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Losing Your Job? Psychological, Spiritual
It’s said the reason we ask children what they want to be when they grow up is because we’re looking for ideas.
10% - 20% of us are presently out of work. Those who aren’t understand quite well that with the next reorganization, we could be out on the street as well.
We may want to start lining up now to get some counsel from the kids.
I - A Psychological Lay of the Land
As most of us surmise, things are messed up enough that they’re not going to get fixed anytime soon. Our business lives have changed, whether we like it or not. In the face of our love affair with the Status Quo, turmoil has become the new constant. There’s some wisdom in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s advice: “If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
We’ve also become pretty educated about change. I’ve found that there are two very different kinds. The first one starts with a “beginning.” I used to drive a Dodge Dart; I now drive a new Lexus. Barring that the gas pedal doesn’t get stuck, you give me a week or so to master the cruise control, CD changer and seat warmer, and I’m in fine shape. I used to drive an old car, now I have a new one. This enjoyable type of change starts with a “beginning.”
The change that this depressed economy has thrown us into is not like getting a new car. It’s more like getting a new spouse. That’s a very different sort of change! This type affects our identity, how we show up in the world, the way people relate to us. And this second kind of change starts with an “ending.” Life as we know it is over. We may not have been aware of that when we got married; but our friends were. That’s why when the announcement came out, they hosted a Bachelor and Bachelorette Party. “Take that person out for a few drinks,” is how they put it.
This second type of change is dramatic: something has died. It invites us into a three-part waltz: ending; transition; new beginning. We’ll initially go through a period of loss. We then find ourselves moving into a “transition” phase, when the old rules are no longer in effect and the new ones aren’t in place yet. It’s a time of anxiety and ambiguity. It’s also a time of creativity: we can re-write the rules since everything’s in flux. We then eventually reach the “beginning” stage where we fully embrace the new reality.
I remember when I first got married and my wife introduced me to here aged aunt. “How long you’ve been married?” she asked. “Six months,” I proudly replied. With a smirk of cynicism on her face, she muttered: “You ain’t really married; you’re still on your honeymoon!”
Of course, my wife’s aunt was absolutely right. We first needed to pass through the ending and transition stages of the honeymoon before we’re truly married. In fact, divorce rates indicate that half of us get lost during the “transition” and never even make it to marital bliss.
If losing your job puts you into an “ending” - it’s worthwhile understanding what’s going on.
A few years back, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about people going through a major change in their lives: terminally ill folks moving from this world to the Great Beyond. In her book, “On Death and Dying,” Elisabeth charted the now-famous stages people go through in handling any type of significant change. The acronym is DADA: Denial; Anger; Depression; Acceptance.
Whenever major change hits, we all start out believing it won’t significantly impact us. That’s the Denial Stage. It’s only a matter of time before reality sets in and we feel something we cherished has been lost, and it pisses us off. That’s Anger. Sit with that for awhile and we become sullen and morose, losing any desire to even get out of bed and shower. Welcome to Depression. The comedian Steven Wright says that depression is merely anger without the enthusiasm – which sounds about right. Eventually, with the slow passage of time, we’ll arrive at a reluctant recognition of the new reality. Acceptance has arrived.
After moving through the DADA process of the “ending,” we’re now free to move wholeheartedly into “transition” and eventually on to the new “beginning.”
People often tell me that they just can’t wait till all these changes end. It’s helpful to remember that the time in your life when all change ceases is called clinical death. So, you may not want to get there any time soon.
It’s also a truism that as soon as you reach a new beginning in one aspect of your life, another change is right on its heels. It seems you just finish going through a merger at work than your child goes off to college making you an “empty-nester” – putting you through yet another change. It’s on-going and never-ending. It’s not that the pain and discomfort of all these changes ever go away; we just get more comfortable going through the process. Do it enough and you get some wisdom and compassion in understand the Human Condition.
While the DADA model sounds orderly and manageable, it is anything but. It’s more like being rolled around in a beer barrel or somewhat akin to a mixed drink: today I’m 30% in Denial, 50% in Anger … and 20% vodka. A few months down the line, it’s 10% Anger, 60% Depression … and 30% vermouth.
There are other things we know about going through the DADA of the “ending” process. It takes time. We’re also not allowed to skip the messy inappropriateness of our Anger and Depression. Folks seem to move through the DADA stages when they’re ready and at their own pace. It’s just as silly to say “You shouldn’t feel that way,” as it is to complain “You’ve been depressed long enough, get over it!” Comments like that only get in the way of allowing people the space and time needed to go through their changes.
