by JEREMY BULLMORE, former chairman of J Walter Thompson, now adirector of Guardian Media Group and WPP
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


One of my colleagues has recently returned to work after the bereavement of a very close family member, and I'm not sure how to treat him. He is not his normal self and I don't know whether it's best to mention the bereavement or not. What is the best way to behave?

You're right to tread carefully. However well meant your intervention, you could well appear insensitive. Never be surprised when people in deep grief fail to behave normally - or even rationally.

Which of his colleagues is closest to him? If it's you, take on the task yourself. But if it's not, avoid raising the subject with him directly; he could easily think you a busybody. The best person to make the initial approach is the person he most trusts. They may still be rebuffed but no lasting harm will have been done.

The chances are, however, that - to the right person, at the right time - he'll welcome the chance to open up a little. I've known at least two people in deep bereavement whose withdrawn behaviour severely discouraged any form of exchange - but who later revealed how isolated they'd been made to feel and how much they resented it. I know: not altogether reasonable; but that's the way it can be.

Finding the right words is extremely difficult. It's usually a great mistake to suggest that you know how they feel; you almost certainly don't.

And even if you did, your colleague would find the suggestion offensive.

Grief is an intensely personal emotion and those in its thrall know their pain to be unique.

For the opening approach, the slightest of prompts is the best idea.

He'll know what's in your mind almost before a word is spoken. And his response will be your best guide as to what to say next. Be happy to listen - endlessly. Above all, avoid the 'time-heals-everything' line of cheerful reassurance. Although it may, the way he feels now makes it unimaginable.

And finally, watch out for your own rising levels of impatience. As he talks and you listen, over the coming weeks or even months, you'll begin to wonder if his original perfectly genuine grief may not have matured into consuming self-pity. Could he even be enjoying his grief in some unlovely way?

Well - it may seem so, and there may even be some truth in it. But the phase will pass. Resist the temptation to shake him by the shoulders.

Nobody gets through a bereavement more quickly because they've been instructed to pull themselves together.


I've been promoted internally and my new boss wants me to start immediately, but I need at least a month to tie up loose ends in my current position.

My present boss would also prefer me to stay and get things finished off before I move on. I want to stay on good terms with both of them, so what is my best course of action?

This may be temperamentally very difficult for you, but what you must do, just for one month, is abandon your favoured working routines and set out to achieve the impossible.

It's clear from your need for 'at least a month to tie up loose ends' that you're a conscientious person, used to an orderly way of doing things. When you can finally put your current job behind you and commit yourself totally to the new one, you can always return to such methodical ways. But for now, you've got to do two full-time jobs to the full satisfaction of two bosses. And you can.

It will play hell with your private life, your sleep, your sense of self-control and your digestion. You'll have to work out ingenious ways of doing things and find little chinks of time you never knew existed Your evenings and weekends will be grievously invaded and you'll face the wooden disapproval of friends and loved ones.

But it's only for a month; you'll be amazed at your own productivity; and you'll be extremely pleased with yourself when you've pulled it off.


It's been obvious for a while that two of my employees really don't get on, and that one of them is often made to feel very upset by the other.

I don't want to lose either of them as employees, but I'm not sure how to deal with the situation.

Try this. Get them both together - maybe over a drink or a meal - and then invite them to sort it out themselves.

Don't favour one over the other. Don't attempt to allocate blame or even suggest a solution. Don't labour the point. Just say that it's obvious to all that there's friction between them; that it's affecting their work; that you value them both; and that you trust them as intelligent beings to resolve the problem sensibly. Give them a month to come back to you.

Resist the temptation to add '... or otherwise I'll have to deal with it myself'. If they're halfway bright, they'll know that anyway. It's astonishing how often this simple technique works. It may sound risky, but it's not.

If it fails - if one of them turns out to be resistant and obstructive, insisting that the fault lies entirely with the other - you'll know far more clearly what needs to be done. But there's a good chance that the challenge of being their own managers will appeal to both. And they might even get to respect each other.

Please address your problems to him at: Management Today, 174 Hammersmith Road, London W6 7JP.

Or e-mail: management.today@haynet.com Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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