Management – Like Love – Means Letting Go

I usually address bright, big picture topics, but this time circumstances have brought it very close to home. I hope you won’t mind.

In the early evening of Sunday, August 30, after many years of declining health, my husband of 33 years went gentle into that good night.

Those who were close knew Barry as an incredibly loving person, but he was still quite able to rage against social inequalities and injustices – whether big (think slavery, 9/11, or Rwanda), or small.

He had no way to address holocausts, but he did have a constructive response to the slights and rudeness and dismissive behaviors he observed against those who could not fight back. And the fact that there were good reasons for not fighting back – potential loss of livelihood, or even life itself – is what truly raised his ire.

These days, a management consultant might praise Barry’s approach as ‘scalable, repeatable, and sustainable.’ He simply showed people he cared. He modeled respect; not just tolerance. Even the most downtrodden would have his full engagement for as long as civil discourse continued, after which he would politely withdraw. And that, it turns out, was the greatest management lesson I ever learned: to withdraw. To be silent. To let go.

How often are management problems – like personal relationship problems – caused by the inability to just let go?

Case in point: I know someone who works in the innovation department of a huge company. The job description is, basically, find exciting and cool stuff, and report on it. So when I found an exciting and cool article on a very respected website, I sent this very hard worker the link.

I got an immediate response…but not the one I was expecting. It went something like, ‘<expletive deleted!!>, they won’t let us access that site. Actually, most everything is blocked. Makes it really hard to do my job.’

At some point – who knows when or why – someone decided that the company needed to control where people go, and what they see, on the web. Now that choice is obsolete and obstructive to the company’s own desire to innovate and grow. And yet, no one is letting it go.

Just saying.

Personal relationships are much the same. Really, if you have to hold on tight to control your partner, how whole can they be? And how good is that for you?

A very wise person said to me, “when we are infants our hands are curled up; when we grow old, they are relaxed open.” When I heard it, I thought, that is equally true of our maturity as managers.

In the end, there was no holding Barry back from his final journey. Even if there was, it’s not the way he would have wanted me – or him – to manage it.

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The Downside of Power

Ok I’ll admit it: I like power. I like to have it, I like to exercise it, I like it a whole lot. And I even like the responsibility that comes with it.

Sometimes it gets me places I didn’t think I’d ever be going.

Take powers of attorney, for instance. I’ve had a few in my life, especially from relatives who trusted my judgment in an emergency. That’s usually when good judgment is needed, so that the emergency can be addressed without a detailed think-through of potential consequences and if-thens and maybe-buts.

But now I have an emergency of my own, and it has a lot of moving parts. I need to construct a whole end-of-life scenario for someone dear who can’t.

As you get down into the details of something as delicate as this, there are tough decisions to be made. Sometimes basic values apply cleanly. Sometimes they don’t. My usual approach to this kind of ambiguity is to look for situations that are somewhat similar and use them to identify an answer.

That’s how I got to thinking about how end of life is very similar to end of job – also known as termination, downsizing, and outplacement. Having made this connection, three guiding principles came into view. They are:

  1. Maintain a ‘least restrictive’ environment.

In the healthcare world (particularly mental health) this means allowing the person the latitude to do what they need or want to do, as long as it doesn’t compromise their own, or other people’s, safety. For the end of lifer with a cognition-limiting diagnosis, it means no tying them down or stopping them from eating as much ice cream as they want.

Comparably, in the employment world, it means that when you’ve decided to fire someone, don’t pile on a terrible evaluation or otherwise spirit-damaging experience on the eve of their impending separation.

  1. Make the transition as painless as possible.

In the healthcare world, I am talking about paying attention and taking action to ease pain, boredom, or distress, in whatever manner that drugs, comfort accommodations, and/or companionship will be effective. Because anything that takes the mind off doom dwelling, at least for a little while, is a blessing.

In the employment world, I’m saying that when people are on the way out, even if no one really likes them, please provide the courtesy of a farewell lunch or cake and/or group card…whatever. It feels lousy enough to have been cut from the team, especially when you enjoyed and appreciated the job. Don’t compound the pain by omitting the niceties.

  1. Avoid false hope, but be sympathetic.

In the health world, this refers to the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order. Helpful staff people usually want those who have power of attorney over someone’s final days to sign the DNR yesterday. Any reluctance to do so is generally met with an air of suspicion. (Fear of liability is apparently as strong a motivator to action as, say, a tiger loose in the lobby.) Since this was the most difficult principle for me to define, I tried out a lot of scenarios from other fields. Again, comparison to the world of work was the most enlightening.

In employment world, termination is very much like a DNR. There’s an order stating that a person or persons have to go, and usually the person who carries out the order isn’t the one who made the decision in the first place. (Think about that for a moment. The power of attorney holder is not the one making the decision that the person will be let go. That decision takes place at a higher level, so to speak.) Primarily for this reason, it’s important for the bearer of bad news to depersonalize the whole process. Sad to say, many do a great job of the depersonalization part, but of the rest, not so much.

What if, instead, we made it clear that at least one person in the room really wanted the soon-to-be-departed to stay? In the health world, that would involve an effort to connect at the very end, as a sort of social resuscitation. In the employment world, it could be as simple as adding one small word of regret by the terminator.

Will you ‘love people out’ or will you just leave them behind?

You have the power to choose.