We say a lot of goodbyes in the workplace today, as colleagues leave for other jobs, project teams break up, and executive coaches conclude their time working with clients. But we don't spend much time thinking about endings and may be botching them.
Ed Batista, an executive coach and instructor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, began to ponder the nature of goodbyes and how to improve them after he realized how many there were in his life working with clients and overseeing student project groups for short periods. "Goodbye happens more frequently these days as organizations are more dynamic. We need to do it in a healthy way and then get on to the next project or team on the calendar," he says in an interview.
Some organizations rely on standard rituals – perhaps a cake at coffee break, or lunch out or drinks after work. That handles the acknowledgement part. But depending on the situation, it might be too much or not enough. Canadians often opt for equality, so everybody receives the same send off. "But it could be someone who deserves greater acknowledgement is missed," he says.
He shared five principles for saying a professional goodbye on Harvard Business Review blogs:
Understand your needs:
We all have different needs when it comes to ending relationships and it's essential to understand not only the desires of the other people in the relationship but also our own requirements. That doesn't mean your desires will rule, however. He realized, for example, that he didn't like overly long and complicated endings and that meant he may have been rushing them more than other people preferred.
Mark the occasion:
There can be an overwhelming feeling of anxiety about the departure or break-up of a group and so we try to ignore it. "Just do something. Recognize the ending is happening," he says in the interview. By not taking time to mark the occasion, uncertainty may arise about future relationships. Even if you just say, "Well this is it," you are formally recognizing the ending and that's better than avoidance. "The group is ending. The class is ending. Even if a group reconvenes, it won't be exactly the same. Or if it's a one-to-one relationship, we might not know when we'll be in touch again. We need to be honest about what is happening and mark the occasion," he says.
Share the work:
Leaders often try to craft the farewell experience and that leaves others out who may gain from helping to organize the event. Endings work best when everyone has a feeling of ownership, so try to give participants as much choice as possible in the nature and timing of saying goodbye. By allowing everyone a voice, it helps to contour the event to the different emotional needs of the participants – including, if the focal point is one individual leaving the team, that colleague. If the individual doesn't want to speak at the function, he urges you to exert a modest amount of social pressure but not too much. Not speaking can leave emptiness, and since people fill a void other teammates might decide the departing colleague felt it was a bad experience.
Partings involve emotions and he stresses that sharing the emotions people are harbouring actually ensures a successful ending occurs. "In the absence of overt expressions of emotion, we can feel that something important was left unsaid, contributing to a lack of closure and heightening feelings of loss or regret," he writes. So allow the emotion to get out, but in a structured context so it doesn't overwhelm people. Keep in mind that we don't normally express emotions at work and everyone harbours different inclinations on emotional expression.
Accept there will be a letdown:
Even if you handle the ceremonial ending well, there will still be a sense of longing or nostalgia afterwards. "It's OK to feel a little bit sad, a little bit lost, a little bit unsure," he says.
For some endings, he asks individuals to gather in a circle and places some polished stones from flower arrangements at the center. When colleagues feel comfortable, they get up, take a stone, and then talk about the experience working together. They keep the stone as a memento of the relationship. Everyone speaks, but if you're a leader or authority figure make sure you don't go first or last – pick a time in the middle.
Another ritual he practises is having everyone bring in written questions about the experience or future for other members of the group. These are distributed and after reflection answered before colleagues. If you're concluding a one-on-one relationship as a leader he recommends sending the other person some questions to reflect on before your final conversation, such as "What's been most helpful to you about our work together?"
He doesn't feel he has perfected endings but by paying attention he appreciates the other people in relationships better and acknowledges the loss in no longer having it continue.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter