How Women Can Successfully Rebound from Job Loss'After the initial shock and sadness, I went into problem-solving mode. I was able to mobilize and look for some opportunities.'
Involuntary job loss is a reality of our times. If your college or university terminates your employment, you are not alone. “Many, many successful leaders have been involuntarily released from a position,” said Debra Cunningham, a doctoral candidate in higher education leadership at Azusa Pacific University CA.
Her dissertation research was a qualitative study of eight women professionals in higher education who survived a job loss to move successfully into a new career. She spoke at the University of Nebraska conference on Women in Educational Leadership in Lincoln in October 2012.
Cunningham knows first hand the devastation of job loss. After completing her BA from California Baptist University and her MA from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in 1984 she moved with her husband to northern California. There she raised her children, taught and administered children’s programs and received the Yuba County Office of Education 2004 “Educator Who Is Making a Difference” award for her classroom innovations at a charter school.
That year she became an adjunct professor at a small Christian college northeast of Sacramento, and in 2005 she joined the regular faculty as assistant professor of teacher education. Four years later, amidst the wreckage of the Great Recession, she learned that her contract would not be renewed due to budget cuts.
“Unemployment is one of those situations where, once it’s happened to you, you never get back to where you were before,” psychologist Marty Seligman told Marketplace reporter Heidi Moore in 2011. He said that for most people, unemployment does lasting damage.
Yet some people rise from job loss like a phoenix from the ashes. What inner qualities enable them to do so? To find out, Cunningham interviewed eight women who had made successful transitions after losing senior positions of dean or above at Christian universities across the nation.
They embodied the positive qualities psychologists associate with “psychological capital,” a relatively new concept introduced in 2004 and fleshed out in Psychological Capital (2007) by Fred Luthans, Carolyn Youssef and Bruce Avolio. These qualities—hope, confidence, resilience and optimism—revolve around a central core like planets around the sun.
As described by psychologist Charles Snyder, hope is an active quality involving motivation, determination and perseverance. Cunningham said hope means “persevering toward goals and, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals in order to succeed.”
Such motivation depends on the interaction of several key elements in our minds:
• Goals. These are the things we imagine and want; we see them as possible but not a sure thing. One participant told her, “I think after the initial shock and sadness, I went into problem-solving mode. I was able to mobilize and look for some opportunities.”
• Agency. With perseverance and willpower, we are prepared to put mental energy into getting something done. One told her, “I was determined to leave with my head held high.”
• Pathways. It’s not enough to have goals and throw energy at them. We also need the ability to make plans or roadmaps for reaching our goals. One participant applied for 70 jobs between June and November, leading to more than 20 phone or Skype interviews and 10 face-to-face interviews on campus—and a new job that began in December.
“When you look in hindsight, you find things you could have done differently. I didn’t think I’d ever done anything wrong, and I wasn’t going to allow myself to second-guess,” a participant said.
Confidence in your ability to succeed in a particular sphere (also called self-efficacy) holds self-doubt at bay. To take on a challenge and put in the necessary effort to succeed at it, you need to believe that you have what it takes.
According to psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy develops through four sources:
1. Mastery. As you accumulate experiences of achievement and mastery, you build confidence in your ability to do so again in new situations. The women in her study avoided second-guessing themselves by recalling the skills, strengths and attitudes that had worked for them in the past.
2. Vicarious learning. Seeing others succeed at something can encourage you to believe that you can do it too. Hearing their painful stories helps you to see that you’re not alone.
3. Social persuasion. It’s easier to believe in your ability to do something when friends, family and colleagues tell you they know you can do it. “You are so much more than this; you are capable; others will have you.” Positive words are a catalyst to motivate you through a difficult time.
4. Physical and psychological arousal. Emotions, moods, nervousness and stress affect self-confidence. Job loss is an enormous stressor. One participant struggled with her self-image as a professional; growing less functional, she pursued medication for depression. Self-efficacy rises as we find ways to deal with stress and elevate our mood. Consider sleep, exercise, deep breathing, walks in the woods, lunch with trusted friends, meditation or prayer.
