When your heart is broken, how hard is it to turn up to work every day and perform?
But so many of us have to do it every day. Our worlds may have fallen apart – the loss of a loved one, a falling out with a friend or colleague, the loss of money or an important opportunity – yet each day we drag ourselves to the front door, put on a mask and carry on doing our jobs with a smiley face, but a broken heart.
And that’s kind of what I’ve been doing every day since my mother passed away eight weeks ago.
Don’t worry, I’m fine, and I’ll explain, but I’m just saying – I understand.
I feel your pain.
When I found out the clock was ticking
For me, bad news often seems to arrive at the most inconvenient time for my professional life. We knew that Mum was gravely ill, but the final news that Mum only had months to live arrived at the start of a one-month business trip I had in the US last September.
I had just arrived in San Francisco. The news came in the middle of the night (the joy of timezones) and I just cried and cried.
As one of my favourite speakers (and human beings on the planet), Nicky Abdinor says, always be grateful. Even if you have the worst day ever, you can go to bed and be grateful that the horrible day is over. You can click ‘control, alt, delete’ and re-boot for tomorrow.
I had a lot of days like that during those four long weeks on the road in the US. When I got home, I was fortunately able to spend two months by Mum’s side.
How much should we talk about our broken hearts?
We are human, and that means we are emotional. But our modern workplaces and our community expects (and rightly so) that we will conduct ourselves with a certain level of decorum, and if we want to keep our jobs and our places in the community we have to play by the rules.
Sometimes I worry that companies almost expect us to behave like robots (as I have said previously in my “Beat the Bots” speeches). They expect us to do things such as re-enter the workforce after having a child or losing a loved one and act like it never happened.
But that’s not really what being a human is about.
Not only are we required by our companies to behave in a certain way, but we also need to keep participating in work, as well as in life. This isn’t only because we’ve got bills to pay and we need to eat; it’s more than that – participation and doing ‘normal’ things are an important part of overcoming grief.
But still, it’s hard. Sometimes, so very hard. But how do we get through these times of grief and trauma without totally embarrassing ourselves, tainting our hard-earned reputations and maybe even losing our jobs and family?
Juggling through work and life
As I’ve written previously, we have to somehow find a way to keep all the juggling balls in the air, with the balls being work, family, health etc. But the important thing to know is that some balls are made of rubber, whereas others are glass. Work is a rubber ball, so if you drop it, it will bounce back, but others, like your health and family, are glass. If you drop them, they are difficult to recover.
In raising my family and supporting my mother’s health, I have had to drop the work ball many times – and believe me, it has always bounced back.
How to keep juggling after a glass ball drops to the floor
I am so fortunate to work with such an amazing group of colleagues, many of whom have been working with me throughout Mum’s illness. They are all superstars and many stepped in to take accountability when I had to focus on family.
While I’m so grateful I have my team, this experience has reinforced what I knew all along: if we are going to be successful leaders, we need to be resilient and work our way through grief and disruption. This is for ourselves personally but also for our team – if my team is distressed because I’m distressed, then not only does my personal life fall apart, but so does my professional life.
If you find yourself in a distressing situation, my advice would be to share with your team (but not too much). They need to understand what you’re going through; they need to see that you’re human and vulnerable. Yet at the same time, you’re probably best placed to save them the intimate details. At the end of the day, it is your family and friends whom you need to lean on in personal times of crisis.
In tough situations, remember to take it one step at a time and draw energy and support from those closest to you.
Understanding what is really happening under your peers’ mask
My mother had dementia, as I’m sure many of you know. As such, there were lots of things she couldn’t remember, like most people’s names, what year it was, and even how old she was.
But surprisingly, she could still remember her feelings at different points in her life.
She may not remember someone’s name, but she can definitively (and accurately) describe the emotions she associates with that person.
The situation with Mum reminds me of the age-old leadership lesson:
People may not remember what you said, but they will also remember how you made them feel.
Given we are all wearing our masks, we need to make an effort to understand our peers, bosses and direct reports, and whether or not they may have some trauma going on in their lives. Behaviour we observe that might seem unusual, a lack of performance or a change in attitude may be related to some grief they are experiencing, not just a competency issue and their ability to do the job.
In these situations, we need to use our super human ability to empathise. I know every time I experience a painful event, it has made me more and more understanding of what others may be experiencing and challenged with.
Working through a broken heart
Mum was always a huge supporter of my professional development. When I travelled or had a critical meeting I was nervous about, she would always say ‘Remember, I’m on your shoulder.’ And for the last few weeks, that’s where I feel she’s been – right with me, all the way.
Not having Mum may have broken my heart, but it hasn’t broken my spirit. Late last year, we worked hard across the US to garner support for Procurious’ 2020 program, and this year, I’m excited to say that our efforts were rewarded – we’re on track for one of the biggest and most exciting years yet. Stopping now to reflect on that, I know Mum would have been immensely proud.
Yet now certainly isn’t the time to stop in any way, shape or form. To prosper in this next Industrial Revolution, we need to play to our human strengths: collaboration, connection, innovation and influence.
We need to embrace our human-ness, and we need to get connected – to our team, to our stakeholders, to our suppliers and to our community. The robots may be coming, but the thing we have that they don’t is connection. Speaking of, get onto Procurious now, and start making the connections you’ll need to make your 2020 as successful as we hope ours will be.
We’d love to hear your stories of career resilience – please share in the comments below.