Jane Booth, Owner of Opus 29 Consultancy, and Alastair Lechler, Founder of ReBoot discuss the (often overlooked) link between identity and wellbeing
Jane has been working in the sports sector since 1997, she is now a people development specialist providing consultancy in the fields of inclusion, coaching, change management and leadership development. Jane's passion for learning has taken her through an MBA and onto a part-time PhD alongside her ‘day job’. Her studies have enabled her to evolve and shape her work as she endeavours to develop her leadership and management capability and competence on a daily basis. Jane's PhD is focussed on learning from the life histories of experienced leaders in terms of developing a better understanding of the core experiences that have helped them become the amazing leaders they are today.
The ‘noise’ around mental health and psychological wellbeing has grown ever louder and more dynamic over the past few years. We are seeing increasing numbers of campaigns challenging the stigma of mental illness and, as a result, we are seeing more and more high profile individuals telling their stories of inner, often highly personal struggles. For example, elite athletes such as Victoria Pendleton (GB cycling), Adam Peaty (GB swimming), Ian Thorpe (AUS swimming), Clarke Carlisle (GB football) and Rebekah Wilson (GB bobsleigh) have openly shared their experiences of anxiety, depression, addiction, self-harm and other, equally challenging mental health issues. Many of these stories stem from the struggles of coping with the demands of elite competition, yet many are also related to the battles faced by retiring athletes or athletes whose sporting careers have been cut short through injury.
Of less prevalence in the media, yet of equal significance, are stories of corporate executives finding it impossible to settle into life as a retiree; employees feeling lost after being made redundant; new parents struggling to remember what life was like before children; individuals consumed by grief; young people worrying about what their future will hold.
By delving a little further into each of these seemingly very different scenarios, it becomes evident that there is a common thread connecting each of these examples; and that is the word ‘transition’. William Bridges (change consultant) defined transition as:
‘…the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalise and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about’.
In his 1991 book ‘Managing Transitions’, Bridges proposed a model that recognised three core stages of any transition – (1) Ending, losing and letting go; (2) The neutral zone; (3) The new beginning. Bridges argued that understanding the process of change and recognising these three specific stages would help individuals embrace their own change experiences and navigate these transition phases more successfully.
I like the Bridges model and believe that it helps to explain some of the unexpected and unfamiliar feelings that arise at times of change. It is also helpful when working with others, such as when mentoring or facilitating personal development, as it provides a framework within which you can support someone else to better appreciate and ‘own’ their transitions. In fact, numerous programmes for retiring athletes and corporate executives (either consciously or unconsciously) utilise this model in shaping their content and structure. For example, corporate retirement preparation workshops, ‘athlete to business’ mentoring programmes, some antenatal-style sessions – all focus on helping individuals get themselves ready for the next stage in their life and equip them with the tools they may need for their onward journey.
Yet, despite these interventions and efforts to ‘prepare’ people for their new beginnings, individuals still often struggle to cope in times of change. We witness high profile cases of retiring athletes who find great difficulty in coming to terms with life outside of their structured routines of training and competition; just as we see the more everyday challenge of individuals leaving jobs and careers that have been a significant part of their life for many years, or parents experiencing an unfamiliar ‘empty nest’ when their children leave home.
There is a certain inevitably about transitions in life. We will all experience them at some point in time, and will all deal with them in our own ways. Some people thrive in times of change, others find it daunting, overwhelming and more than a little scary. The impact of the experience will depend on the unique circumstances surrounding a particular shift, and for some people the Bridges model can help them to prepare for, and navigate these uncomfortable periods.
Through my research and experiences of coaching, mentoring and developing people, I have begun to view the challenge of transition through an alternative perspective. One of the things I often hear people say when they are struggling with change is that they feel like they have lost their sense of self; that they no longer know who they are. This is especially noticeable when talking with athletes who have suddenly been forced to retire through injury and struggle to comprehend that yesterday they were ‘Alex the athlete’, but today they are ‘Alex the ex-athlete’. This brings uncertainty and doubt around personal purpose, and also a great deal of concern over how to define yourself when people ask the familiar question of ‘…and what do you do?’. It is arguably this loss of ‘identity’ that can be correlated to the increase in psychological distress and negative impact on personal wellbeing.
Identity is a somewhat complex subject, pioneered in the early 1900s by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Erikson argued that identity is formed when a person is able to merge, and understand all the different ‘versions’ of oneself (e.g. athlete, parent, spouse, carer, student) into one cohesive ‘whole’, and it is having this strong sense of self that enables individuals to survive at times of stress or unexpected disaster.
Erikson considered that there were three aspects of identity;
- the ego (or self),
- personal identity (the unique things that differentiate every individual),
- social/cultural identity (the various social roles that an individual might assume).
Perhaps a simple way to think about identity is to view it is an intricate blend of:
self-perception (i.e. how we see ourselves) - plus...
external perceptions (i.e. how we think others see us) - alongside the sense of...
how we feel about ourselves and who we are.
My perspective and belief is that people who have a strong sense of identity are relatively comfortable in answering the existential question of ‘who am I?’. That is not to say that the answer will always be the same because our identities shift over time and are informed by our ongoing experiences and growth. Generally speaking, though, I believe that individuals who know who they are, are comfortable with how others see them and feel confident about what matters to them and why, are better equipped to deal with the challenges of change and more likely to feel happier with their personal wellbeing. In contrast, individuals who do not have a clear sense of identity are arguably more likely to struggle during transitions and experience stress or psychological distress during such times.