When beset by problems and adversity, resilience is the ability to keep going and bounce back. Think of dropping a tennis ball and a medicine ball on the same hard surface. The tennis ball bounces back up into your hand while the medicine ball lands with a thud.
Coping with hardship and trauma doesn’t remove the pain but allows individuals to rebuild their lives. Several factors can help boost resilience. Having caring and supportive relationships is one of the most important.
Additional ways to develop your capacity for resilience include viewing change as a part of life, not an insurmountable obstacle. Take small, positive steps toward realistic goals.
Keep perspective, a hopeful outlook and a positive view of yourself. Accept help. Take care of your mind and body. Meditation and spiritual practices are invaluable to some people.
One Christian participant said of involuntary job loss:
Realistic optimism is based not only on an assessment of circumstances, but also on the way we explain events in our lives. Researchers have found that women and men show similar levels of optimism on average but it plays out differently in different spheres of life.
In relationships, women tend to blame external circumstances for a problem, while men internalize it. In the workplace, by contrast, women blame their own incompetence while men treat their failures as situational or the luck of the draw. Women are socialized to show more optimism in relationships, while men show it in the workplace.
Here’s how it works.
Explanatory style has three parts:
When good things happen, optimists identify reasons that are personal, permanent and pervasive. I got that promotion because I am highly competent. They explain undesirable events in terms that are external, temporary and situation-specific. I lost my job because a new president wanted to bring in her own team.
Pessimists explain events the other way around. I lucked into the promotion because I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I got fired because I’m no good at anything and never will be.
Circling a core
For the women Cunningham interviewed, hope, confidence, resilience and optimism revolved continuously in separate orbits around a central core, reinforcing and picking up the slack for each other.
While their hope (goals, agency and pathways) strengthened and their resilience and optimism held firm, losing their jobs seriously challenged their self-efficacy or confidence. Hope, resilience and optimism filled the gap to sustain them when their confidence dimmed.
The central core that holds the planets in orbit can vary from person to person. Gender and belief or disbelief may influence the specific content of an individual’s core. For the women who lost jobs at faith-based universities, the core had two related parts: faith and an ethic of care.
• Faith was vitally important to all the women. It anchored them to something greater as they weathered their personal storms. Faith assured them of God’s presence and affirmed their sense of calling. It summoned them to an attitude of prayer, solitude and forgiveness. The call to practice forgiveness was huge for them.
One said of God’s presence:
I think it was before me, behind me, beneath me, around me, part of me. I think having the words, I do remember them forming:
• Ethic of care is a moral system based on relationships rather than abstract principles. Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings challenged older assertions that women were less morally developed than men because women were less likely to adopt an abstract “ethic of justice.” They found that women’s ethic was highly developed but based on relationships, empathy and compassion.
Cunningham found a strong ethic of care was a central tenet of her participants’ response to job loss. “All of my eight women were more concerned over those they cared for than how others cared for them,” she said.
How would having to relocate affect a sick child? How would the family adapt? On the work front, they were concerned about the wellbeing of those left behind.
A dean who lost her job wanted to model for students how to end a relationship smoothly. She told work associates, “We need to work together really well to show a good front. A lot of our students have been a part of really messy divorces, or been a part of church divisions. They need to see that people can disagree and still get along.”
• Supportive relationships showed up as important in every part of her data. One woman said, “I had lots of people that just shared real encouraging words and really tried to build me up so that I didn’t lose sight of who I am.” The love and support of family, friends and colleagues helped maintain their perspective and strengthen their resolve to move forward to new career options.
Their success shows that it can be done. Adversity can even have a positive impact on such leadership qualities as perseverance, tenacity and resilience.
“How one deals with job loss is a matter of choice. The participants in my study successfully made transitions to another position because of the choices they made,” Cunningham said. Their faith and care for others contributed to their ability to exercise hope, self-efficacy, resilience and optimism.
What is your core? How do you interpret unwanted events? How do you sustain your confidence and bounce back from hard knocks? “Don’t let your experience of job loss define you. Instead, accept the situation for what it is, be thankful for the life lessons that are gained through the experience and move forward,” Cunningham said.
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2012, December). How Women Can Successfully Rebound from Job Loss. Women in Higher Education, 21(12), 22-23.