While friends and co-workers are sometimes able to tolerate our Denial and Acceptance phases, there is often little stomach for our displays of Anger and Depression. They’d prefer not to see it; don’t want to hear it; resent having to deal with it.
The appropriate and professional response to people who act this way is to gently tell them: “Get Lost!” While polite society has little tolerance for these powerful emotions, they still need to be surfaced, expressed and released. Not to do so, keeps the toxicity inside, poisoning self, relationships and probable positive futures.
A few years back I helped my utility company go through the throes of deregulation by hosting a “corporate funeral” with my CEO’s support. We brought several hundred of our leaders together to mourn the “ending” of an old way of doing business, spent some time acknowledging what had ended for us as a company and accepting the loss without judgment or condemnation. I then helped them make their way through the “transition” and embrace a new “beginning” as a Deregulated Energy Company.
What I did for my Fortune 500 Company you might need to do for yourself in the face of job loss, financial insecurity or resentment about the future of business. Consider hosting your own “Irish Wake.” Rant and rave about the loss; spend some time weeping and gnashing your teeth. Wrent your garment and don sackcloth and ashes. Then go out, have a good cry, commiserate with friends, enjoy a few laughs, get drunk and then move on. Design and participate in your own liturgy of death and mourning. It’s deeply human and powerfully healing.
II - A Spiritual Lay of the Land
Everything that happens is a Problem, Predicament or Mystery.
In our lives, we all have to deal with “Problems.” And if we’re good at dealing with problems, we find “Solutions.” I love dealing with problems. I feel competent; I get a chance to use my expertise; I have a positive impact in the world. After a day of handling problems, I go home, sit down to a nourishing meal with family and friends, and finish it off with a good night’s sleep. Next morning, I wake up refreshed and renewed, eager to get back to work, solve more problems and create new solutions.
In corporate life, if you’re good at solving problems, we promote you. Once this happens, you’re no longer dealing with problems; you’re now responsible for managing “Predicaments.” These are the imponderables of business life. The dilemmas of complexity and uncertainty. This is the realm of ambiguity and unintended consequences. There’s no ready answer, yet you must take action, knowing full well that no matter what course you choose, it’s not going to be sufficient. Yet, you’re still accountable for results and responsible for making decisions. It often has the feel of taking two steps forward and one step back.
Executives are often the ones responsible for dealing with predicaments, and they hate it. Why? Because they’re not good at it. What they excel at is solving problems, which is why they originally got promoted. But that’s no longer their responsibility. Executives often micromanage because they don’t want to deal with the predicaments of their job; they’re more comfortable dealing with the problems of yours.
After a day spent dealing with predicaments, you go home feeling weary and vulnerable. You recognize that no matter what actions you take, what decisions you make, they’re never enough. But you’re still responsible and your career hangs in the balance. When you sit down to dinner you tend to over drink and get in arguments. At night, your sleep is interrupted by fear and insecurities. You wake up the next day, tired and reluctant to head back to the office where the intractable nature of predicaments awaits you.
While dealing with problems results in solutions, the most you get with predicaments is “Movement.” It’s always a halting type, with fits and starts, no clear beginning, middle and end. Taking positive action in one direction will often have negative outcomes in another. It’s like being tasked with growing the business, improving Customer Satisfaction, raising morale, while simultaneously needing to reduce the workforce by 25%. It’s not like you have options or can only choose to do some of these tasks. All will be required.
Think of President Obama. Regardless of whether you like the guy or not, you understand that he’s not dealing with a problem. He’s in the realm of predicament: solve healthcare; save the economy; improve world peace; reduce unemployment … and don’t forget to reign in Wall Street’s egregious behavior. He’s not going to solve any of these situations, but he’s still required to take action. And no matter what he does, he’ll still be faulted and criticized. Yet he needs to execute anyway. Throw him out of office and elect somebody new if you want, but the next President will be in the same unenviable position.
What helps in dealing with predicaments is if we can get focused on the right question. If we can garnish the discernment of asking the right questions, it will help us make some Movement. A big part of the work I did with my CEO was to help the company get focused on the right questions. Many of them tended to be too small; too self-serving; too myopic. What’s needed are large, engaging and often over-arching questions. “How do we increase profits?” is too small a question to be asking. “How might our products improve the betterment of the world” or “How could we create a corporate culture that invites and rewards the deeper talents of our workers?” are better questions that garnish passion and commitment. Framing the right questions will not generate solutions, but will be sufficient enough to generate Movement: which is the most you can hope for in the realm of predicaments.
The Spiritual term for predicament is “Mystery.” When dealing with Problems, the appropriate response is Solutions. When dealing with Predicaments, the appropriate response is Movement. The appropriate response to Mystery is Awe. Bold faced and apoplectic. Somewhat similar to Moses’ reaction to the burning bush: open-mouthed silence and confusion! It’s no accident that “Mystery” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “keep your mouth shut.”
