How to avoid getting stuck, by doing endings well

17 Jun 2021
Carrie Birmingham

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I work with clients who feel stuck, or are involved in complex & messy problems.  Their experiences, inspire me to keep learning and writing about what I know in my blogs.

For many people who are stuck, they are at a point of transition e.g. starting a new job, or wondering what to do after failing to get a promotion, or being made redundant.  Noticing this got me curious about the how we experience transitions.  

The words that organisations use to talk about structural change i.e. restructure, furlough, redundant, target operating model (a favourite for the bullshit bingo card) are so logical, mechanical, and clear cut I notice how these words fail to acknowledge the human experience going on inside.  William Bridges articulates this gap; he described the change as external and situational and transition as the internal psychological process.   In my experience we often neglect this psychological process in ourselves and when we work with people.  

In organisations there tends to be lots of emphasis on starting things (e.g. projects, strategies) and that is where the time and money goes. But Bridges argues that every psychological process starts with “the ending that you’ll have to make to leave the old situation behind.” 

Working from the principle that for each new thing to begin, something ends, it’s noticeable how little attention is paid to endings.  During COVID lockdown, endings were front of mind as things closed (schools, pubs, hugs) and we saw life as we know it stop but few people were prepared to name the feeling that came with this as “grief”.  David Kessler argues “With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety.”  He argues that we have never collectively lost our sense of general safety like this before.    

So I wanted to take the opportunity to explore endings, why and how we let go of the old realities and the old identity you had before the change took place. Endings sounds rather dramatic and final, and they do vary in size and scale: 

  • Corporate endings – ranging from the everyday (i.e. ending of a project), right up to an acquisition that sees the organisational identity consumed into something else.
  • Personal – ranging from leaving a role for a promotion, right up to the devastating death of a colleague. 
  • World events – ranging from your favourite coffee shop closing up to a world wide pandemic.  

I have been putting off writing this blog for about 6 months as a way of avoiding taking about endings  Which is ironic as when I mention endings to clients, they often roll their eyes, look impatient or try to change the subject. It seems OK to use words like grief and loss when talking about death, but not when we are talking about work or things that appear lesser losses.  David Rock explain that “the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system… people who feel betrayed or unrecognised at work, experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful and painful as a blow to the head.” 

I know, that if not unattended to loss and grief can leave a scar on individuals, teams and the organisation.

It starts with you

Endings, and our relationship to them go deep. It is about belonging, a basic human need, and loss.   Our history shapes how we do endings and our personal sense of belonging and fulfilment and so we each have our own patterns when something is completing.  

Like many people, I have habitually been more energised by beginnings and so wasn’t really conscious of the endings in my own work life.  However as a consultant regularly starting and ending assignments, I started to notice a habit of avoiding ending and instead simply moving onto the “next thing”.  My coach helped me notice my pattern and my discomfort with saying ‘goodbye’.   This discomfort shows up when I don’t pause to acknowledge or express how I feel (e.g. sadness), I didn’t create the opportunity to reflect (and learn) from what has happened or connect personally with people I have worked closely with, leaving them wondering.  

I used to justify this to myself as something I could handle and was “fine”, but in truth neglecting the ending, left a ‘hangover’, i.e. things are unfinished that hung around and stopped me from moving on fully.  Having understood that this would stop me from ending things well with clients, and hence them being left wondering why I just left, my coach supported me to work through this.  I have to confess it was pretty emotional (pass the tissues) and uncomfortable (pass the cushion for me to thump!).  But by working on my ability to end well with clients I was able to manage endings better and consciously pay attention to the learning and energy it could give me. 

This has allowed me to encourage clients, who want to “fast forward” through endings, to slow down and pay attention to what is going on, and to express themselves about the goodbye (e.g. grief, relief, sadness, guilt).  One of my clients was being made redundant and his first instinct was to sneak out the back door.  In our session, he was keen to talk about the new role he was moving into, and how he could move forward.  I invited him to start by exploring what a good ending might look like.   This question prompted him to see that if he actively engaged in conversations with senior stakeholders at his current role, he could explore what they had valued from working with him.  He felt nervous about doing this, and fearful about how his colleagues might react. Later he described the experience as “heartwarming” and also that after leaving, “by paying attention to the ending in this way, I was able to make a clean break, to let go”.  In these conversations, he heard some lovely feedback, that put a spring in his step, and enable him to have dignity in his exit.  

