When You Lose A Good Colleague

There’s been a lot written about how to deal with toxic relationships and poisonous environments at work. Which is important because sadly there’s a ”lot of it about.” 

 But what about those times when someone you like, admire and get on really well with leaves? 

 What effect does that have on you as an individual, a team member or leader? 

 The relationships we form at work are just the same as those we create with other friends, based on trust, mutual respect and shared values and beliefs.  

 Which is why we grieve when they leave. 

 Think of some of the successful partnerships and groups you know or have been part of? Beyond ageing rock bands, Ben and Jerry, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak there are many highly successful businesses that have been co-founded or based on a tightly knit team. Great interpersonal relationships are critical to our personal and organisational success because it is our social bonds that unite and motivate us. 

It’s a safety feature. 

Camaraderie, community and brother/sisterhood drive productivity and performance. In the brain it creates that place of safety, lowering cortisol levels so we’re more relaxed, open-minded, creative and keen to explore new challenges and ideas. 

 We look forward to hanging out with our colleagues we like and consider are like us. Having someone to bounce ideas off, share thoughts or worries bolsters confidence and happiness. 

We enjoy being part of a team where it feels everyone is on the same page, working towards something bigger than ourselves. It provides a sense of belonging and drives better communication and effective collaboration. 

We feel good seeing our businesses grow and prosper because of the fabulous people we have working with or for us. 

But not all of these relationships last.

Whether due to boredom or the itch for ‘what’s next?’ like any good story many of our best (and worst relationships ) have a beginning, middle and an end. 

Losing a good friend, a colleague or business partner can be devasting because it causes us social pain. It hurts, and we can experience a bewildering multitude of emotions simultaneously including anger, sadness, and surprise. 

 I had been in a business partnership with a close friend for several years running a small boutique property development company. We had always agreed that our friendship came first and foremost and that whatever happened in the business, that was what mattered. 

 Then one day out of the blue she sent me an email asking if I would please act as a referee for her as she had been accepted into law school on a fulltime basis.  

 Kapow! It was as if I had been shot between the eyes. I was completely blindsided, unaware she had even been contemplating making such a move.  

I had to read the message several times to know it was true. 

And an email! 

This was someone I was in contact with on a daily basis, why email? 

I suppose I should have been grateful it wasn’t just a text. 

 In that instant I knew our business was finished and it put an enormous strain on our relationship for a number of years. 

 Whether you’ve been asked for a reference, handed a resignation letter or been told they’re leaving, when it’s someone we care about and value their expertise and friendship, it‘s to ask ourselves the hard questions. 

 Was it something I said, or didn’t say? 

What can I do to make them change their mind? 

Why couldn’t she ask/tell me to my face? 

 Was it my fault? 

Accepting Loss 

 While you might be silently screaming “please stay!” this is the time to ask how you can help make the transition to leave easier. Whether you’ve been left for a better option or a change of scenery, accepting and respecting the other person’s decision makes it easier for both sides to move on. 

 Offering your support will make them feel better because if it’s been a good relationship they may have their own misgivings, sadness or guilt especially if they realise they’re leaving you in the lurch. 

 Plus, if they realise later they’ve made a horrible mistake, they are more likely to think about considering returning to work with or for you if you’ve left the door open for them to return. 

 Seek Understanding 

 While it might feel awkward it’s important to have that conversation about what made them come to their decision, now. 

 There are many reasons why people leave. As a leader it’s essential to have an understanding of what the real reason might be and to consider how things could be done differently next time to prevent other great work colleagues and talent heading for the door. 

 Some of the common reasons given include, 

  1.  It’s not their choice but their partner has a new position interstate or overseas. 
  2. They’ve outgrown their current position, are bored and see nothing on the horizon that will further develop their career. The reflection here is to ask where new opportunities could have been found or created for them. Did you seek to understand their agenda, their hopes and aspirations for the future? 
  3.  It was a fantastic opportunity once in a life-time offer they couldn’t  refuse. Sometimes we have to accept that there will always be bigger, better bolder offerings we can’t compete with. 
  4.  They weren’t happy with their current situation. 

Ouch. 

 Had you suspected things weren’t OK and ignored them? 

Did you forget to ask how they were going because you were too busy to notice? 

Did you keep loading your colleague up with more responsibilities and tasks because of their capability and competency along with your certainty they wouldn’t say no? 

 Social pain hurts because it shares common neural substrates to physical pain. That’s why we use the language of hurt. We feel gutted, shattered, heartbroken. 

 The pain of grief is real and deep. 

We deal with our pain by burying our feelings into our work or we withdraw socially to lick our wounds. Sadness is the longest lasting emotion we feel and  

 losing a close colleague is like a divorce. Many of us have our work husbands and wives who we spend many hours with, (sometimes more than our “real” partners!)working closely together, sharing the highs and the lows. 

 Acknowledging how we feel is the first step towards acceptance. It’s OK to be sad, angry, even afraid. Showing a little self-compassion is only human.  

This makes it easier to work out what will be best for YOU in your situation to get back on track with what matters to you, your business and your other relationships. 

 Relationships at work are always about give and take, sharing and listening. 

 While the memory of that fabulous working memory will remain, staying future focused will keep you ready to develop, nurture and love those new great working relationships to come. 

 I’m still good friends with my former business partner. 

She went on to become a successful solicitor and loves her new career.  

I tidied up the remaining building projects, closed down the business and chose to start afresh to create better brain health and mental performance in the workplace. 

The rest as they say, is history. 

Jenny Brockis

Dr. Jenny Brockis is passionate about all things "brain".  She helps businesses and individuals develop and benefit from a brain friendly work culture. As a Medical Practitioner and author of 3 books, Jenny can show you how to improve your mental flexibility and agility necessary to thrive in our increasingly complex world.

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