As I've been talking with clients, family, and friends during this season of COVID-19, I've noticed something fascinating about how we're collectively thinking through our relationships to work, and I'm willing to bet you've noticed it, too.
We're asking big questions like:
"What am I doing with my life?"
"Am I in the right career?"
"Is this the right time to chase my real dream or passion?"
"Is this job going somewhere or will I get stuck here?"
"Would I be more successful or fulfilled somewhere else?"
And more and more people I know are announcing, either publicly or privately, that they're (1) looking for a new job, (2) making a big career move, or (3) starting a new business. Many are wondering if they've made the right decisions about their careers or if they should break out and chase a passion instead of staying put during quarantine. Some are deciding that they want more flexibility and control over their schedules or that they might be better suited for a different role in a different company.
So this got me curious about what could be causing us to make these big changes right now, especially when so many people are losing their jobs or being furloughed. As I was researching this question, I came across an organizational management concept that shines a bright light on what so many of us are experiencing right now.
Researchers Jos Akkermans, Scott E. Seibert, Stefan T. Mol define a career shock as "a disruptive and extraordinary event that is, at least to some degree, caused by factors outside the focal individual’s control and that triggers a deliberate thought process concerning one’s career."
They consider events like losing a job, receiving an unexpected promotion, or having a close relative pass away examples of career shock.
So if COVID-19 doesn't also check all the boxes, I don't know what else would?
"Disruptive and extraordinary event?"
"Caused by factors outside of our control?"
And for many of us and our team members, COVID-19 is most certainly triggering a deliberative thought process about our careers.
As leaders, that can be scary. We want the very best for our organizations, but we also need to have the best interest of our people at heart. Ultimately, it's our responsibility to help our employees navigate this career shock in a way that honors their experiences and goals and hopefully realigns them with our team's purpose.
Below I'll discuss three strategies you can use to help your employees through a career shock. My hope is that my recommendations provide you with the knowledge and tools you need to navigate these crucial conversations over the next few weeks.
1. Help Them Name What They're Experiencing
There is power in naming things, especially our emotions. By learning to acknowledge, understand, and express our own emotions and the emotions of those around us, we grow in Emotional Intelligence (EQ), which many researchers argue is a better predictor of workplace success than IQ.
Naming our emotions and experiences gives validity to them and also helps position us to make more informed choices about how we navigate them.
When your employees know that you understand what they might be feeling, you build trust and create psychological safety for them. While it's important that you don't assume too much or project these emotions onto your team members, I recommend setting aside time with each employee to discuss the unique ways that COVID-19 has impacted their thoughts and feelings about their work and career trajectory.
Schedule a check-in meeting with your team member or fold this conversation into a pre-existing one-on-one meeting. Let them know you want to talk through how they're feeling about their roles during the instability of the past few months, but assure them this won't be a performance management conversation.
When in the meeting, tell them you're learning about "Career Shock" and define it for them. Share from your own experiences, both in the past, and during COVID-19. For example, you might say something like, "For me personally, being quarantined and working from home caused me to reflect on what I've accomplished in my life so far, process through my specific role here, and think about my future goals."
Ask them if they've been experiencing anything similar and let them know it's completely normal and understandable if they're struggling to navigate a career shock. Don't be quick to offer advice. Ask good questions and listen.
But here's the thing. You need to ask yourself, "Do I really want to know if one of my team members is disengaging or thinking about a career transition or job move?"
If you're going to ask the questions, you need to be the kind of leader who is a safe place for your team members and their answers. The worst thing you can do is ask the question and then resent the answer or use it as leverage against them moving forward.
If you ask the question, affirm their answers and help them navigate the career shock like a coach or mentor would. It's possible that some of your team members might decide to move on and chase a new goal or start a new path. Perhaps you can even support them during the transition by helping get them connected to people you know in their industry of choice.
