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University of Denver professor researches how business navigates grief

Among the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn, natural disasters and much more, it seems death, human suffering and loss are pervasive. Even if someone is doing fairly well, he or she has likely had some personal loss—maybe a postponed wedding, canceled graduation or vacation, or just loneliness.

Professor Charles Dhanaraj, professor of management at the University of Denver’s (DU) Daniels College of Business, has new research out on grief. “The hidden perils of unresolved grief” was published in McKinsey Quarterly Sept. 10.

Along with his co-author, George Kohlrieser, professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the International Institute for Management Development, Dhanaraj studied how loss affects leaders, employees and organizations.

Charles Dhanaraj

“Personal losses of all kinds can create a lingering sense of grief that harms a leader’s effectiveness and may become debilitating if unaddressed,” the authors say. “Our hope is that more leaders will come to recognize that the painful emotions they and their colleagues may be experiencing—all of which are an inevitable part of being human—need not be debilitating or destructive; indeed, when addressed over time, these emotions can be reframed as constructive, positive, and creative elements of life, thereby helping leaders and organizations turn loss into inspiration.”

In their research, the authors write that they’ve been surprised by how pervasive unresolved grief can be, affecting one-third of the 7,000 executives who they worked with at the High Performance Leadership program in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The two academics outline a model to resolve grief, involving: becoming aware, accepting reality and reconstructing your memory. They also offer advice for organzations, suggesting leaders should: set the right tone, recognize grief in the organization and create organizational rituals.

“Unresolved grief is a quietly destructive force that derails leaders and hurts organizations during the best of times. And these aren’t the best of times,” the authors say. “By recognizing the ways the pandemic is fueling grief and loss, leaders and organizations alike can take steps to transform grief into a creative force that turns loss into inspiration.”

Dhanaraj is the chair of the Department of Management, and Evelyn & Jay G. Piccinati Endowed Chair in teaching excellence at the Daniels College of Business.