Prior to coming to corporate life, I spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. I used to believe that Mystery was the domain of the monastery. My 20 years in business taught me otherwise. Mystery takes place in the marketplace. That’s where Good and Evil get worked out. Just look at the business scandals that make headlines in our daily newspapers. It’s also where Life and Death take place. Not just of our commercial institutions, but of the workers as well. We now spend some much time at work that large numbers of us are dying there.
A while back, a woman stopped by my office to share with me that her daughter was dying of Leukemia. You just can’t open your file cabinet and look under the letter “L” and pull out a solution. There are no answers here; and it’s not going to have a happy ending. You’re no longer in the realm of Problem or Predicament; you’re thrust into the world of Mystery. It’s been said that when doctors graduate from medical school they’re told that half of what they learned is wrong; we’re just not sure which half it is. Whenever you’re dealing with people, you are dealing with Mystery. There’s no algorithm available that’s going to easily get you through this maze of the human condition. You’re stopped in your tracks and forced to contemplate life’s inestimable complexity.
Deeper Meanings of a Job Loss
If you’re out of work, you’re in one of these three places.
There are some folks who are presently unemployed that are dealing with a Problem. They need to put a resume together, get out and network for interviews, dress smartly and they’ll get a job. Life will get back to normal.
Yet there are others without work who are dealing with Predicament. Yes, they too will eventually get a job – but they understand that their professional lives are irrevocably changed by the new economy. Corporate paternalism is no more. The wisdom of previous generations no longer has relevance to our modern experience. It’s just a matter of time before downsizing, outsourcing and globalization puts them out of work again. They know that job security, company loyalty and anxiety-free work are of a bygone era. Sadly, the past is no longer prologue. They will have many jobs and several careers in their work life journey. As with all Predicaments, it helps to get focused on the right questions. “How do I get another job” is probably the wrong one. It’s too small. Better questions might be: “What’s my plan for staying gainfully employed in a jobless world?” or “What talents do I need to compete in the new marketplace?” and “What passions do I possess that might generate income?” Questions like these are not easily answered, yet help us maintain some Movement in the face of an unknown future.
Sadly, there are some folks that are presently out of work who are being sucked into the vortex of Mystery. Like Jonah of old, they’ve been swallowed by a whale and spit out on a foreign land - not of their own choosing. For them, there are elements of Destiny and Divine Workings underfoot. The right resume or a helpful interview is not going to rescue these people. This is a journey they will have to make alone forcing them to dig deep into their personal reservoir of resources in order to come out alive. Hard decisions will be made; rude awakenings will be had.
For an inkling of what lies ahead, search out your Bible and visit the Book of Job. If you’re not religiously inclined, drive down to your local “Blockbuster” video store and rent Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.” Perhaps some will need to get stuck repeating the same day over and over again until they go within, identify their own contribution to the problem and have their spirit broken before realizing a need to change. Another revelatory film is “Cast Away” where Tom Hanks portrays a “FedEx” employee whose plane crashes ushering him off to a few years of isolation. The good news is he loses a lot of weight. The bad news: he’s forced to confront his mortality and must eventually throw himself back into the very ocean that sought to kill him. He does make it back home, but life has been radically altered. The Fates have intervened and all that’s left is to play the cards he’s been dealt.
If Mystery is what your job loss is about, batten down the hatches. You’re in for one hell of a ride.
III - A Practical Lay of the Land
If you’ve lost your job or fear you might (and who doesn’t…), here are some practical considerations:
1 – Visit your local Proctologist
To paraphrase Hamlet: “Get thee to a proctologist!” The loss of your job or the realization that the rules of business have aggressively changed dredge up anger, frustration and resentment. If you keep in within, it’ll kill you. There’s a need to find a safe place where you can get it all out without damaging your employment prospects. It’s better to vent these noxious fumes with supportive family and friends rather than bringing them along to your next job interview. Support groups, professional associations and life coaches all play a helpful role in this regard. There’s something deeply human and therapeutic in getting all the crap out. We also feel a whole lot better. Manure, once it’s spread around, smells less offensive and actually helps things grow.
