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Leading an Exhausted Workforce

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Have your customers been unusually irritable lately? Are people taking forever to respond to e-mails? Are friends and colleagues making surprising life changes? Have you lost focus during important conversations?

All of these behaviors, different as they may be, are responses to the overwhelming circumstances people are facing as we move into the third year of the pandemic. Nearly everyone has lost someone or something — a job, a relationship, their peace of mind. Any hopes for a clear, definitive end to the pandemic are dashed. We are post-emergency, but still in crisis.

Leaders aren’t therapists and shouldn’t try to be. But people are coping with collective grief and trauma on a global scale, which means leaders have to learn and exercise new skills. There are steps you can take to foster healthy coping mechanisms and discourage unhealthy ones; help ward off some of the typical mistakes that people make under pressure; and ensure you don’t cause additional anxiety on top of what people are already dealing with.

Be a Role Model

Self-care is not a luxury: It’s essential. If you’re tense, irritable, withdrawn, or volatile, your team may suffer similarly. If your view of reality is warped by denial, delusion, or us-and-them thinking, your team’s ability to take effective action is severely curtailed. If you act out in harmful ways or make rash, inconsistent decisions, you will destroy trust and morale.

Bring your humanity front and center. Be a role model for managing inevitable human imperfection with mental flexibility, emotional openness, and healthy habits.

Mental flexibility

In a time of crisis, there is a greater need for mental acuity, as new information is constantly coming in and circumstances constantly changing. Yet this acuity is harder to achieve when you’re facing stress, trauma, and fatigue, which create mental fog and a kind of cognitive tunnel vision. Keep those mental muscles limber!

At work, make a regular habit of asking for input and admitting what you don’t know. Normalize and destigmatize admitting mistakes. Acknowledge conflicting impulses and values, make it OK to change your mind when new information comes in, and apologize without embarrassment when you need to.

At home, consider a personal practice to get yourself out of mental ruts. Spending time in nature, journaling, starting a new hobby, meditation — anything that uses different muscles in the brain and creates an opportunity for reflection.

Emotional openness

Acknowledge when you’re having a hard time, or if you’re not at the top of your game. There is a balance to be struck: A leader cannot share every passing doubt and fear. More importantly, it’s better not to lean on team members for emotional reassurance. It is not their responsibility to tell you everything will be all right, or to flatter your ego. But your more tuned-in team members can already tell when you’re having a bad day — you may as well admit it, so that they’ll know you know, and everyone can make the appropriate adjustments.

Healthy behaviors

Ideally, you have social/emotional support outside the office — a spouse, friends, therapist, religious leader, or even a “personal board of directors.” Check in with these folks regularly! And take care of yourself in all the simple, basic ways: sleep, exercise, nutrition, hydration, mental downtime.

Make sure that your team has what they need to do these things for themselves. They likely don’t need advice on what to do, but the practical resources — time, money, equipment, access — to do it. Make self-care a regular topic of conversation — occasionally begin a meeting by asking everyone to state one good thing they’ve done for themselves, or a meaningful conversation they’ve had lately.

If your industry/corporate culture has a competitive leisure-activity ethos — “work hard, play hard” — explicitly disrupt that. If everyone is bragging about training for a Tough Mudder or racking up foreign language skills on DuoLingo over the weekend, point out that eating ice cream while watching a crime show is also a valid way to spend free time.

Lighten the Load

Stress has a cumulative impact. For the body and brain, there is no difference between deadline pressure, an argument with one’s spouse, financial worries, the dog that won’t stop barking, and the computer that keeps crashing. The patience, self-control, perspective, attentiveness, and wisdom to deal with these situations all come out of the same fund, psychologically.

And for a lot of people, that fund is in arrears. Even before the pandemic “Americans were flirting with symptoms of burnout,” physician Lucy McBride wrote in The Atlantic, noting that we were “among the least healthy populations in wealthy countries. Diseases of despair — including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction — were already rampant.” Since Covid, “[e]very aspect of life has required added work …. we’ve had to juggle parenting, caregiving, and working without our traditional support structures.”

