Even leaders who have purposely set out to change jobs, and have landed the very roles they’ve always wanted, will feel a degree of separation anxiety as they prepare to move on – that’s according to organisational behaviour expert Professor Herminia Ibarra.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, [1] Ibarra explains that much of this anxiety stems from those leaders’ worries over how the transition will affect their sense of identity. Indeed, in many cases, those concerns will stir up a crisis that – while short-lived – can cut deep.

In the interview, Ibarra cites the sociological study Becoming an Ex, written by former nun Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh. [2] In Ibarra’s words, Ebaugh found a common pattern whereby “as people start to see that they are going to be leaving or becoming an ex, they start … reaching out to people outside their organisation or outside their profession or just in different places, as ways of helping [to] pull themselves out of what can often be very tight and cohesive social circles.

“And so that’s where our networks can be very helpful because they can show the way towards different people and different role models and different ways of defining yourself”.

Interestingly, Ibarra points out, some leaders won’t actually be able to rationalise why they are moving on. “We are wired to be storytellers,” she says, “and to make sense of our choices and our decisions and sometimes as people ask – especially when you’re leaving a very blue chip organisation – like, ‘Why would you leave?’, or ‘why would you do that?’, the story is not necessarily always fully formed or clear in your head, or compelling, or well-told … We can’t apply this kind of linear, rational logic to transitions as well as we can to maybe other kind[s] of smaller work decisions.”

She adds: “I still remember one person talking about how he had planned out the transition and so lived through a lame-duck period as a leader. And he could actually feel that people weren’t responding to him in the same way and you know, he’d walk into the room and people wouldn’t kind of like hustle to attention.”

As well as harnessing their networks, what can leaders who are moving on do to help themselves through these road-bumps of anxiety and confusion?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Power and influence in organisations are curious things. They’re certainly not constant – they ebb and flow depending upon shifts in circumstances and alliances. And of course, when someone is leaving an organisation, there will be a pronounced ebbing of power – because within that particular structure, the individual concerned is no longer part of the future. That will impact upon the way in which colleagues relate to that person.”

Cooper notes: “Even if we look at something as simple as Kurt Lewin’s three-stage change cycle – which he framed as i) unfreeze, ii) change and iii) refreeze – we can see that each stage involves quite a lot of steps. [3] However, as the initial ‘unfreeze’ stage indicates, an individual who is moving jobs must let go of what they know. There will be a period in which that person will want to cling on to their older sense of identity and keep their relationships in an accustomed state, but not be able to do so. It is at that point, though, that you start to shift into a position of acceptance – and then you assume your new identity.”

She adds: “That last stage is where you begin to internalise the norms of your new workplace. And that is often signalled by the point at which you start to talk about your new organisation as ‘We’ – a word that, for so long, had applied to the place you had come from. So, what you are doing is going through a gradual process of personal adjustment, getting used to the new culture, absorbing its norms and committing to a shared future with your new colleagues. And those people will, in time, become your new ‘We’.”

For further thoughts on resilience, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Source refs: [1] [2] [3]

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