Peace of Mind

January 18, 2011 / General /

By Ryan W. Quinn

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In this entry you will find:

  • Research and practical tips on finding peace of mind in a world with low job security
  • A personal story to illustrate this process
  • An invitation to share your own learning and application on this topic

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Change management is risky business. When I teach or consult on this topic, I sometimes make suggestions that my clients or students find preposterous. As we explore why they feel this way, we often discover that it is not so much my proposal that is preposterous, but rather that they are afraid of the risk that my proposal implies.

There are many things that people fear.  One of the most common is the fear of failure, marginalization and being fired.  No one wants to be rejected or cast out.  The fear of excommunication from any social group can be a horrible fear indeed. It suggests that our identity will disintegrate, that a part of us will die.  To succeed in leadership and change often requires us to come to grips with this fear.

The Fear of Rejection

I have experienced this fear.  I am a young professor racing towards a decision on my tenure. The good thing about tenure, as most people know, is that if you get it, you have a job for life. What some people do not understand about tenure is that tenure is an “up or out” decision. If you do not earn tenure, you are cast out, excommunicated from your university. Furthermore it is a public act, everyone in your field, everywhere in the world can see that your university has defined as a failure. At times, when I have contemplated this possible future, I have felt a deep sense of anticipatory shame.  When this happens, I have envisioned leaving the field, the people and work that I love.

Over the past thirteen years I have experienced anxiety over this issue on a fairly regular basis. I have had successes, publishing papers and a book as well as successes in the classroom and with companies, but I have also had failures—rejected papers, classes that have not gone as well as I hoped they would—and the anxiety I feel in these moments leads to sleepless nights,  negative emotions, and sometimes even decisions I later regret.  I know that most of my colleagues in this career stage have similar experiences.  Yet the fear is seldom discussed. Recently, I have had a personal experience that has eliminated much of my fear for my job. I share it in the hope that it will help others.

Creating Peace

This past summer, on August 31, I turned in my “tenure packet.” This began a five-month process which would culminate in the decision about whether or not I would receive tenure. A few weeks prior to submitting this packet, my stress level began to peak. A religious experience then turned my fear into peace.

[I debated whether or not to share this experience on this blog.   My experience is that some people distance themselves or even take offense when religious episodes are shared in public, and I did not want to turn anyone off. At a recent conference, I discussed this with a variety of colleagues who come from different, or even no, various religious traditions. They said many different things but the major theme was that this is a helpful story for anyone to contemplate.  So I decided to take a chance and write this blog entry.  I will follow our usual convention in this blog by using literature from Positive Organizational Scholarship to extract general principles from the story.]

In early August, at the advice of a friend, I asked for and received something called a priesthood blessing.  In my religion, there is a lay priesthood. You can go to someone who holds the priesthood and ask for a blessing. The person prepares themselves, then they lay their hands on your head and they speak in behalf of God. I received a beautiful blessing. I will summarize its contents in three bullet points:

  1. Tenure determines nothing but where you live.
  2. You will make even more of a contribution to your field.
  3. Your responsibility is to pray to be filled with the love of Christ in every interaction you participate in.

When the blessing was complete, I was filled with peace. My bouts with anxiety have all but disappeared. I make better decisions at work and at home. I engage people more fully in my work and my relationships, experience more joy in the process, and have a greater and more positive impact.

Why did this happen?

Re-framing: One of the means by which people find peace, happiness, or life satisfaction through religion is because it enables them to see a situation from God’s perspective [1]. If we translate this into the terms of social science, then one of the reasons why an experience like this can help people overcome their fears is because it changes the scope and time frame of a situation.

By re-framing tenure as determining nothing but where I live, I was able to stop seeing the situation as a situation of being judged and rejected to one of relatively minor significance: From an eternal perspective, a career is a small thing. In my life, this is captured by the idea that tenure only impacts the location of where we live. For others, the re-framing may take a different form. Whatever form this re-framing takes, however, it needs to retain the meaningfulness of work, without getting caught up in other people’s judgments that are out of one’s control.