Reduce stressors

As much as possible, minimize stressors in your own and employees’ lives. Make a positive goal out of decreasing stress, across the board, for everyone. Think of it as a psychological energy conservation plan: What can be done to conserve people’s valuable cognitive and emotional energy for the most crucial tasks, at work and home? Encourage suggestions — employees may well come up process improvements, or ideas for low-cost perks or practices that would ease their lives.

Don’t add to anxiety

There may not be much that leaders can do about grief and trauma, but they can do quite a bit to create a culture that doesn’t create unnecessary anxiety. People fear pain. They are anxious about looking foolish, or old and out-of-touch, or of being embarrassed.

As a leader, you can do a lot to ease — or exacerbate — these kinds of anxieties. For example, let employees know that it is OK if their home office is messy on Zoom, or if their child wanders in. (If it is not okay, explain why. “Because it doesn’t look professional” is not, in 2022, a good enough reason!) In meetings, make it safe to ask questions that may seem stupid — or to simply not have any pertinent questions, or comments, or ideas to share.

Create a Cognitive Safety Net

People are spacey — have you noticed that? Grief, trauma, anxiety all can lead to losing time, focus, and endless pairs of reading glasses. Losing typical routines and environmental cues makes it even worse, as does having to adapt to a set of changing behaviors in the rest of life, as well. Everyone is experiencing cognitive overload.

Mitigate mistakes

Acknowledge the mental burden that people are under. Create checklists, cross-check protocols, backup plans, whatever is appropriate to your particular business, to prevent serious errors. If this represents a new way of doing things, be clear that the new measures don’t represent a lack of trust or confidence in the team.

This is also a time to double down on corporate culture and values. A strong shared sense of who “we” — as an organization or a team — are, what we stand for, and what we do will help decrease the number of judgment calls overwhelmed individuals have to make.

Reduce tunnel vision

Another aspect of spaciness is a tendency to focus on only one side of an issue, to get hung up on details or one’s own concerns. Ensure that all aspects of a situation are being examined by using role play and other mental exercises. In another piece, we advised “[W]hen debating a course of action, have team members list all the ‘hard, cold’ reasons for a decision and then all the ‘warm, fuzzy’ reasons, or the most pessimistic/most optimistic scenarios, or the like.” Bring up hypothetical points of view — how would you explain this product to a space alien? How would people from 200 years ago solve this problem? It doesn’t take much — people do better on creativity tests if they are simply asked to do things like a creative person would.

In particular, at the end of a meeting, ask “What questions would someone who really doesn’t understand this issue have?” People can admit to greater vulnerability and confusion if they don’t have to attribute it to themselves. (Even the most psychologically safe team may have members who are self-protective by nature.) Get employees to talk about their pets. You might be surprised what comes up if you ask a colleague how her dog is handling her return to the office.

Learn from failure

Mistakes and failures are inevitable — especially now, as an overextended workforce tries to adapt to a constantly changing business environment. How will you deal with them?

Amy Edmondson’s research shows that teams that destigmatize failure do a better job of both learning from past mistakes, and experimenting with new ways of solving problems or conducting routine business. She recommends that leaders reward, rather than metaphorically shooting, the messengers of bad news. Don’t make employees afraid to admit mistakes or bring problems or unknowns to your attention. Instead, analyze failures together with your teams, and figure out ways to improve.

Make It Meaningful

Meaning matters more than happiness, especially when it comes to surviving in difficult circumstances. On the biological level, in fact, a lack of meaning itself might be a difficult circumstance. Research finds that people who have little sense of meaning in their lives, even if they are happy, have immune-response patterns similar to “people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity.”

As a leader, encourage team members to engage in meaningful activities inside and outside of work. Foster on-the-job friendships and chances to connect. Draw a clear picture of how specific tasks fit into the organizational mission, and how the organization fits into larger society. Talk about what you find meaningful in life, and how you ensure you have the time and energy for these things.

At the same time, acknowledge that meaning is not found exclusively, or even primarily, through work. Find out what non-work activities and identities matter to your team. Connect their job to those, just as you connect it to the organizational mission: a salary that sends the kids to a good school; a flexible schedule for auditions; opportunities for continuing education or travel; perks and discounts that make life with kids — or life alone — easier.

Jobs that take up a person’s entire life and make up their core identity are so 20th century. A job that is a key support of a meaningful life, filled by a well-rounded, well-rested employee: This is the 21st century job.

