The day starts out like any other. You get your morning coffee, hop into the car, and head to work. But just as you pop your head in for a “good morning” to your boss, you see a vision that changes your job forever:
An empty desk.
The rumor mill spins. You hear your manager just quit. Suddenly your work life becomes a maelstrom of decisions. What about that special project they had you running? What about your performance review in six weeks—who’s giving that? Who’s going to fill in for your manager? Someone better? Someone worse?
It’s not an everyday situation, true. But neither is it uncommon. Some 40% of the workforce reported plans of leaving their current job within the last year. As solid as a relationship you might have with your boss, they might not feel the same about their current position.
Depending on who your manager was, their leaving can be either a great thing, a terrible thing, or something ambiguous in between. Figuring out what it means is just one of the uncertainties you’ll face today. No matter what the scenario might be, you’re going to need some next steps.
What To Do When Losing Your Manager Is A Bad Thing
Not every boss is as bad as Ebenezer Scrooge. A great manager can be the primary source of joy at your work. They’re encouraging, motivating, challenging, and understanding. If it weren’t for them, you might not be sure you’d enjoy the company half as much as you do.
According to a Boss Barometer Report, good bosses are more common than you might think. Almost 90% of people report respecting their bosses. About 80% believe the feelings are mutual.
A bad boss leaving your workplace can be a relief. But if you loved your boss, you’re in a bit of a pickle.
Open Communication With Your Boss’s Boss
Unless your boss owned the company, then they, too, have a boss. They just became the key decision-maker in your life. Now’s the time to open lines of communication with them and get some certainty about the next steps.
This is so important, in fact, you should probably get acquainted even before your boss ever shows signs of quitting.
“The more you are known and respected by people above you, the better off you are from a career standpoint,” says Priscilla Claman, president of Career Strategies.
Karen Dillon, co-author of “How Will You Measure Your Life?”, recommends showing your boss’s boss that you’re engaged. “If your boss’s boss is giving a lunch talk or a town hall meeting, go to it. Sit in front. Ask questions. Continue the conversation in the hallway.”
What To Do In The Current Moment
I know what you’re thinking. “Great advice. But I don’t have a time machine to go back to six months ago.”
Your boss just quit, and you don’t feel prepared. Here’s what you can do if you find yourself feeling stuck:
- Stay calm. Easy advice, especially when you’re in the middle of a management maelstrom. But before you do anything rash—like quitting —you’re going to want to make sure it’s the rational decision you would have chosen for yourself before this happened. Take a minute or two to consider the circumstances. Ask yourself: what is really the worst that can happen if I take a rational, proactive approach to navigating these uncertain waters?
- Write down your next steps. You’ll be tempted to skip this one. “Next steps? Hah, those are easy. I’ll just think of a few.” Don’t skip! The physical act of writing has unique, anxiety-busting power, mitigating distress and promoting feelings of well-being. You probably need a healthy dose of both right about now.
- Run through the worst-case scenario, and ask yourself what you can do about it. Consider this your version of the stoic practice of “fear-setting.” Something you’ve feared for a long time just happened—your favorite boss just left. But has the world ended? Hopefully not. Create a list of concrete actions you can take to mitigate the fear, such as seeking out HR for answers. Even better, write down an emergency list of steps you can take if the worst-case scenario arrives and you have to quit yourself.
- Reach out. You just lost your favorite boss, after all. And you liked that boss! There’s no telling what they may be going through. And while there’s nothing wrong with protecting your own career interests, spare a few minutes to connect with your newly-no-longer manager. Chances are they’ll be glad to hear from you and may even have a few words of advice. When I was once let go from a job, my old supervisor warned me to update my resume; the whole department was going to be cut. It ended up being true.
Manage Your Emotions
Critical as it is, staying calm is only one step in managing your emotions. You also should avoid the natural instinct to engage in “affective forecasting.”
