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The Art of Leading Grieving Employees: Being an Adaptive Leader

The Art of Leading Grieving Employees: Being an Adaptive Leader

Consider the following scenario: A business leader (let’s call him Lou) has been troubled by an employee (let’s call him Joe) whose performance was suffering. Lou noticed that Joe was becoming more and more unreliable—requesting days off without notice, often with just a phone call on the morning he was unable to come in. Joe’s appearance and overall attitude seemed to have slipped as well, causing Lou to become more and more frustrated.  Then, Lou’s team came to see him to share their concerns about Joe. The team members mentioned everything Lou had witnessed, and then some.  Joe was required to be on call in the evenings, and it seemed no matter what time someone on his team called, he was always awake. They suspected that too much partying was the root cause of the drop in performance. While the team did not want to get Joe in trouble, they were concerned about him. They were also feeling the strain of Joe not pulling his weight.

As Lou sought out advice, it became clear that he had fallen into managing-performance mode rather than leading. Like many managers, supervisors, and senior executives, Lou needed to learn how to practice Adaptive Leadership.

Adaptive Leadership is based on five traits that determine the relationship between an employee and the leader:

  • Stewardship is the level of ownership, accountability, and competence demonstrated by the employee. Clearly in Joe’s case, the employee’s level of stewardship over his role has declined.
  • Trust is the belief in the employee’s skills, abilities, integrity, and character.  As a result of the decline in stewardship demonstrated by Joe, Lou’s trust in Joe had declined.
  • Empowerment is the amount of authority a leader is willing to give an employee to determine the how of a task or assignment completion.  Because Joe’s demeanor, appearance, and attitude had all declined, Lou no longer felt he could empower his employee much at all.
  • Collaboration is the level of sharing of information and decision-making authority the employee earns. When the employee demonstrates a high level of performance on the first three traits, the leader can and should collaborate more. In this instance, Lou felt his only recourse was to direct Joe from one task to the next through a performance improvement plan.
  • Communication frequency is the cadence of follow-up, course correction, and approval required. Communication frequency is inversely proportional to the performance of the other four traits. The more an employee demonstrates those attributes, the less frequent the communication cadence required. At this point, Lou felt he had to stay on top of every task. Like he had to give Joe an assignment and then have him check in frequently until completed.

When affected by a loss or emotionally traumatizing event, an employee’s performance will plummet across all five traits and remain low for weeks or even months. As they move through the grief process, the employee’s performance will improve—but rarely in a linear way.

In such instances, managers typically focus on managing the performance, usually through the use of a performance improvement plan (PIP). In contrast, leaders (regardless of their official title) attempt to understand what triggered the employee’s performance issue. Then, with insight and compassion, they focus on adapting their leadership style to help the grieving or traumatized employee continue to excel.

Fortunately, Lou was open to learning to become a better leader– an Adaptive Leader.

First, Lou had to be willing to engage Joe in a non-threatening casual discussion, with full awareness that the conversation would be awkward, emotional, and uncomfortable at times. The goal of this discussion is for the employee to feel safe enough to talk with the leader about what the real issues were.

Lou had the courage to engage in a very caring, yet awkward conversation with Joe, and here is what he found:

  • The reason Joe was calling out without notice: he was suffering from a painful chronic medical condition. He would book a doctor’s appointment based on the doctor’s availability, but when an appointment opened, Joe would jump at the opportunity to be treated.
  • Joe had lost a sibling in a tragic accident, and the first anniversary of the death was approaching. Critical dates such as anniversaries of the loss, wedding anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays will often trigger a person to slip back in the grief healing cycle. This point, combined with the next point, would explain the demeanor and attitude change.
  • Joe had a younger sibling living with an abusive parent and would get called in the middle of the night to intervene or stop the abuse. This explained being awake at all hours of the night.

Lou was beside himself. This employee was not a performance problem. Rather, he was experiencing complex grief triggered by multiple events colliding in his life. Joe was grateful for the discussion. He could finally talk about what was happening in his life and get his circumstances out in the open. Lou made it clear that Joe’s job was not in jeopardy. Quite the opposite was true. Lou and the entire team wanted to help him through this situation. The discussion continued, and arrangements were made that allowed Joe to excel at work while he was grieving.

The change in Joe’s demeanor, attitude, and performance was immediate once Lou made him feel safe and cared about as a person. Today, this employee is performing at an even higher level than before. Joe is more engaged and more productive. As a side note, Lou has also seen a positive change in the rest of the team. Why? Because they now know he cares about them as people and not merely as a means to achieve productivity numbers.

So, here is the point of this story. When an employee’s performance or potential declines, a leader should seek to understand the issues. To understand if emotionally traumatizing events are the cause of the fall, the leader should act with courage and engage the employee on an emotional well-being level, and then be willing to adapt their leadership style. By rebalancing their leadership across the five adaptive leadership traits, a leader can help the grieving employee excel at work.

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by Anthony Casablanca // Anthony Casablanca is the cofounder (with Guy Casablanca) of GriefLeaders, a training and consulting organization devoted to educating leaders on how to help grieving employees excel at work. Anthony is a senior executive with 30-plus years of experience and a proven track record of purpose-driven leadership. He has held several leadership roles with Batesville Casket Company, the world’s largest funeral service products provider, and was named the 2009 Human Resource Executive of the Year for Indiana. Brothers, Guy and Anthony Casablanca are the coauthors of The Dying Art Of Leadership: How Leaders Can Help Grieving Employees Excel at Work. Learn more at

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.