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  • Writer's pictureGeorgina Sturmer

Returning to work, and coping with taking a step down

We often talk about returning to the workplace in the context of career breaks and maternity leave. But yesterday's headlines were all about David Cameron's unexpected return to the limelight. This has ignited discussion and debate about what this might mean for him. About returning to work, and coping with taking a step down. I spoke to Cosmopolitan all about this topic, and you find the original article here. Here's what I told them ...

For many of us, our sense of ‘who we are’ is inextricably linked with our role in the workplace. It’s where we spend our day, it might be how we define ourselves, it’s one of the first questions that we answer when we meet someone new. This confers us a sense of status, a sense of where we ‘fit’ in a social hierarchy and a power dynamic. It validates the efforts that we have made throughout our career so far, the work experience, the education, the training, the networking. So if things change and we need to ’step down’ into a different role, it can have have a detrimental impact on our self-esteem. It might have an impact on how other people treat us, or how we perceive that they treat us. We might feel frustrated or embarrassed by stepping back, particularly when it comes to power or decision-making. We might find it difficult to report into managers who were previously colleagues.

Many of us expend a huge amount of energy seeking the approval and praise of other people, in order to bolster our sense of self-worth. This is often a behaviour that’s been ingrained in us from a young age. So if we have to take a ’step down’, this might leave us feeling worried or embarrassed about how other people view of us. What they think of our abilities and who we are. So we might respond with a show of strength in order to elicit praise or attention from other people. To demonstrate that even if have taken a step down, we remain just as successful and deserving as we were in the past. We also might feel a need to prove ourselves, to outperform, in an effort to regain control when we are feeling less powerful than we used to.

Sometimes we sleepwalk through our career, accruing promotions and managerial roles in what feels like a natural progression. But it’s worth remembering that this isn’t always the best outcome for us. Some of us make great leaders and managers. But other people gain more fulfilment from being part of the team, from delivering on a piece of work. Success in the workplace often comes at a price. Consider what you have given up in order to get to your previous role. Perhaps there have been missed opportunities along the way, or you’ve lost out on time with family and friends. Perhaps it’s the case that a ’step down’ might enable you to consider other, more enriching, aspects of your life.

Tips for adjusting if you're returning to work, and coping with taking a step down:

  • Accept that it’s likely that you can’t control what’s going on around you. Decisions have been taken, and it’s out of your hands. Face it head on, and openly acknowledge to yourself and your colleagues that things are different now. Focus on building new relationships with your colleagues.

  • Notice that you might feel the urge to slip towards your old, more senior, role. Other people might encourage you to do so. Consider that you might have to change your style or approach in order to be effective while operating within a new and different power structure. Resist the urge to live in the past, and embrace how things have changed. Reflect on how you can play to your strengths, and bring your leadership experience to your new role.

  • If you’re feeling under pressure to prove yourself, if it's making you feel stressed or anxious, try to explore it. Is it actually coming from anyone else? If it’s purely internal, then is it serving you in any way? Is it driving you forward and motivating you. Or is it simply holding you back, paralysing you with uncomfortable worries and embarrassment. If it’s the latter, be curious about where it comes from. And what it might be like to throw it away.

Keen to explore more? In counselling we can take a deeper look at your feelings and how you cope with the world around you. Click here to contact me, or click here to book a 30-minute introductory call.

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