What Do You Do When You’ve Been Institutionalised

If you have ever found yourself at a cross road in life, having to change the way you view the world and how you interacted with it, then you will appreciate how difficult it is to de-institutionalise yourself when facing a career transition.

Firstly let me take you back to the 16th of January 1990.

It was a sunny morning as I boarded the bus with about 60 other kids and adults on our way to the Brisbane Airport. It felt surreal that as a 15 year old boy I was able to leave the safety of my family home and join the army. Little did I know that I had just entered an institution that was created on the back of the traditions and customs that had been forged over 100 years?

Over the next 17 years my experience in one of Australia’s largest organisations had a major impact on every aspect of my life, making it almost impossible for me to transition into the real world.

In 2007 I realised that it was time to spread my wings and soar into the civilian world. Surely that with my great training, ability to work as an integral member of a team and my commitment to a greater cause, I would be able to successfully transition.

Now the problem that lay at my feet was I had become so institutionalised that everything I knew, said and did, reflected my military lifestyle.

I would like to digress a little for a moment. Over the years since my departure I realised that becoming institutionalised is not confined to the military. The longer you spend living and working the same way, the harder it becomes to break free. Whether it be one of the devoted QNI workers who were made redundant under the Palmer escapades, a long time public servant or someone who has been in the same career since they left school, we all become a product of our environment which makes the transition even harder. In fact, I nearly navigated my way back to the confines of the army after just 3 months on the outside.

So what do we mean by institutionalised?

In a work context, when we spend long periods in one organisation we think, speak and act as the company wants us to. We talk in code not realising that our acronyms are only understandable to those in the know. We push back on anything or anyone who challenges the way we have always done things. This is normal humanistic behaviour. After all groups have been good for the human species and being part of one is essential for success.

But what happens when we are faced with having to leave the safety of something that we know inside and out. Something that has been a part of our lives for an extended period. How can we navigate this transition into a new world?

I would like to share with you three strategies that I have used to help my transition and have been useful to many others over the past 10 years.

  1. Firstly recognise that what is happening to you from both a physical and emotional perspective is normal – even when change is self-selected, the very concept of changing the status quo will often initiate a threat response in our brains. This threat response is in part due to a reaction to the cocktail of chemicals the brain has released and is based on the uncertainty of things to come. The brain doesn’t like uncertainty and will do whatever it can to create certainty. That is why even when you were the one to make the decision, rather than it being made for you, you will experience doubts or even remorse over your decision. This is your brain’s way of trying to get you to go back to the status quo and to something that is not only familiar but that is safe. For those facing this situation it is useful to discuss how you are handling this situation with people who have been in this situation before.
  2. Conduct a skills/strengths analysis – One of the biggest issues that face people who have been a part of one organisation for a long time is often around what skills they believe they have that could be transferable. Yeah I did a number of courses in-house but surely they don’t count on the outside. In my experience of working with people transitioning into new careers they often undersell their value. They can be oblivious to the skills and strengths they have developed over the years and see this more as a weakness rather than a strength. There are a number of ways you can determine what skills and or strengths you bring to the workplace. This may include:
    1. Seeking feedback from peers, managers and friends around what they believe your strengths and skills are.
    2. Reviewing your current and previous position descriptions/roles and detailing what someone new to this role would need to do that job.
    3. Complete online skills assessments or instruments like the Clifton’s Strengths Finder, Herrmann Brain Dominance Instruments , Facet5 Profiles and Holland Codes (RIASEC) to name a few. These instruments provide insights into your natural skills and abilities as well as your latent ones.
  1. Connect with someone who has transitioned before you – Leaving an organisation that you have been a part of for a long time and starting afresh is like heading overseas for the first time. The language is different, the culture is different and the people are different. Many first time travellers will select a tour group or tour guide to help them navigate the new world. Basically someone who has been there before and know what works and what doesn’t. This same approach can make a huge difference for those navigating a career change. Find someone who you know well and has transitioned the divide before. Seek their guidance and support and their lessons learned. Alternatively you can engage with a professional career coach who can be your pillar of strength and sounding board. A career coach can help you see what you have to offer, clarify your options and help you develop a clear picture of what you want to be when you grow up.

It doesn’t matter what organisation, whether it be a government department, multinational company or small local business, the longer you are connected with the systems, culture and people the more difficult the transition may be. But by implementing these few strategies and remaining positive and flexible you will put yourself in the best possible position to successful transition.

If you would like to know how we can help you or your business with your career transition needs contact us today.