A New Beginning – You Are Far More Than What You Did At Work!
This is the second last installment of our weekly series Departing with Dignity, a conversation between Higher Landing Founder & CEO Jackie Rafter and Brian Hallamore, formerly an HR Executive with Imperial Oil. This week Jackie and Brian focus on the individual, and how they can rebuild (or rediscover) their identity after it has been cast into question by a job loss.
For earlier parts of this series click <HERE>.
Jackie Rafter: There are some pretty obvious reasons why people have difficulty with transitions involving significant staff reductions, but are there some less obvious, yet important ones?
Brian Hallamore: One of the biggest challenges is personal identity.
Rafter: Can you explain that?
Hallamore: I think you start with the fact that most people spend more time working during their careers than doing almost any other activity. Work is important because it puts food on the table of course, but for at least eight hours a day, and usually far more, it is a primary source of social interactions, social status, learning, challenges, and accomplishment. Combining these areas with the normal human desire to do well, be (and appear to be) successful, and you have a large number of factors that are contributing to your personal identity; to who you are and how you think of yourself.
Add to this that most organizations are trying hard to have their employees feel committed to them. This means there are all sorts of dynamics in the workplace to try increase that commitment, and these things, such as compensation, recognition, training, job titles, social events, all build on a person’s desire to do well, etc. They also support a person’s identity by defining what success is and who a successful person is.
If these personal factors and organization dynamics are more ”in sync” than “out of sync”, it is great – the organization is receiving high performance from positive, motivated people, and the individual is feeling recognized, rewarded, and so forth. It’s a real win-win…until it isn’t, such as when the organization reduces a large number of its people in a short period of time, and you are one of them.
So the contrast between how things were (give or take) while a person was employed versus how they are now that they have been let go, is enormous.
Rafter: So the feelings people will experience at a time like that could easily have them questioning who they are, their personal competence and confidence, and what is possible down the road. It’s not just about going and finding another job.
Hallamore: Yes, and for those who are still working with the same organization, it can cause a similar reaction, because it leaves them worrying about whether the same thing could happen to them. They may not see much difference between their situation and who they were prior to the staff reductions, and those who have had to leave.
Rafter: What does someone have to do to deal with this effectively?
Hallamore: The first thing is to step back and assess who you are – to recognize that you are far more than what you did at work. It is critical to gain a perspective on yourself that has a “you” that is separate from work, and that satisfies key motivators for you. Work remains important, but it isn’t necessarily the primary definer. So some key motivators can and should be work related, but focusing on other areas is really helpful. Getting this resolved is a key step in getting an ending in the transition process. (Remembering that transitions are composed of: Endings --> Transition --> Beginnings.)
Going forward, I think one of the keys is related to managing a dilemma. On the one hand, your employer (either a new one if you’ve been let go, or your old one if you’ve stayed) will want strong commitment from you going forward. In order for you to do your best, you will also need to be committed to performing well, spending significant amounts of time working, and so forth. So the dilemma is finding a way to be really committed, while at the same time maintaining a “you” that is also different from that and feels as good about the recognition, etc. from areas outside work as from inside.
The difficulty is that there is no “silver bullet” here – it will be a constant push and pull, but provided that you can remain conscious of the dilemma and try to manage it, you’re more likely to be in a better place, even if you had been very successful (by all standards, including yours) with your identity when it was all, or mainly, wrapped up in work. The nature of dilemmas is that there is no “right” or “correct” answer – the magic is in developing an answer that works for you now by managing these seemingly conflicting forces, and recognizing that the answer for you may need to change over time.
Rafter: This does sound rather difficult.
Hallamore: Yes it is, and it is especially difficult when people are used to getting quick answers to things and moving on. The very nature of this process is asking the difficult questions that most of us try and avoid and taking time to answer them. Questions such as “What do I want to be when I grow up?” and “What do I really do well?”, etc. Really coming to terms with these types of questions requires hard work and takes time. For most people, it won’t happen in a matter of hours or weeks, but if the time and energy is invested in it, it can be beneficial in a big way. I would add that there are, no doubt, people who do have a clear personal identity and they won’t require as much time in this area as many others. Nonetheless, asking and answering these questions is important, and it’s worth checking with people who know you well regarding whether there may be more for you to explore that could be to your benefit.
Rafter: It would be easy for someone to assume that because they’ve dealt with lots of stressful events previously, they don’t need to worry about all of this, and just “soldier on”.
Hallamore: Yes it is easy to do this, and it is potentially very destructive. For people who have left an organization involuntarily, the question “Why me?” (and not someone else) comes up. It is almost impossible to really know the answer to such a question, but that won’t stop the individual from trying to answer it. In searching for an answer, it is very easy to fixate on the previous organization either by dwelling on how good things were and glossing over the issues that were probably present, or taking the view “I’ll show them they made the wrong choice.”
While there’s no doubt that the motivation to do well that arises from showing somebody they made a mistake can have some positive impact, in the end it is very destructive.
What happens as a result of this thinking is that anything the individual does after that is defined not by them but by their perception of the previous employer. The problem with this is that the previous employer will likely not know how well the person did after they left, so there’s no acknowledgement to the individual. This leaves the individual never satisfying the criteria they’ve established, and feeling very negative every time their prior employer does something positive. Basically they are “stuck” psychologically in what is really a negative place, and this will eventually leave them bitter and dissatisfied.
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