Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 49;   December 3, 2008: The Injured Teammate: I

The Injured Teammate: I

by

You're a team lead, and one of the team members is very ill or has been severely injured. How do you handle it? How do you break the news? What does the team need? What do you need?
Rough-toothed dolphin

Rough-toothed dolphin, or mumua, at the Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary on Tutuila, American Samoa. Humans are not the only species that takes care of its sick and injured. This species of dolphin, and many others, have been observed exhibiting caregiving behavior (technical term: epimeletic behavior) when one of their number is injured or dead. They have been observed supporting the sick and injured, and even the dead, to keep them from drowning. Dolphins are also known to look after struggling humans. See Liliane Lodi, "Epimeletic Behavior of Free-Ranging Rough-Toothed Dolphins, Steno Bredanensis, From Brazil," in Marine Mammal Science,Volume 8 Issue 3, Pages 284 - 287, 1992. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

You're leading a team — an executive team, a project team, or a group of some kind. Even if you aren't formally supervising the team members, you are nevertheless responsible for the work they do together.

One of the team members — call him Andy — has been severely injured or has been stricken with a serious illness. His condition is not work-related. His teammates don't know about it yet. Some have worked closely with him for years. Everyone knows him personally and when they hear the news, everyone will feel loss or worry.

A team meeting is scheduled for 10:00 AM. Nearly all will be in the room with you, but one team member is on vacation, one is traveling, and two will be phoning in. It's 9:20, and you just now found out about the injury. What do you do? What do you say?

You do have some responsibilities as team lead, and they do require care. But even more important are your responsibilities as a human being. Here is Part I of some guidelines for dealing with severe injury to or illness of a member of your team, emphasizing preparation before you talk to the team. In Part II, we'll continue with suggestions for the meeting itself.

Follow company procedures
Check with Human Resources to determine exactly what your responsibilities are. Understand clearly what constraints apply, especially with respect to Andy's privacy.
In some rare cases, HR will provide little if any guidance. If that happens to you, use your own discretion. For instance, if Andy faces criminal charges, or if his injury is the result of his own drunk driving, you might want to withhold that information.
Talk to the team members' supervisors
Contact the supervisors of your team members. Some of them might already have spoken to their subordinates. If they have, frame your own message so as to be consistent with what has already been said, if you can. Conflicting messages tend to exacerbate the problem.
If some supervisors haven't yet spoken with their subordinates, explain to them that you intend to do so, explain what you intend to say, and ask them for confidentiality until after your meeting.
You do have some responsibilities
as team lead, and they do require
care. But even more important
are your responsibilities
as a human being.
Consider suspending the work schedule
If you think enough people might be upset enough, consider suspending work, for two reasons. First, compassion requires that you give people some time to deal with their emotions and help each other. Second, the quality of the work done under these conditions is suspect. It's possible that by pressing on, people will do more harm than good.
If you do suspend work, you'll need a schedule adjustment and possibly a budget adjustment. Be certain that sponsors, managers, and business advocates understand this, and enlist their support to make it happen.

Some organizations permit none of this. If the work must go on as if nothing has happened, check the work carefully, and be prepared for rework. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Injured Teammate: II  Next Issue

Reader Comments

Lois Bergstrom
One additional thought on employee retention: there has been a lot of research done around the idea that people take a job for the company and leave a job because of their manager. It would seem then to follow that training managers to be better managers would reduce employee turnover. I can tell you that in my own organization, I support two groups that do very similar work, but turnover in one group is much higher than the other. Since benefits, pay, perks, etc. are identical, one of the clearly differentiating factors is the two different managers.
Keep the good stuff coming!
Rick: Certainly sounds right to me. And sometimes managers who report to different managers get different direction and face different constraints. So even though one seems to do better than the other, the source of the differences can be higher in the organization. In some sense, nearly everyone who gets promoted is a "first-time something" and needs training or mentoring to do that job well.

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