How to manage a teammate’s departure

The loss of a team member kicks off a period of ‘identity renegotiation.’

2-minute read

It sucks when a valued team member leaves. 

We’re confronting that reality this week as our cherished Labmate-for-Life, Dr. Vaneeta Sandhu, transitions from her role with us to a new adventure. Sure, we’re “happy” for her and are “excited” to see the incredible success she will have in her new endeavor. After years of benefiting from her charisma, intellectual rigor, and mentorship, we know without a doubt that she’s going to be a leader that drives incredible results. 

But if we’re honest? We’re going to miss her desperately. 

Also, we’re going to have to do some work on ourselves. 

Transactive memory

When a team undergoes any significant structural change (e.g., a teammate leaving, a new member, a change in purpose) the ‘transactive memory system’ of the group evolves. In essence, the transactive memory is the mental map that everyone on the team holds about how talent, knowledge, and problem solving ability are distributed throughout the individual members of the group.* For example, I know that I can go to Vaneeta for research on clinical psychology, DEI initiatives, and Toronto Raptors analysis.

The transactive memory of a group evolves because the loss of a team member kicks off a period of ‘identity renegotiation,’ as the remaining members of the team figure out how they fit into the new team composition. Over the next few weeks and months, some of us will step into the explicit functions of Vaneeta’s role, and others will take over her social and cultural contributions (bookmark this page for my next article, “6 Leadership Lessons from The Toronto Raptors NBA Championship”).

Identity negotiation & verification

Identity renegotiation will challenge all of us to bring new parts of ourselves to work. We’ll use our strengths to contribute in new ways, and as we stretch ourselves we may expose new weaknesses and vulnerabilities. 

For us, and for any leader of a team-in-transition, the strategy for navigating this turbulent time is clear: lots of feedback - especially positive. The uncertainty of our identity renegotiations means that we will be seeking reinforcement from each other about our new place in our mental map of the team (researchers call this process ‘identity verification’). Positive feedback removes the guesswork and makes it easier for us to settle into our new places in the team identity. 

For the rest of 2020, we’re going to be serious about celebrating our evolution. By giving each other lots of positive feedback about the new strengths we’re bringing to the team, we’re going to help each other reinforce a shared map of who we are in this new post-Vaneeta reality. From a group identity perspective, this is a new beginning for how we operate together. 

Let us know how you’re navigating changes to your team identity in the comments below! 

*(For the philosophers in the crowd: The subjective nature of perception means that individual versions of the mental map may vary slightly, but in high performing teams the transactive memory is relatively aligned amongst all members. Researchers call this ‘congruence.’)