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Distributed work is here to stay — how your business can adapt

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Close the gap

It’s no secret that the business world and working environments have changed drastically since 2020. With fierce competition in recruiting for skilled labor becoming a critical issue for businesses, having employees in varied locations around the U.S. or even internationally has become an increasingly common solution. It looks like this distributed work model is here for the long haul, so it’s time to get your business on board.

What is distributed work?

Distributed work is defined as a business that has one or more employees who work in different physical locations. This can range from having different in-person office locations, remote work or a blend of the two — often termed “hybrid work.” Large companies having a distributed workforce is nothing new, as having multiple locations allows companies to meet more of their customers’ needs.

The difference now, though, is the massive increase in remote work triggered in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic, ramped-up competition for skilled workers, and how those factors have combined to impact smaller businesses.

If you’re struggling to keep up with today’s workforce demands, take heart. Distributed work can provide some solutions.

Millennial and Gen Z workers strongly prefer flexible working environments and a distributed work policy fits into that preference nicely. Additionally, distributed work structures have the benefits of increased access to international talent, more productive employees and higher job satisfaction.

How to adapt your small business for distributed work

Making the leap to a distributed workforce can feel daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Software solutions tailored specifically for supporting a distributed work environment can help ease the transition and make your business run efficiently.

In this guide, we’re going to take a look at important adaptations needed to bring your small business up to speed for distributed work and how to accomplish them.

  • Get your business security up to date.
  • Tap into global talent pools.
  • Maintain quality communication between employees.

Let’s take a closer look at each point below.

Get your business security up to date

When remote work exploded in early 2020 due to COVID-19 office closures, it quickly became obvious that improvements to business security protocols were necessary. Now with many businesses planning how their company will operate going forward, security continues to be a crucial consideration.

What are some security considerations important for businesses with distributed work environments? Here are a handful of important security features you’ll want to think about:

1. Avoid losing business documents with automatic saves

The stress from losing hard work or entire documents altogether is something most people have dealt with at some point. Having to backtrack and redo lost work is tedious and unproductive.

The best way to avoid that ordeal? Automated saves.

With Microsoft 365, your Office documents are automatically saved for you. Whether it’s a document in the company Sharepoint or in your own OneDrive account, your hard work won’t go to waste.

Additionally, Sharepoint allows your company to collaborate on documentation without having to worry about whether the current document is the correct version. An average of 83% of the current workforce loses time daily due to document versioning issues. Microsoft 365 makes it easy to avoid lost time and frustration, with the added benefit of simplifying collaboration.

2. Maintain business security across all user devices

In the United States, 68% of organizations reported being hit by a public cloud security incident when polled in 2020. Attacks like these can cripple your business’ productivity and lower public perception of your company as a whole.

Both Sharepoint and OneDrive offer multiple layers of security to keep your business documentation safe on the cloud servers themselves, including:

  • Virus scanning for documents
  • Suspicious activity monitoring
  • Password protected sharing links
  • Real-time security monitoring with dedicated intrusion specialists
  • Ransomware detection and recovery

With these built-in protections, you can keep your company safe no matter where your company’s distributed work happens.

3. Adopt company-wide security policies

Effective company security policies protect your organization’s data by clearly outlining employee responsibilities with regard to what information needs to be safeguarded and why.

Having clear guidelines set ensures that both your company information and your employees are safe from security threats.

Items to include in your security policy might include:

  • Remote work policies
  • Password update policies
  • Data retention policies
  • Employee training guidelines
  • Disaster recovery policies

This list obviously isn’t exhaustive, so we’d recommend using a security risk assessment tool to pinpoint specific areas your business should address.

Note: Social engineering and phishing are major security threats for businesses of all sizes. To avoid becoming a target, your company must implement strong security practices for your users. For example, using a secure two-factor authentication setup can help prevent unauthorized users from accessing company documents.

4. Ensure communications are secured

Having a distributed work environment tends to mean that most (if not all) communications occur digitally. As such, keeping digital communications secure should be a top consideration.

Using Microsoft 365, you can ensure that your communication remains encrypted.

