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.

The relationship between context and career

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 a similar age, having been born between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s.
  • working together for more than two decades.
  • destined to quit in 2010 or 2011, in most cases taking advantage of early-retirement packages at the height of post-financial-crisis cutbacks.
  • able to continue 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.”

The same forest

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:

The members of the group decided to become social workers.  They held a belief they could have a positive impact on society.   Their career path was determined by mindsets and worldviews accumulated in the idealism of the 1960s.

“There was a whole direction of young people saying: ‘I don’t just want to work for a 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.

The sociological problem of generations

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.”

Our formative experiences significantly influence us. As a result our mindsets and worldviews have major implications for our workplaces. 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.  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.

Two sides to every coin

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?

Organisations need to consider what they have lost in these circumstances. 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 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.  We are products of our mindsets and worldviews.

Laurie Cohen is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School. She is the author of Imagining Women’s Careers. [email protected]

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Nottingham University Business School specialises in developing leadership potential, encouraging innovation and enterprise, and developing a global outlook in its students, partners, and faculty. It is recognised as one of the world’s top business schools for integrating responsible and sustainable business issues into its undergraduate, MBA, MSc, PhD, and executive programmes and has unrivalled global reach through Nottingham’s campuses in the UK, China, and Malaysia. The School holds a Small Business Charter Award in recognition of its important role in supporting small and medium enterprises. It is accredited by both the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and ranks among the UK’s top ten for research power.