure anything out.” A year later she was married with a child.

Managers can play a helpful role in this process by encouraging colleagues to use collective, symbolic gestures or experiences, either with colleagues or not, as a way of making the statement that they’re going a change and are ready for what comes next.

Everyone Profits from Sharing

Many of the tools for navigating transitions are connected to one of the three phases. But one tool has no temporal element at all: It floats, it reoccurs; it happens all the time. It’s sharing your story with others, and it’s one part of a life transition where managers can be most impactful, by welcoming, even encouraging, team members to open up about their challenges.

Human beings like to share. Personal revelation releases soothing chemicals in our brains and activates special systems in our bodies that help us relate better to others. When people relate their most traumatic experiences, their blood pressure, heart rate and other physiological functions rise in the short term, but afterward fall to below where they were before their confessions — and remain there for weeks afterward.

When Dwayne Hayes, while working in publishing in Michigan, returned to work after his wife gave birth to stillborn twins, he hoped to avoid people and bunker down in his cubicle. A colleague whose wife had been pregnant at the same time approached him in the hallway and offered a hug. “It was exactly what I needed,” he said.

My research shows that people respond to different kinds of advice. Around a third of people, like Dwayne Hayes, prefer what I call comforters (I love you; I trust you; you can do it); a quarter prefer nudgers (I love you, but maybe you should try this); while a sixth prefer slappers (I love you, but get over yourself). While encouraging team members to communicate about their transitions can be valuable, don’t make assumptions about the type of feedback they’d like to hear. Ask before you advise.

Priorities Will Change

A life transition is fundamentally a meaning-making exercise. It is an autobiographical occasion, in which we are called on to revise and retell our life stories, adding a new chapter in which we find meaning in our lifequake. The lifequake itself may have been positive or negative, but the story we tell about it has an ending that’s upbeat and forward-looking.

This may be the most important role managers can play. Clearly communicate that everyone is dealing with the same kinds of adjustments; reassure them that minor accommodations in their work schedules are not an existential threat to their jobs; remind them that life is nonlinear and that modest career oscillations, even ones that oblige them to step away for a while, are not permanent and can be altered once the pandemic passes.

Above all, stress to them a truth we all need to be reminded of these days: transitions work. Ninety percent of the people I spoke with got through their difficult time. By being an outlet as well as a source of both wisdom and comfort, you’re not just being a good colleague and friend, you’re also being a good leader.

Bruce Feiler is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including Council of Dads, which inspired the NBC television series, and The Secrets of Happy Families. His latest book is Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2020. All rights reserved.

[Dig deeper on this topic by attending an upcoming Workplace Coaching & Mentoring virtual program.]

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