2 – Get Mad
The early Church Father, St. John Chrysostom, once said: “Whosoever is not angry when there is cause for anger, sins.” We have a right to be in a rage over the behavior of some of our corporate and political leaders. They’ve taken advantage of the system, lined their own pockets with profits and sold the rest of us down river. Venting our anger has the potential of countering our lethargy and forcing us to take some positive actions, for our sake and the sake of others. You might also make it lucrative: consider becoming a Whistleblower or take up Card Counting to beat the pants off the House. Why not do stand-up comedy? You won’t even need to develop new material. There was probably more than enough insanity going on at your last company to keep people laughing for years. I’d pay money to hear someone speak truthfully about how business says that employees are their most valuable asset while kicking them out the door. You could do a whole routine on the silliness of Work-Life Balance. How about Performance Appraisal? I’m giggling already.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has given us an effective model for channeling the power and creativity of rage. These women have taken their pain and changed the world for the better. If you drink and get behind the wheel of a car and kill someone, they’re going to make sure you go to jail. Politicians who support them have been elected; those opposed have been defeated. They’ve taken their anger, banded together, created a movement and changed the rules. Anger is one of the more creative emotions we have. Instead of becoming a victim in the face of marketplace injustice, use resentment to drive progress. Been discriminated against because of your age, race or gender? Go work for the competition. Bring a few disgruntled workers along with you. Cherry pick your old company’s markets, find a profitable niche and eat your former employer’s lunch.
4 – Embrace Vendor-mindedness
Think of yourself as a vendor. Even if you still have a job, you no longer work for a company. You work for yourself. If a company’s got to choose between funding the executive Bonus Plan or dropping 20% of their workers, you already know which way the decision’s going. The Gen-Xers had it right all along: become self-sufficient because we are all dispensable. View yourself as a vendor with talents and services to offer. If you have something that meets a company’s need, you’ll get some work. If other vendors can do it better, faster or cheaper, the client will go there. It’s transactional, and based on one’s value-adding capability. You’re also now responsible for being your own Sales and Marketing departments. The rigors of remaining competent, competitive and knowledgeable reside with you, where it belongs. The age of a secure corporate job is over and it’s probably better than way.
5 – Keep your Resume brief
Resumes are used to eliminate you from the employment process. The less you reveal, the better. Think of a burlesque show: if all the cloths come off in the First Act, nobody stays around till the end. In today’s market, there are hundreds of resumes for each job opening. The boss tells the secretary: “Go through the pile and eliminate anyone with less than 15 years experience.” If your resume has you with 10 years, you’ve excluded yourself and won’t get called. The sole purpose of the resume is not to get the job; it’s to get the interview. Your resume should be a high level one-pager. It should pique their interest, offer some allure, be revealing, but not with any great detail. When in doubt, think “Burlesque Queen.” Always show less than more up front, forcing them to call and interview you in person.
6 – Become an “Educator”
Not a teacher, an educator. The word comes from the ancient Greek, maieutikai – literally, “to catch what comes forth.” It’s the same word they used to describe the work of midwifery. I once read an interview with an old midwife where the reporter asked “How many babies have you delivered?” “None,” the woman said. “I don’t deliver babies; mothers do. I catch ‘em!” Like Holden Caulfield of old, we are all invited to be “catchers.” Firstly, for ourselves. I have an obligation to birth myself anew in this changing world of work. While it’s a little scary, it’s also a creative, generative and exciting experience. Secondly, we have an obligation to help birth others. Many feel isolated, abandoned, wounded. We need to reach out and catch these folks as well. It’s our personal commitment to the world. J.D. Salinger will rest a lot better knowing you’re out there saving lives.
A Crisis in Authority
Our leaders have let us down. Not just the business elite, but political, religious and educational ones as well. Many are no longer credible. But a few remain trustworthy. How might we decide where to cast our lot? Here’s a hint.
“Authority” has the same origin as “author.” Authors go deep within themselves to find the Truth. And when they unearth it, they bring it out and write about it. And in revealing their Truth, they write with “authority.” It is powerful, compelling and credible. When we hear peoples’ Truth, we are moved to action and want to support and follow them. Their power is independent of income, race, gender or position. It flows from the person alone. When Jesus was preaching in the temple, the religious leaders queried: “By what authority do you say these things?” He quipped: “By my own authority.” When confronted with the power of the individual, they were dumbfounded and backed off.
When authors plummet their own Truth and reveal it, it is really only true for themselves. However, there is an aspect of Truth that is universal. In hearing others speak theirs, a part of me says: “Yes! That’s true for me as well.” It resonates deeply. The monks used to say that the soul rejoices when it hears truths it already knows. The “individual” aspect of Truth also resonates with its “universality.”
During these uncertain times, if you come across folks who have found their own Truth and are brave enough to go public with it - support them. These are the trustworthy leaders who speak from a position of authority. We are well served joining forces with them. It’s the only hope for meaningful change that we have.
P.S. If you’re thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many more articles in Personal Development in The CEO Refresher Archives