Redundancy is traumatic – it’s generally recognised as one of the worst things that can happen to a person, right up there with a death in the family. Dealing with it is personal. There are no prescriptive methods that work for everyone. But one thing is certain: you will have a story about what happened. It’s an innate human characteristic. We tell stories to explain our circumstances and console ourselves in times of tragedy. To prepare for re-entry into work – either a job or self-employment – it’s essential to get your story straight. In this blog I discuss the first and most important story: the one inside your head, your private tale that will influence everything you do in your efforts to get back to work.
I met recently with David E. Gray, Professor of Management Learning and Director of The Leadership Academy at the University of Surrey. Gray is recognised as one of the UK’s leading academics researching the theory and practice of coaching. He’s had many books and articles published, including one he shared with me, a paper he co-authored with Yiannis Gabriel and Harshita Goregaokor, titled Temporary Derailment or the End of the Line – Unemployed Managers at 50 (Organization Studies, 5/05/2010)
The paper is based on research conducted with a dozen older managers and professionals who were made redundant in the latter part of 2008. Each of them had a story about the event and what it meant in their lives. The authors determined that the stories fell into three main categories:
1) Temporary derailment – a problem that can be fixed by taking an appropriate action that will lead back to normality.
2) End of the line – the result of unjust and cruel circumstances, with no chance of resuming a meaningful career.
3) Moratorium – an opportunity to re-think career options, and perhaps begin a new chapter in life.
These narrative strategies are part of a quest for meaning that follows a traumatic incident. The authors use the term ‘narrative coping’ to describe the process whereby a story explains the situation, offers consolation, and enables a person to move on from trauma “without being defined by it”.
I had always thought we define ourselves by what we do and what happens to us, which is why the loss of work is so disturbing. Gray’s paper suggests that we define ourselves through narrative. The authors quote Anthony Giddens: “… a person’s identity is not to be found in behaviour, nor – important though it is – the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going…” (Modernity and self-identity, Stanford University Press, 1991)
What is your coping narrative? Are you a proud survivor who has had a temporary setback, or are you an angry victim who’s reached the end of line? Perhaps you’re a troubled sufferer who is re-considering life’s options. Whether you are seeking a new job or starting a new business, it’s important to know what you want, why you want it, and how it fits in your personal narrative. To achieve your goal you’ll need a convincing story, one that others will buy into. And it won’t be credible unless you believe it yourself.
In the next part, I’ll explain how you tell your story.