I therefore believe that supporting individuals to develop their identities (ego, personal and social) can have significant and positive impacts upon their general sense of wellbeing. I would argue that, whilst a strong sense of identity will never exempt you from going through a life transition, it will potentially provide the required strength and security to successfully ‘ride the storm’. To use another ocean based analogy; having a strong sense of identity is like having a robust keel that will steady your ship whilst through the most turbulent of waves. It may feel like a wild and scary place to be, but you trust that your keel will keep you upright and centred until the worst has passed.
Knowing who you are matters.
Being comfortable with how you see yourself, and how others see you, matters.
For work, for life, for wellness.
Fascinating insights - thank you Jane.
I’d like to build on, and contextualise into the business world some of the points here using my 15 years in the headhunting sector, and having personally made a number of major transitions in my life.
While the recruitment industry often gets slammed for sharp behaviour and a tendency to commoditise people, there are some shining stars who develop deep, long lasting relationships built on trust, integrity, authenticity and reciprocity. I’d like to think that I was one.
If you consider the magnitude and sensitivities involved with leaving a position in one company, and trying to decipher the truth from the spin, and gauge culture in a new company - a lot can go wrong!
I always saw my role as one of trusted advisor - both to clients entering into the unknown, and candidates searching and down-selecting opportunities where they can succeed and grow.
It was a partnership where-by my insights into the new prospective company were invaluable, and my ability to pull no punches in outlining the hard truths could play a pivotal role in someone’s career.
With that position of ‘broker power’ comes responsibility.
One could often describe the role as that of career counsellor, and to pick up on Jane’s point - there was a very broad spectrum of people who were or were not comfortable or prepared for their transition. (For many people changing job is a transition that they have not even chosen.) The irony here is that I functionally specialised in supporting organisations going through change or transformation!
In the world of interim management, assignments typically last 9-12 months, with challenging briefs often involving parachuting into a situation bordering on chaos!
The initial tasks are typically -
- Establishing accountability and allies, and importantly - key obstacles
- Engagement & leadership
- Supporting people through change - communication
- Creating a collaborative culture, to enable delivery
A few of my observations:
The best interim managers had a very clear articulation of their personal value offering. They knew their strengths and weaknesses and who they were likely to click or clash with.
Because they were only as good as their latest assignment - they actively seeked 360 degree feedback. This equipped them with the ability to engage sometimes cynical teams of people.
The best would work with a coach, and were always seeking to learn and develop themselves
Adaptability was critical to their success as most were sector agnostic. Knowing their worth while being open and up front regarding their lack of knowledge of sector specific subject matter. Getting this balance right enabled them to win hearts and minds, and steer large teams through periods of uncertainty.
We nicknamed our bench of interims “adrenalin junkies” as they were the ‘hired guns’ who thrived in bringing order to chaos, and achieving the impossible. Assignments were extremely demanding, with little to zero holiday for long periods. Self-awareness tended to be high, and most had a strong appreciation for the need to cool off and re-charge between assignments.
Much care was given to selecting clients and assignments. Scoping the market was never easy, but the key ingredients of authority and accountability, and a strong sponsor - mixed together to create an environment where they could thrive and deliver.
Switching attention now to younger generations, and changing career aspirations moving forwards..
Corporate purpose and ‘contributing to a cause I believe in’ are factors that have moved up the rankings in light of what graduates are looking for in an employer.
The question of ‘why do you do what you do?’ seems to get more airtime. This also applies to career changers in their 30s and 40s. Escape the City is a B-Corporation, who have seen success delivering education programmes for people who want to shift career, or upskill in order to launch a new business venture.
Traditional corporate businesses are working hard to reinvent themselves in order to refresh their mission and employer brand - with a view to competing with the myriad of exciting young, high-growth startups positively disrupting and pinching market share.
Successful entrepreneurs today have a blend of (but by no means limited to) the following traits:
With graduates and ambitious apprentices looking for fast-track development programmes to slingshot their early careers - hiring managers need to be crystal clear on their ‘why’ so that they can pitch a compelling vision, and create a culture for their team(s) to perform and innovate and grow.
Entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship present a very interesting sub-plot to the debate around identity and transition.
Earlier this year I led on the talent, marketing and communities agenda for the New Entrepreneurs Foundation (NEF). NEF offers a ‘Fast-Track’ programme to aspiring young entrepreneurs. My primary task was not an easy one - assessing applicants’ potential to develop into successful Founders / Entrepreneurs.
The stand-out candidates had an incredible sense of self. A resolute identity and presence beyond their years, with a compelling vision for what their future would look like, and how they planned to get there. Entrepreneurs are interesting to spend time with, as you quickly realise that they comfortably live with uncertainty far more than most of us. A common misconception is that they are risk-takers. In fact - they tend to be very good at decision-making (under pressure) and calculating risk. They are immensely aware of the pitfalls, and frequently find themselves having to adapt quickly, and revise their plan - improvising on the fly.
Their DNA tends to be embodied in the company culture, and in large part due to their unwavering drive to achieve their goals - they make fantastic leaders, who people naturally want to follow and deliver for.