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Why Leaders Should Consider Grief Rituals in the Workplace

grief rituals

We’ve seen two years of relentless grief caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and the world is now truly shaking as the horrors in Ukraine unfold. The despair and anxiety has been so persistent that there’s a danger we could become numb to it. We constantly look at the news feeds, but we do not feel their horror. They are data, and we remain detached.

This is partly because we have very confused ideas about emotion, including the whole labelling of “positive” and “negative”. The bottom line is that all primary emotions – fear, sadness, anger and joy – are a core part of being human and we block them at our peril. Generally, we’re not very good at emotion in this country. We even have a famous phrase celebrating this: keep a stiff upper lip. This is exactly what most of us do in the workplace. We are conditioned to put on a brave face rather than show our emotions.

But ask yourself this. If people are in touch with their emotions at work, is that such a bad thing? And what is the cost of suppressing emotions?

I know this for certain: a mature leader pauses an important team meeting when it becomes obvious how much stress and anxiety is in the room. If they say words to the effect of “I can sense the anxiety in the room, I myself feel it a lot these days, this is a tough project, so let’s take a moment just to acknowledge how we are feeling”, there is a literal and metaphorical sigh of relief. And the strategic conversation continues with much higher quality thinking. A failure to do so is a sign of a leader who understands very little about human nature, and is detached from their own emotionality.

Last month, ahead of the second anniversary of the first lockdown, a number of charities called for an annual memorial day for all the people who have lost their lives to Covid. It’s an excellent idea – something that would help rid us of the danger of collective numbness – but business leaders can also take a lead on this within their own organisations. One way is to introduce simple – and optional – grief rituals at an appropriate time for employees to acknowledge loss: whether that is Covid, or Ukraine, or something else.

A leader who I coached, the CEO of a major US biotechnology firm, oversaw a Covid grief ritual at her organisation. She made time together where people could acknowledge all the trauma and loss in a simple, ritual way. It was very brave of her, and she expected only a few would participate… but almost everyone participated. Many people thanked her afterwards, and above all the sense of relief and group connection was palpable. It’s one aspect of a new paradigm of leadership I argue for in my new book, Leader as Healer.

We need to break from the chronically imbalanced ways of thinking and functioning that have become the norm in so many organisations, where “doing” eclipses “being”, and hyper-rational, analytical thinking relegates feeling, sensing, intuiting and the transpersonal to the outer fringes of life. A new paradigm is needed where emotions such as empathy, vulnerability and grief are embraced rather than shunned by leaders. Grief rituals are nothing new, either. We already have collective rituals, like Remembrance Day, where people get very moved. My uncle died in a Spitfire in the Second World War and in those two minutes, I usually stand and cry. I welcome the emotion, it softens me and keeps my heart open. We need to have more moments where together we can acknowledge our emotions. This is not to say people should feel compelled to start crying. Rather, by creating a space in the workplace for a very contained ritual to acknowledge loss, they can at least touch the emotions. There’s something very healthy and cleansing about this.

It also has a number of benefits for employee performance. For a start, it helps each individual feel recognised. Many will think: “How great is it to be part of an organisation that does that?”
And sharing a space where people are open to grief and vulnerability enables colleagues to attune to one another, creating an organisational culture in which energy and connection flow freely. In doing so, people are able to show up with more of themselves – it’s only natural they will then perform better.

This is how energy works. When all the tension we use to suppress emotion is relaxed, our bodies deeply settle as that formerly blocked energy is freed. When that can flow, it naturally metabolises into a resource for dynamic individual and group intelligence.

As I argue in Leader as Healer, it is time to awaken from our widespread state of disconnection. And leaders embracing grief rituals is one of the simplest ways we can do this.

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