If video calls are a major part of your business needs, Microsoft Teams offers robust encryption for your calls. Additionally, email through Microsoft 365 offers top-tier anti-phishing protection for your business.

To learn more about available tools for secure business communication, refer to the Microsoft documentation here.

Tap into global talent pools

world map on a computer

The pandemic triggered a drastic reshuffling of how workers view their jobs, leading to what has been dubbed the Great Resignation. In the United States, more than 11 million jobs were sitting unfilled as of January 2022. With jobless claims on the decline, the domestic labor pool is small and competitive.

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed as a small company attempting to attract talent in the current labor market. You’ll want to ensure that you’re offering competitive wages and benefits, but it can be difficult to go toe-to-toe with large corporations.

However, this is another instance where distributed work can help. One solution? International talent.

The distributed work model makes employing remote workers worldwide more seamless than ever before.

A few considerations here to keep in mind, though.

  • You’ll need to apply for certification from the U.S. Department of Labor to hire outside the country.
  • Be aware of additional taxes that might result.

For more information, review the official documentation for this process.

Note: The same standards do not apply to international contractors, but there are special considerations for contractors as well. Read this guide for more details.

Maintain quality communication between employees

Successful businesses rely on open communication for everything from keeping employees up to date on company information to maintaining morale. Let’s go over a few ways to implement quality communication in a distributed work environment.

1. Cultivate a healthy work environment

Company culture can feel like an afterthought when your teams work separately from each other. However, cultivating a strong company culture is vital, especially for distributed work environments.

The first step here is to clearly define the company culture that you want. By setting the company standards early, your employees will be able to benefit from a solid starting point.

Second, reinforce the culture that you’d like to create. Setting goals, establishing performance metrics, fostering accountability, building trust with employees, and being open to feedback from workers all help reinforce a healthy company culture.

And third, it’s important to prioritize the mental and physical health of your employees. Encourage vacation time, allow for flexible working arrangements, and make mental health support a priority.

2. Foster open communication

Digital communication is key for distributed work environments, so keeping open and transparent channels for communication is imperative.

Email and chat tools are communication fundamentals, but fostering communication itself can feel a bit daunting.

Here are a few suggestions on building healthy communication for your distributed work teams:

  • Make empathy a priority.
  • Greet employees every day.
  • Create a virtual water cooler to encourage socialization.
  • Announce company updates directly.
  • Give recognition and feedback regularly.

By encouraging clear, focused — but also fun — communication, your teams will grow to trust each other and interteam collaboration can flourish.

Distributed work is the ‘new normal’

Building your business toward a distributed work model is a solid investment in growing your company in the future. Tools like Microsoft 365 offer an all-in-one solution to take the pain out of transitioning your business, so take charge of your business’ future today.



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To Get Results, the Best Leaders Both Push and Pull Their Teams

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Over the past year, there has been a call for leaders to be less demanding and more empathetic toward individual employees. To get results, managers needed to rely on “pull” — giving employees a say in how they carry a task out and using inspiration and motivation to get them going. But an analysis of thousands of 360-degree assessments showed that the most effective leaders also know how to “push” — drive for results by telling people what to do and holding them accountable. The takeaway? Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn’t diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed. The data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence among employees. The key is to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people.

When you see a task that needs to be accomplished by your team, do you “push” them to get it done or do you “pull” them in, giving them a say in how they carry it out and using inspiration and motivation to get them going? These are two very different approaches to reach a goal, and the latter is often the best one, but knowing how to combine these two paths is an important skill for managers and leaders.

Take this example from a client of ours. There had been an ongoing discussion about the company’s policies around the environment and sustainability. The CEO had allowed debate and encouraged everyone to weigh in. The CEO strongly supported the need for change but allowed time for ample discussion (using the pull approach). However, two members of the executive team were naysayers and dragged their feet on enacting any of the proposed initiatives. After two months of inaction, the CEO announced to the team that the company was going to implement two initiatives and stated that everyone needed to get on board (moving to the push approach). One of the executives balked at this and made clear he wouldn’t support the initiatives. The CEO terminated him by the end of the week (using the ultimate push approach).

Leaders who are willing to try hard with pulling but ultimately resort to a strong push provide a good example of the power of the combination of these two approaches. Pushing too hard can erode satisfaction but, at times, is needed, especially when pulling just doesn’t work.

