Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 50;   December 10, 2008: The Injured Teammate: II

The Injured Teammate: II

by

You're a team lead, and one of the team members is suddenly very ill or has been severely injured. How do you handle it? Here are some suggestions for breaking the news to the team.
Shackleton, Scott and Wilson, of the British Antarctic Expedition 1902

Lieut. E. Shackleton, Capt. R.F. Scott and Dr. E.A. Wilson, of the British Antarctic Expedition, before starting south in Spring 1902. They eventually set a Furthest South record at 82 degrees south latitude that stood until Shackleton's expedition of 1907. On this journey, all three fell ill with scurvy, but Shackleton was the worst afflicted, and became the "injured teammate." However, he and Scott had by that point had interpersonal difficulties, and Scott's management of the situation created by Shackleton's illness, letting his personal feelings dominate his leadership, was a model of what not to do. Scott humiliated Shackleton in various ways, by word and deed, with respect to his illness. When the party of three returned to base, Scott sent Shackleton home early, a year before the rest of the party, using Shackleton's illness as an excuse. Read the story in detail in Roland Huntford's biography of Shackleton, Shackleton. (Order from Amazon.com) Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

You're leading a team of some kind, and one of the team members has been severely injured or or has been stricken with a serious illness. I'll call him Andy. The team doesn't know about it yet, but, everyone knows him personally and when they find out, everyone will feel loss or worry.

In Part I, we explored what to do to prepare before you talk to the team. In this Part II, we look at what to say and how to say it.

Tell the team what you can about Andy's near future
Whatever you say must respect organizational policy and Andy's personal preferences. You might know his condition, and you might know his location and whether he's receiving visitors (he probably isn't yet). If you can, provide an address (or tell them when you will) for those who wish to send cards or good wishes.
You probably don't know when or whether he'll be returning. It's best to say this as, "I don't yet know when Andy will be back." Telling people that you don't know whether he'll be back is probably unhelpful.
Offer team members what they might need
Some team members might benefit from counseling, though this is rare in the case of injury or illness. It probably isn't necessary to offer counseling to everyone, but be attentive to special cases.
Beware: the event might have exposed previously hidden factors. For instance, Andy might be involved in an affair with another team member, who could be severely upset, and who might also be unwilling or unable to visit Andy because of privacy concerns. Private counseling might be desirable for both. Sensitivity on your part is a valuable asset.
Beware the complexity of virtual relationships
Some team members might have close virtual relationships with Andy. They might be thousands of miles away, and perhaps they have never met, but the emotional impact of the event can be every bit as painful and disruptive as if they were co-located.
Contact remote or traveling team members in advance by telephone, and give them the news privately. Don't leave anything in voicemail other than a request for a return call. Ask for confidentiality until you talk to the rest of the team.
It isn't necessary to have a new
plan immediately. Indeed, if you
do, you risk appearing over-eager
to replace the one stricken
Announce that you'll be re-planning the work
It isn't necessary to have a new plan immediately. Indeed, if you do, you risk appearing over-eager to replace Andy. Announce that some assignments might change, and that you might introduce new resources. Estimate a date by which you expect changes, and ask for their patience.
Beware asking for input from the team generally, because resource allocation and scheduling is your job. Consulting some team members is fine, but do so with discretion.

Most important, leave space for team members to talk to the team and to each other. Not everyone will want to, but space is important for those who do. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content  Next Issue

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Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

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The past few years have been hard. Some of us have lost hope. What do you do when you're down so low the only place to go is up?
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When a cell phone goes off in a movie theater, some of us get irritated or even angry. Why has the cell phone become so prominent in public? And why do we have such strong reactions to its use?
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How we cope with problems is a choice. When we choose our coping style, we help determine our ability to address the problems we face. Of eight styles we can identify, only one is universally constructive, and we rarely use it.
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When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
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The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.

See also Emotions at Work and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerComing October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
An owl of undetermined speciesAnd on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

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