Endings need just as much attention as beginnings

We are often better at handling endings in our families than we are within the organisational setting. From a systemic perspective, a healthy organisation finds a way to include all of its history, and those that made a contribution to it, as part of the narrative. This enables employees to connect to the very roots of the organisation and facilitates a flow of energy.

How we handle endings in the family system

Within our families we are generally better at acknowledging the passing of a loved one – the ending of a life. In my own Irish family roots, we have our loved ones resting in the family home in the few days between the ‘passing’ and the funeral.  The extended family gather to pay their respects which, in turn, creates the opportunity and space for a different kind of dialogue to unfold.

Stories are told, fond memories are brought to front of mind, and the essence of the person who has been lost, is honoured and fully acknowledged for who they were.  For our Irish roots – this helps to ensure the individual has their rightful place within the rich tapestry of the family history. This tradition creates space and support for the release of emotions: for the tears to flow and for the pain and loss to be acknowledged.

Although I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of these family rituals in my formative years, I’ve come to learn how crucial they are. They provide a safe platform for those ‘left behind’ to be able to face the pain, accept the reality of the loss and say their goodbyes with the support of the extended family. This is an essential stepping-stone for those remaining behind, to be able to face the future.  A helpful quote from one of the pioneers and an established author in the field of grief work, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, comes to mind:  You cannot say hello until you say goodbye.”

So how do we handle endings in organisations?

Within the organisational context, we can often fall into the trap of taking a much more functional approach to endings and lose sight of the human element that includes the need for time and space to absorb, to reflect and to face the reality with support.

Classic examples of when this can happen, include:

  • Major redundancy or de-layering processes (where close friendships and groups that created a strong sense of belonging, are disrupted)
  • Unannounced departures of senior leadership (especially if these have been under difficult circumstances)
  • Acquisitions (whereby the leader of the acquired business is released as part of the ‘deal’)

This regression to functionality is especially evident when new leaders can inadvertently trail blaze their way through their first 90 days with an intention of creating a compelling case for change and ‘set out their stall’.  They can unconsciously send a message of disregard (or perhaps even disrespect) of all that which has (and those that have) gone before.  This can immediately create an unconscious loyalty to predecessors and ultimately create unnecessary resistance to the change programme.

This can be avoided, by attending to a few key principles:

  • It’s important for leaders to look inwards to recognise and publicly acknowledge that all of what is possible today, is only possible because of what has happened (and because of those that have contributed) to date
  • Carefully consider all communication – ensure the language and intent is inclusive and respectful of all that has happened to date
  • It’s not necessary to make the previous ways of operating ‘wrong’ in order to get people to follow the new path. The contrary is true! When appropriate acknowledgement has happened, it enables employees to feel connected to the very roots of the organisation and allows employees to find their place in the flow of history, as well as within the current structure. This also frees everyone up to focus on the work – thereby enabling a more productive flow
  • It doesn’t have to take too much time to honour and include the fullness of the history and those that contributed to it – but it can have a profound impact if it is not acknowledged

Some practical suggestions that can be incorporated into change programmes:

  • Create a history map that is holistic and inclusive – one that acknowledges the founders, all key functions and leaders that contributed to the shaping of organisation. Be sure to include key milestones and other individuals that made a significant contribution to the livelihood of the business (including those that may have paid a high price along the way). Make this map public and accessible for all employees
  • Take time to acknowledge key people at the time of their departure and maintain respect for their contribution
  • Set new leaders up for success by equipping them (within the onboarding process) with a robust understanding of the progress of their function/department, key milestones, and the contributions of their predecessors over time

Proactively handling our own ending

When we leave an organisation (and especially if we have been there for a long time), we can often leave parts of ourselves behind without realising it.  It’s worth taking some time to reflect what you have gained and learned from your time in the organisation; what you have willingly contributed; and what you will leave with the organisation with (to be built upon as they see fit). It’s also vitally important to identify what you will bring with you for your continued adventure into the future.

If you are responsible for leading significant change; want to proactively manage your own transition between organisations; or would like more information on the systemic approach, please do get in touch with me. If you have any questions or comments on what I’ve covered in this post about endings – you can also pop those below and I would be happy to help.

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