In our research, my colleague Jack Zenger and I identified two leadership behaviors directed at the same end goal but utilizing opposite approaches. We call one behavior “driving for results” (push), and the other “inspiring and motivating others” (pull). Let me define what I mean.

Defining Pushing and Pulling

When a leader identifies a goal that they want to accomplish, there are two distinct paths to get there.

Pushing involves giving direction, telling people what to do, establishing a deadline, and generally holding others accountable. It is on the “authoritarian” end of the leadership style spectrum.

Pulling, on the other hand, involves describing to a direct report a needed task, explaining the underlying reason for it, seeing what ideas they might have on how to best accomplish it, and asking if they are willing to take it on. The leader can further enhance the pull by describing what this project might do for the employee’s development. Ideally, the leader’s energy and enthusiasm for the goal are contagious.

Gathering data from over 100,000 leaders through our 360-degree assessments, we measured both push and pull and found that 76% of the leaders were rated by their peers as more competent at pushing than pulling. Only 22% of the leaders were rated as better at pulling, and a mere 2% were rated as equal on both skills.

We also asked the people rating those leaders (over 1.6 million people) which skill was more important for a leader to do well to be successful in their current job. Pulling (inspiring others) was rated as the most important, while pushing (driving for results) was rated as fifth most important.

Understanding What People Want and Need

While our data is clear that most leaders could benefit from improving their ability to pull or inspire others, our research revealed that leaders who were effective at both pushing and pulling were ultimately the most effective.

We gathered 360-degree assessment data on 3,875 leaders in the pandemic. In this analysis, we did the following:

  • The direct reports rated the leader’s effectiveness on both pushing (driving for results) and pulling (inspiring and motivating others).
  • The direct reports were also asked to rate their confidence that the organization would achieve its strategic goals and their satisfaction with their organization as a place to work.
  • We ranked leaders’ data on pushing and pulling into quartiles and identified those who were low (bottom quartile) and high (top quartile).

The results are captured in the chart below. When both push and pull are in the bottom quartile, both confidence and satisfaction of direct reports are low. When push is high and pull is low, both confidence and satisfaction increase. When pull is high, satisfaction increases to a level substantially above confidence. When both are high, then you see the most significant increase. (Note: High confidence and satisfaction were measured by the percentage of people who marked 5 on a 5-point scale. This is a very high bar for satisfaction.)

Bringing Push and Pull Together

As many leaders across the globe grapple with retention and how to prevent their employees from joining the Great Resignation, they’re asking themselves hard questions. How do you motivate people to stay? How do you encourage them to increase their efforts? What is it they really want and need from their work environments?

Over the past few years, there has been a call for leaders to be less demanding and more empathetic toward individual employees. More pull, less push seemed to be what’s needed to retain talented employees. While I agree with this sentiment, this data also offers a clear warning. Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn’t diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed. As our data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence.

In fact, your influence as a leader comes from your ability to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people. So next time you’re trying to accomplish a significant goal, consider whether your team really needs a good push, a big pull, or perhaps both.

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How to Respond When an Employee Quits

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Someone giving notice doesn’t have to be the end of the world or the end of a relationship. In this article, the author offers advice for how to respond in a constructive and professional way when someone says they’re quitting. First, take a moment to digest the news. It’s okay to show you’re surprised or to say something like, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.” The last thing you want to do is react impulsively and say something you might regret that would leave the individual with a negative impression of you and the organization. Notice and manage any in-the-moment reactions and depersonalize the news. It’s also important to show your support and genuine interest in why they’re leaving and what they’re going to do next. And make sure to get alignment on what they need and what you need from them before they leave to ensure a smooth transition. It may involve some give and take and could include finishing a specific project or set of tasks, training others to take over these responsibilities to minimize disruption, or even hiring their replacement. Using these strategies can help all parties move on in a positive way.

With over four million people quitting their jobs each month during the first quarter of 2022 and 44% of workers currently looking for new jobs, it’s entirely possible that someone on your team could leave in the near term. And it may not be the person you thought it would be — or hoped it would be. It could come as a total surprise to you and be a key contributor on your team, someone with whom you really enjoy working and who has great potential in your organization. So, how do you respond when this person gives their notice?