One business owner told me that after she learned one of her best employees was resigning to start a business, "I just told her that I was really happy for her and that I probably would have started my business ten years earlier if something like COVID-19 had happened to me."
That's exactly the kind of leader you want to be, too.
2. Reconnect Them To Your Vision, Mission, and Values
While you might see some employees decide to pursue something new as the result of their career shock, there will also be employees who simply need the encouragement to recommit to your team and organization.
So after you've created spaces for your team members to reflect on their own career shock, you have an opportunity to coach them through their feelings of uncertainty or discouragement. One of the best ways to do that is to lean into conversations about your organizational vision, mission, and values.
According to the Gallup Organization, pre COVID-19, only 4 in 10 employees strongly agreed that the mission or purpose of their organization made them feel that their job is important. So it's no surprise that many of us have been asking deep questions about our career choices during the past few months.
Chris Musser, Practice Lead for Organizational Effectiveness at Gallup, states, "If workers don't feel their job is important, they cannot connect it to a larger purpose." He goes on to say that, "Managers, more than anyone else, are the key to helping employees make that crucial connection."
If your team members have felt disconnected or if they're wondering if they might be more fulfilled somewhere else, now is the time to talk to them about the specific ways they contribute to your organization's vision, mission, and values.
Ask them about the personal values they hold that also connect to the work and role they have in your organization. See if they can make those connections themselves and then build on their ideas with your own.
Help them refocus on your company vision, mission, and values. Share stories about the ways in which their work is making a difference for real people.
Offer them specific and individualized praise and recognition. It isn't enough to say, "You've done a great job in the past few months," or something even more abstract like, You're killing it!" Instead, deliver concrete recognition like, "Your natural ability to find root causes and assess risk has prevented us from making several unwarranted decisions during the last few months."
3. Start Investing in Their Long-Term Learning and Development
One of the most encouraging research findings about this topic is that there are practical things you can do to help your team members bolster their resilience when facing career shock. For example, nurturing a growth mindset, coping with distracting emotions, and developing career competencies are all psychological strategies that seem to help.
Additionally, the researchers cited above stated that, "Career resources and behaviors are important factors that can influence how well people cope with negative career shocks and capitalize on positive ones."
Before you discard the recommendation to invest in learning and development as unrealistic or irrelevant during COVID-19, consider Gallup's research that "opportunities to learn and grow" is one of the top three factors in retaining millennial employees. Furthermore, it's the only aspect of retention that separates millennials' needs from those of non-millennials.
So all things considered, when your team members are asking deep questions about their careers, you want to be the kind of leader who gives them every reason to want to stay. Learning and development opportunities are significant reasons to stay, especially for your Millennial employees.
Download our Individual Development Plan (IDP) template and schedule a time to fill it out with your team member. An IDP is a tool used to equip and empower employees to reach short and long-term career goals and is focused on the employee’s career aspirations, his/her strengths, and his/her long-term learning and development needs. By going through this process with your team members, you'll communicate that you're invested in their growth and development and you'll have practical and actionable steps to take to get them there.
In addition to creating IDPs with your team members, invest in online learning opportunities such as digital courses, mastermind communities, online certification programs, etc. Get curious about ways in which you can leverage the time you have right now for the growth of each person.
Consider creating a learning and development wing of your Human Resources team if you don't already have one. This learning and development need isn't going away. In fact, research suggests it will only continue to grow in importance. Get your organization out in front on this one.
If you are a small organization and you don't have a robust HR presence yet, get together with the managers in your organization and consider how you could incorporate learning opportunities into the employee experience.
If you'll create spaces to communicate with your employees about their career shock, help them reconnect to your organization's vision, mission, and values, and make a decision to invest in their learning and development, you'll be better positioned to create psychological safety and boost employee engagement during a time in which it's trending downward.
And if you're going through your own COVID-19 career shock, know that you aren't alone. Reach up and out where you can to get the help you need to navigate it well.
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