Purpose: Work becomes meaningful when it contributes to some purpose of social significance and when it capitalizes on the unique strengths, interests, skills, knowledge, and experiences. This is where the research and tools associated with the Reflected Best Self Exercise [2] can be useful. When we see who we can be at our best, we reframe threats into opportunities and anxiety into excitement. We want to make those contributions. Once I accepted that I am going to make a contribution to my field, I began the process of dropping projects and activities that are not helping me to make meaningful contributions and re-engaged in projects that I am excited about. I feel more purposeful and I have more energy.

Empathy: In some ways, the last point in the blessing was the most important: I need to allow myself to feel what others are feeling. This requires me to understand them on an emotional level [3]. This is harder to do in some situations than others. When I just pray to be filled with love, I often do not feel love. But when I pray to be filled with the love of Christ, who I believe loves everyone even when I do not, I am humbled by how far I fall short of that standard, and because my heart is now humble, the love begins to flow.

Again, if I re-state that in psychological terms, the impediments to loving others that we find within ourselves are rooted in rationalizations that we acquire when we fail to act empathically, or that we learn from others [3]. The way to overcome impeding rationalizations is to honestly admit that we are, at least partially, in the wrong. Love that comes easily leads to peace of mind because a person whose attention is focused on others and their needs has no attention left over to waste on worrying what others will think of them.

Action

When I told the story above to some of my colleagues at a recent conference, some of them, who have religious traditions of their own, said that it was helpful to hear the story, and that they could easily translate the implications of my story to their own religious tradition. Some of my colleagues who do not believe in God or do not have a religious tradition of their own, however, said that they saw value in the story, but that they needed help figuring out whether and how the story could be translated into practical application for them.

I have tried to help translate my story into some points of practical application by explaining, in the bullet points above, what is going on in this story socially and psychologically. This explanation is, of course, incomplete. My experience was rich with meaning for me, and each person’s own life experience is unique to them, so each person needs to invest their own effort in completing the translation for them. I invite anyone who reads this entry to leave comments in the blog about how they might translate the story to their own unique beliefs and circumstances, so that we can all learn from each other.

In summary, though, here are some potential action items to consider in seeking to find peace of mind in your own employment situation, particularly if you want to engage in leadership, with the change and the risk that true leadership implies:

  1. To help you re-frame your situation with a broader scope or time frame, you can ask yourself a question like, “If I look back at the end of a rich, meaningful life, that had a broad tapestry of contribution and relationships inside and outside of work, how will my current job status have contributed to this richness and meaningfulness?
  2. Use an instrument like the Reflected Best Self Exercise to identify the unique skills, strengths, virtues, talents, knowledge, and experience that you have, and then ask yourself, “What unique contribution have my strengths and experiences prepared me to make, that I would be excited to do?”
  3. Take a moment in each interaction to try to empathize with the people you are interacting with and understand them on a deep, emotional level.
  4. Question the assumptions you are making about your job and your work relationships, with the explicit intent to discover where you may be wrong. Are you imagining obstacles that may not even be there?

On the surface, simple practices like these may seem like the have nothing to do with performance on the job or with the fear we feel over the possibility of losing our jobs. My experience is that the opposite is true. The peace is real, and the impact on others as well as on me is significant. We would love to hear about your own experiences or practices with regards to finding peace in your own job in the comments below.

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References

[1] Ellison, Christopher G. (1991). Religious Involvement and Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 32(1): 80-99. Foley, Daniel P. 1988. “Eleven Interpretations of Personal Suffering.” Journal of Religion and Health 27:321-28. Pollner, Melvin. 1989. “Divine Relations, Social Relations, and Well-Being.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 30:92-104.

[2] Roberts LM, Spreitzer G, Dutton J, Quinn R, Heaphy E, Barker B. (2005). How to Play to Your Strengths. Harvard Business Review, 83(1): 74-80. Roberts LM, Dutton J, Spreitzer G, Heaphy E, Quinn R. (2005). Composing the Reflected Best-Self Portrait: Building Pathways for Becoming Extraordinary in Work Organizations. Academy of Management Review, 30(4): 712-736.

[3] Warner, C. T. (2001). Bonds that make us free: Healing our relationships, coming to ourselves. Salt Lake City, UT, Shadow Mountain.