While there are several things you should not do — like take it personally, belittle their new opportunity, or give them a guilt trip (among others) — there are six key elements to ensuring that you respond in a constructive and professional manner while processing the surprising news.

Take a beat

First, take a moment to digest the news. It’s okay to show you’re surprised or to say something like, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.” The last thing you want to do is react impulsively and say something you might regret that would leave the individual with a negative impression of you and the organization.

Notice and manage any in-the-moment reactions

During this momentary pause, take a breath and try to discern precisely what it is that you’re feeling. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, shares that naming our emotions is the first step in dealing with them. Try to be as specific as possible. In addition to being surprised, you may feel frustrated, discouraged, hurt, deflated, betrayed, angry, miffed, irked, or deeply disappointed or just plain sad. There are many subtle flavors of negative emotions, and parsing out the specific emotion you’re feeling will help you create greater self-awareness and enable you to process your feelings more effectively and respond more constructively.

It’s when we’re not conscious of these negative emotions that they can unexpectedly emerge from below the surface, triggering unconstructive, reflexive comments or behaviors that you may later regret, such as lashing out or making a sarcastic jab or snide remark. It’s ill advised to share that you feel betrayed or angry, even if that’s the case — here, discretion is the better part of valor. However, if you’re sad or disappointed, it’s okay to say, “I’m so sad you’re leaving, but it sounds like a great opportunity. We’re going to miss you.”

Depersonalize the news

When we feel hurt or betrayed by such departures, it’s because we take the news personally. Even if you could stand to improve as a manager (let’s face it, we can all find ways in which we can do better), their departure is not a statement about your personal worth or how good you are as a person, so it’s best to put your ego to the side and rise above any strong or harsh feelings you may have. The individual might be leaving for a better opportunity, better compensation, personal reasons, or all of the above. The best career development path for them may be to leave the organization and get experience elsewhere. It is their career, so respect that they made the best choice for themselves, their career, and/or their family, which is the same anyone would expect you to do for yourself. They are showing loyalty to themselves — not disloyalty to you.

Be curious and show a growth mindset

Show genuine interest and curiosity to learn why they’re leaving and what they’re going to do next. What can you learn that would benefit you, the organization, and other employees for the future? You might ask, “What could we do to entice you to stay?” At that point in time, the answer may be nothing since they’ve likely accepted another position. But one client of mine let her boss know, when giving her notice, that a competitor was willing to bring her on at a more senior level with much higher compensation — something her organization had been dragging their feet on and had been noncommittal about for quite some time. Unexpectedly, within a few days, they came back with an even better offer that ultimately did convince her to stay.

While this scenario might be the exception, it’s still important to ask the question above, which might also be phrased as, “What else could we have done to keep you?” or “What appeals to you or excites you most about this new job?” Their response may be related to better work/life balance, the ability to work remotely, a more inclusive culture, a new and exciting challenge with more responsibility, or being more empowered to make decisions. This is all useful feedback for you and the organization so that these areas can be addressed for remaining and future employees, even if it’s too late to do anything about it for this individual.

Show your support

Maintaining positive working relationships with departing employees is important, well beyond the time that you actually work together, so show your support for their decision and enable them to leave on a good note. After all, you may need a positive reference from them one day.

Further, as a former employee, they are still a brand ambassador for the company and may be a future customer, client, or referral source for business and other employees. And by showing support and enthusiasm for their new opportunity, as disappointed as you may be, you are more likely to keep the door open for them to potentially return to the organization one day. So, celebrate their contributions and next endeavor, and ask them how you can be helpful to them as they start their new role.

Ask for what you need

When an individual gives notice, they likely have a desired end date in mind. After all, they will want to take a break before diving into a new job. Get alignment on what they need and what you need from them before they leave to ensure a smooth transition. It may involve some give and take and could include finishing a specific project or set of tasks, training others to take over these responsibilities to minimize disruption, or even hiring their replacement.

. . .

Someone giving notice doesn’t have to be the end of the world or the end of a relationship. As surprised as you may be, using the six strategies above can help you respond in a constructive way that builds the relationship and helps all parties move on in a positive way.

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