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Volume 20, Issue 53;   December 30, 2020: Anticipating Absence: Passings

Anticipating Absence: Passings


In times more normal than ours, co-workers who pass on tend to do so one at a time. Disease or accidents rarely strike many co-workers in the same week, month, or year. There are exceptions — 9/11 was one such. This pandemic is another.
A candle

The passing of a well-liked and well-respected co-worker can be upsetting to all who knew him or her. And that passing can be disruptive to the organization — all the more so if the person we lose is a person of influence or an organizational leader. The effects are especially dramatic when the workplace in question carries out what is commonly called knowledge work.

When the people we lose were engaged in "thinking for a living," they're difficult to replace, because we must replace more than just skills and experience. As I've noted in recent posts, we must also replace knowledge about the state of the work, much of which is undocumented and unrecorded. But there's still more. People who think for a living can't think very well when they're grieving the loss of a valued colleague, or when the organization in which they do their thinking is in a state of turmoil.

With time, we can recover. We can gather and share our grief, and help each other heal. Even when we lose several people at once, as many people and organizations did on September 11, 2001, we can come together and help each other heal until with time, we learn to cope with our loss.

A pandemic is different. In a pandemic, losses can arrive
repeatedly, with spacing between
each loss. Every loss kicks off a
new cycle of grief, emotional
turmoil, and organizational chaos
During a pandemic, as in other times, the losses can arrive in numbers, but in a pandemic, losses can also arrive repeatedly, with spacing between each loss. And so every loss kicks off a new cycle of grief, emotional turmoil, and organizational chaos. Just as we're recovering — or beginning to recover — from one loss, another loss arrives. We might be left wondering, "When will this end?" Or perhaps, "Will this ever end?" Knowing that the pandemic will wane soon doesn't help much.

Knowledge workers can't produce much of value in such circumstances.

The effects of the losses we sustain during a pandemic differ in other ways from the effects we experience in normal times. Knowing about these differences enables us to prepare. Below are three examples of these differences. In what follows I refer to the Person who has Passed as "Parker."

Unrecognized defects
Whenever a workgroup loses a valuable team member, and a replacement assumes the responsibilities of the lost team member, there is a risk that defects in the work underway might go unrecognized. But when the work involved is knowledge work, two additional factors conspire to exacerbate this problem.
First, recognizing a defect in knowledge work can be inherently difficult. The required evidence might not become available until additional work reveals it. In some instances, only Parker had the intuition and vision required to see in advance what problems would eventually emerge.
Second, the defect might not be a flaw in something that exists. It might instead be an omission in the work product, or a failure to take advantage of a rare opportunity. And because of a cognitive bias known as absence blindness [Kaufman 2010] [Brenner 2020.3], defects of omission are especially difficult to notice. When we're looking for defects that are inherently difficult to find, absence blindness compounds the problem.
Loss of rivals
One particular difficulty arises for any of Parker's political rivals. And the intensity of the difficulty heightens with the intensity of the rivalry. The Surviving rival — whom I refer to here as Sam — might experience regret or guilt for having had difficult times with Parker. In some cases, Sam might even feel responsible for Parker's illness. This can happen, for example, when Sam has taken steps that caused Parker to take a risk that might have led to Parker's exposure to the virus. An impulsive business trip, for instance. Sam's emotional difficulty can become intense enough to affect for an extended period his ability to work.
Another related form of this difficulty occurs if Parker passes on shortly after an altercation with someone I'll refer to as Shane, a survivor. If Shane doesn't have an opportunity to make amends with Parker before Parker dies, Shane might experience feelings of regret for the altercation — feelings that can endure well past Parker's passing. If Shane's feelings become intense enough, they can affect his ability to work.
Overlapping losses of people of different rank or stature
When someone passes singly, we might conduct a gathering to remember him or her, and to join together in healing. But when people pass away closely spaced in time, we tend to arrange joint gatherings in memory of several people at once. If the interval between losses is short enough, the gatherings might be in memory of people who had greatly differing rank within the organization.
The respective roles of those who have passed might differ sharply in their value to the organization. Some might have been very highly valued by the organization; some less so. But we are all people. Our values as people might differ much less than our values to the organization, one to the next. And to some survivors, those less valued by the organization might be more valued as people.
Joint gatherings in memory of those lost can make these value differences more obvious, which can lead to additional pain for some survivors. We can manage this risk by deferring these gatherings until the pandemic has waned, and then conducting a single gathering for all.
In a few months, maybe sooner, a peak in this pandemic will become evident. The pandemic will begin to fade. As organizations consider ending their work-from-home policies, the desire to return to normalcy will probably bias the decision to return to the office or workplace. But a premature decision to return to work-in-office will only extend the pandemic and add to the losses. Keeping in mind the losses endured might serve to make the return-to-normalcy decision a bit more objective. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Interviews: I  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Kaufman 2010]
Josh Kaufman. The personal MBA: Master the art of business. Penguin, 2010. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Brenner 2020.3]
Richard Brenner. "The Planning Dysfunction Cycle," Point Lookout blog, June 24, 2020. Available here. Back

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