About the relationship between context and career
It seems obvious to infer something is lost whenever an employee leaves an organisation, yet the true nature of that loss is too seldom grasped. It’s not just a matter of numbers. It’s a matter of mindsets and worldviews.
To understand why we first have to appreciate what an individual brings to an organisation. Only then can we begin to comprehend what’s likely to be squandered when that same individual departs.
With Professor Joanne Duberley, of the University of Birmingham, I recently carried out a study that shed light on this conundrum. Our findings underlined some interesting points about the relationship between context and career.
We interviewed a group of former senior managers in a local authority’s social services department. Several factors made them unusual and informative from a research standpoint:
- They were all of similar age, having been born between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s.
- They all worked together for more than two decades.
- They all quit in 2010 or 2011, in most cases taking advantage of early-retirement packages at the height of post-financial-crisis cutbacks.
- They all continued to meet up years after leaving the authority.
Anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers will be familiar with the notion that career trajectories are frequently less a matter of intelligence and ambition and more a story of birth, antecedence, situation, circumstance and opportunity. The members of our group perfectly embodied this idea.
“The culture we belong to and the legitimacies passed on by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine,” Gladwell writes. “This is not a book about tall trees. It is a book about forests.”
That our respondents had travelled through the same forest quickly became plain. The following observations, underscored by quotes from the respondents themselves, summarise the route:
Having been raised amid the idealism of the 1960s, the members of the group decided to become social workers in the belief that they could have a positive impact on society.
“There was a whole direction of young people saying: ‘I don’t just want to work for profit. I actually want to make a difference.’”
They prospered during the ensuing years when the public sector was regarded as a “force for change”.
“People who got into social services in the 1970s… There was much more of a political dimension to the work.”
They were less comfortable during the Thatcher age, which brought a move towards managerialism and a chasm between their own values and those of the wider profession.
“‘Performance-oriented’ and ‘Get the story right at all costs’ became a much more dominant situation.”
After the financial crisis, they increasingly struggled to accept what they saw as a determination to erode the services to which they had devoted their working lives.
“We belonged to a certain era and a certain way of thinking. We were good guys and girls – and now the world’s a bad place.”
The final quote is especially illustrative. The fundamental point is that the worldview forged during the 1960s and 1970s – whether political, ideological or otherwise – remained central to the group’s perceptions of everything that happened subsequently.
Karl Mannheim, a founding father of classical sociology, touches on this phenomenon in a seminal essay, The Sociological Problem of Generations, written between the World Wars. He notes: “Early impressions tend to coalesce into a natural view of the world. All later experiences then tend to receive their meaning from this original set, whether they appear as that set’s verification or fulfilment or its negation and antithesis.”
In other words, as Gladwell has remarked, people are built from the outside in rather than from the inside out. We’re forever significantly influenced by our formative experiences – and this has major implications for our workplaces.
This much can clearly be seen in the members of our group, whose “original set” was still guiding them 40 years later. This shows we bring a lot more to our careers than just our engagement with the task: we bring perspectives, opinions, approaches and myriad other distinctive qualities and attributes.
By extension, it also shows organisations can’t exist in a vacuum. They can never be miraculously removed from all that isn’t in the here and now. Ideologically, politically, even philosophically, it’s impossible – and potentially counterproductive – to isolate them from everything external. They need a full range of perspectives, a whole array of “natural views of the world” if they’re genuinely to thrive.
Does this mean our respondents were let down by their employer? There are two sides to every coin, of course, and the authority might well claim the group’s members failed to adapt; but were they effectively railroaded into obsolescence?
Also, what was lost in sweeping them out like yesterday’s news, out of date and surplus to requirements? Most probably quite a lot: a vision of what our society could be and how to contribute to this ideal; longstanding relationships both within and outside the organisation; a deep understanding of how and why things work; and maybe even a certain world-weary wisdom that comes from having seen it all before.
Ultimately, as Gladwell says, it’s all about forests. To use a well-worn phrase: we’re products of our environments. Every tree retains its roots, which is why it’s invariably wise to give serious thought to what happens when these are damaged, dug up or, perhaps worst of all, wilfully encouraged to wither and die.