In the world of information technology, we actually have it pretty good. We don’t work around spinning industrial machinery nor do we operate fork-lifts or work out in the hot sun. More or less everyone remains fairly healthy and we generally don’t get injured on the job.
That being said, we do live in the real world and bad things happen to people. When something bad happens to a member of your team or your department, communicating with the rest of the team about what is going on is a critical part of your job. As always, the lawyers often jump in with valid concerns about the revealing of other people’s personal information, etc. Let’s put that aside for right now and make an abstract concept more concrete: lets talk about how you would handle it if a member of your department died.
If it falls on your shoulders to let everyone know what’s going on, then this topic will require more tact, knowledge, and preparation than just about any other discussion you will have. Do it correctly and you’ll be viewed as a sensitive leader. Do it poorly, and you’ll instantly lose the respect of your team.
News of this kind of shocking nature will generate the full range of emotions in your audience. This, somewhat amazingly, includes hostility. The loss of a teammate could cause someone to get angry about having to pick up their work when they feel that they are already overloaded. This may not be a real issue, but instead it is how they start to deal with the loss. This will be the wrong time for you to get into a fight with someone as they are trying to come to terms with what you are saying. Instead, stay professional no matter what and make sure that you stay tuned in to your audience. One way to stay tuned in with your audience is to be sure to maintain eye contact with them. This shows them that you are talking “to them”, not “at them”.
Its the small details that will get remembered. Hopefully it goes without saying that your body language will always be talking louder than your mouth in this case. When you are talking about grief, you need to be sure to choose your words very carefully. In the case of a teammate’s death, saying over and over again that he’s “dead” or “been killed” can be very harsh and jarring. Saying it differently and talking about the “loss” can communicate the same meaning in a more gentle way. Finally, in our multicultural workplace, make sure that you have names correct. Nothing could be more disrespectful than a verbal fumble at this point in time.
We’re lucky because we seem to be able to avoid having to deal with “heavy” topics most of the time. However, when these situations come up, and they always do, being ready to say the right things in the right way can make all the difference in the world.