Understanding Loss: A Key to Managing Change

By understanding the type of loss that you, or someone on your team has experienced, you enable yourself to process it, grow, and move forward. Sometimes even the gain of one thing means the loss of another. Losses and gains are ultimately changes, which aren't always easy to deal with.

Grieving is a process usually associated with the loss of a loved one. But grieving is just as relevant to loss in the workplace, such as the loss of security, daily routines, communication channels, friends who’ve been terminated — and especially the loss of identity and a sense of belonging.

Giving up almost anything cherished is a form of loss, and that’s the case whether it was given up voluntarily or it was taken away. In all these instances, people may need to grieve.

Some languages do much better than English in distinguishing different kinds of loss. For example, in reading the novel The Writing on the Wall by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, I learned that there’s a South Seas Island language that has separate words for different varieties of loss:

    • loss of a person by death, as in English
    • loss of a small object, which may have been replaced
    • loss of a large object, such as by destruction or theft
    • loss of a situation or a way of life, such as your job or location
    • loss of a state of mind or state of being, such as loss of security, success or happiness

Furthermore, each of these distinct words for loss can be modified by suffixes that indicate whether the thing lost can be regained — such as by finding the lost object or regaining the success — or whether it’s lost for good as in the case of death or destruction.

In English, alas, we have but the single word, loss. Still, what’s important is recognizing that when people face change, what they’re giving up is a loss and coping with that loss can take a toll. Therefore, it’s a mistake to ignore, discount or trivialize the loss. The smart change manager focuses not just on what’s being changed, but also – and especially -- on the people affected by the change.

Even good news, such as a promotion or new job, entails loss. In addition to starting something new, such changes entail the loss of familiar ways of working, as well as the relationships and reputation associated with the previous job or position.

As stated by a character in Jeanne Ray’s delightful novel, Eat Cake, on recognizing that some long-awaited good news would necessitate loss:

"I never knew that people could be afraid of good news too. I realized that good news took you places you didn’t know anything about. It changed everything as much as bad news did."

This post is adapted from my book, Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change: Focusing on the Human Side of Change, www.nkarten.com/changebook

User Comments

Anonymous's picture

Very insightful...so those South Sea islanders know much more than we westerners do - and about things that really count. All is not lost!

November 17, 2011 - 9:36am
Anonymous's picture

An interesting linguistic observation, but offers no insights into any software or software management application.

As a matter of fact, the entire post can be summed up by saying "There are a lot of different levels of loss." Whoop-ti-do. Now tell me what I'm supposed to do with this knowledge, which (by the way) I already had.

November 17, 2011 - 10:40am

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