By understanding your patterns and habits about endings you are able to understand how to manage corporate endings better.  

How it happens, matters 

How corporate endings happens, matters.  Many organisations fail to attend to the psychological impact of endings, and hence come across as clinical, offering empty phrases, sticking to the script due to legal complexities (i.e. settlement agreements) and low on dignity.  

As outlined above, there are corporate endings which require leaders to think beyond what is beginning, and pay attention to what is ending.  In her podcast, Noomi Natan outlines the consequences of an ending that you experience as bad; this experience raises questions about whether you mattered, souring the whole experience, knocking your confidence and wondering about the psychological safety to trust or offer passion or loyalty to a new employer.  In essence, she argues that a bad ending prevents you entering a new beginning with confidence and energy (ironic given that is exactly what you need).  

Systemic thinking also shows us how that the ghosts of unacknowledged endings also influence organisations and can negatively influence the health of the organisation.  John Whittington argues “Systems don’t tolerate ‘moving on’, ‘forgetting’, or otherwise excluding” and “yet organisations around the world still give people more money to leave than they did to join, believing that this will help them leave the organisational memory. It has exactly the opposite effect on the system which will ‘re-member’ them”.  I might previously dismissed this as “woo woo” but have seen it in action.  

One of my clients came to me because they were feeling unsettled, and lacking confidence in a new role.  Only through asking questions did we realise that this stemmed from the way her previous employment had ended in a dispute. At the time she had pushed through, and put her energies into landed a new role but in fact her experience was still raw, and full of anger.    We couldn’t change what had happened, but we did look to process it, by grieving about how unfair it was, and also writing a letter (unsent) to say what had previously been held in and unsaid to the boss involved.  

Typically in an acquisition a founder will be looking to exit the organisation and the new leader will focus on selling in a new vision and strategy (a beginning). However, what the team actually needs is space and time to grieve what they are loosing. That might be loyalty to the previous founder, a sense of safety that comes from being in one job for a long time or the hope that they may be the successor.  By finding ways to “mark this ending”, giving the team space to express their experience and emotions (i.e. sadness), as well as celebrating the accomplishments of the founder, you are able to support the ending of what has been and support the team to move forward.  In contrast, when I am involve in acquisition teams the conversations are primarily focused on new beginnings and the future.  

If you are a leader or manager who has to decide or implement endings for others, think about the above and think about how you might help them end well. It might not change the outcome but it will change how your colleagues experience it.  Notice if you are in a hurry to move someone on and instead pause to think about how you can be authentic, create a space for them to process what is happening and honour their dignity for longer term gain.  

In summary – Ending well to avoid getting stuck

In their article “Endings in organisations”, Lucas and Bentley-Bowers outline four pillars for completing well and they offer some helpful guidance to keep in mind for both those experiencing endings and also those managing or facilitating corporate endings:

  • Reality – naming the ending, including the complex and messy stuff. Fully naming what is coming to an end and the reality of that loss. Avoid the temptation of platitudes.  
  • Emotion –  In the world of endings, emotions run high and being able to acknowledge this is crucial.  Allow space for you to understand what you are feeling and also how others are feeling (not how you think they are feeling).
  • Accomplishments –  is about the completion that comes when what has been accomplished is acknowledged.  It is essentially about being seen and being heard.
  • Ritual – A ritual is a formalised, collective and sometimes institutionalised ceremony that allows the “marking” of an ending e.g. a leaving do, a speech or ceremony to present a gift 

So what?

As you read this blog, ask yourself

  • Where have you experienced endings? 
  • What are your habits around endings? 
  • What endings have you not attended to?
  • How can you manage endings better for yourself and others ?
  • What is the hidden cost of endings that haven’t happened well?