Affective forecasting is what happens when we project our reactions to events that haven’t happened yet. It’s a natural instinct as we try to map our way through uncertain scenarios.
But it also has a potentially negative effect: clouding our judgment. It can bias us for or against certain events.
If clear-headedness is your goal, here’s one effective way King University recommends avoiding the negative consequences of affective forecasting: disconnect.
In other words, lay off the social media. Stay away from the water cooler. Before you make any judgments about what went down between your boss and the company, gather all the facts. Objectivity in times of crisis might not seem like a sexy superpower, but sound decision-making is always the way to go.
What To Do When Losing Your Boss Is A Good Thing
Call it addition by subtraction. There’s no getting around this basic fact of life: some bosses are terrible. Even worse, a bad manager is a major stress input: 75% of people report a bad boss as the primary source of their work-related angst.
But before you bust out the celebration music and blow confetti all over your colleagues’ cubicles, you need a plan of action. Your workplace just became a freshly-tilled field of opportunities for growth. There’s no time to capitalize quite like the present.
- Remember switching jobs is scarier than reality. When a great manager quits, it can set off all sorts of inner, emotional alarm bells. Will your job be as good as it was? Should you look for a new one? Follow your manager to the next company? The good news is switching jobs shouldn’t be so scary. If the worst happens and you do switch jobs, consider that most people earn about 5% more on average simply by switching. There are worse things that can happen than a 5% bump in pay.
- Use the opportunity to push for a promotion. No, you don’t need to be pushy. But remember your boss’s boss is in a tough situation—the need to hire a replacement. Deloitte reports that most companies would prefer to grow leadership from the inside out. If there’s an open position you’ve been gunning for, you now have the inside edge. Now’s the time to polish up the resume, fire up a pitch deck, and prepare to make your case.
- Seize the initiative. If your boss was the sole commander of your department, you can use this as an opportunity to demonstrate your leadership prowess. Chances are, your boss’s boss isn’t going to object to you seizing the initiative—they’re probably going to enjoy the fact that you’re taking work off their plate. If you work through Trello, consider creating a master board to unify the team and take suggestions for the next steps. Don’t step on any toes—assume an authoritative tone and people will wonder who put you in charge. Instead, be the first person to ask questions, huddle everyone together, and kick-start the work you have to do after the old boss is gone.
What To Do Before Your Manager Quits
You know those kits that say “Break In Case Of Emergency?” If your current boss's situation is stable, it wouldn’t hurt to put one together right now. The best time to buy an umbrella, after all, is when the sun is shining.
You don’t have a time machine, so if your boss just quit, this section might not help you. But if you feel your company is on the cusp of some major changes, there’s no time like the present to prepare yourself accordingly.
- Polish up your resume and LinkedIn profile. Maybe you foresee a career shift and need to change the verbiage of your LinkedIn bio. Maybe you need to update your resume with a recent work accomplishment that wasn’t in there the last time you applied for jobs. Either way, keep these tools handy—just in case.
- See what’s out there. There are some limitations to job searching while you’re working somewhere else. You may have a non-compete clause in your contract that you’ll have to review. You should also avoid sending out resumes on company time. But otherwise, there’s little downside to seeking gainful employment while you’re already committed somewhere else.
- Talk to people. One of the reasons a time of transition can be so stressful? You’re not learning enough about what’s happening. One survey found that most respondents believe lack of communication adds undue stress. Of course it does. Lack of communication adds opacity to any situation. In times of transition, that opacity can be darn near jarring. Talk to people—including your boss—to find out where everyone stands.
Reframing Upheaval Into Opportunity
Done right, transition in your team doesn’t have to throw you for a loop. But it should throw you into action. When a boss quits, it has the potential to upset the status quo and throw a team’s status up in the air. Depending on what you want to do—whether you want to follow your boss to a new company or seize the initiative at your current company—the simple lesson is: plan. Fight the instinct to be reactive and get proactive about your future.
Handle it the right way, and you probably won’t even need the time machine.
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