Cultivating and Taking Ownership of Your Exit Narrative

With job loss (voluntary or involuntary), experiencing a sense of pain and distress is to be expected. All of a sudden, you are faced with uncertainty and imminent change.

During more vulnerable times, it is comforting to seek out social support, whether this is family, friends, or trusted peers. That said, making contact and being around others may also require you to answer well-intended, but difficult questions:

  • How are you doing?
  • What happened?
  • How are things going for you at work?”

Once you start searching for new employment, the chances are that you will also be asked:

  • So why are you looking for a new job?
  • What was your reason for leaving your previous employer?

When asked such questions, you may need a minute or two to form your words carefully, but in the heat of the moment, what actually happens?

Such open and probing questions can often trigger a range of emotions and feelings – then what do you say and do? Will your narrative evoke optimism and energy about the future, or give insights into frustration with the past? Does your choice of words align with how you wish to show up as a person? While your ego may have been hurt, and some questions may open emotional wounds, does communicating from a place of anger, blame, and resentment help you and your family? What impression do you want to convey to industry peers, new contacts or potential employers?

THE NEUROSCIENCE OF ACTING BEFORE YOU THINK

Where job loss is unexpected or involuntary, the sense of shock is often overwhelming. At a biological level, your brain is on high alert and processing a range of possibilities; the ‘what ifs’ and perceived threats. Your body’s sympathetic nervous system springs into action, releasing cortisol into the bloodstream, an automatic and natural survival response to a perceived threat. There is understandably a lot at stake: financial security and regular income, a sense of belonging to a brand or community, professional identity, and pretty much the default daily structure and routine as you knew it. Such threats to livelihood, status and sense of self will naturally trigger survival emotions such as fear, anger, shame and sadness.

Modern neuroscience has shown us that when your system is geared up for survival or what has been commonly referred to in the literature as ‘fight or flight’, your brain prepares itself and the rest of the body for action, well before this preparedness comes into your conscious awareness (Developing Leaders). The accompanying emotions which have evolved to drive you into action, when considered from a biological and adaptive perspective, can be referred to as ‘e-motions’– physiological and neurological substrates that mobilise you to preserve, protect and survive in the face of threat.

Acting and speaking from the heat of e-motion may seem adaptive, and at times, bring a sense of relief. Yet, more often than not, ‘shooting from the hip’ is short-sighted. Jumping on the venting train about the disappointments, frustrations, or what should have happened, catalyse less than productive dialogue and rumination. However, consistently speaking and behaving in a measured versus reactive manner is easier said than done. Considered communication requires self-awareness, practical tools and most importantly, practice.

STOP AND BREATHE

The term mindfulness has been used by scholars to describe the extent to which an individual is paying attention to what is happening in the present moment with an open, non-judging attitude; and considered an attribute of consciousness associated with enhancement of wellbeing (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Research on the application of mindfulness to optimise communication has demonstrated the value of the ‘pause’. In Rasmus Houggard’s book One Second Ahead, the authors emphasised the technique of ‘listening with a STOP’. This deliberate and conscious pause, enabling a connection to be made between what you communicate (verbally and non-verbally) and your intentions. Relevantly, Houggard proposed the acronym ACT as a reminder of key qualities that serve to ensure that whatever is expressed during a conversation, remains useful and beneficial for yourself and other parties in a given moment. Houggard’s ACT prompts you to ask yourself:

And don’t forget to breathe! When triggered or caught off guard, it pays to pause and take a deep breath. At a physiological level, your breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxing and reversing the effects of the natural stress response. In a calmer state, you are in a better position to access information from your thinking brain, reflect on your intention and consciously choose a course of action, rather than operate in a more reflexive or e-motionally activated manner.

PREPARATION

A practical and proactive tool is the preparation of an exit narrative – a concise and well thought out statement that enables you to communicate your changed circumstance and/or reasons for new employment.

Having access to a carefully constructed ‘script’ can assist you in choosing language that remains neutral, appropriate, compassionate and focussed on the future. While this may seem like over-preparing, an exit narrative is a useful tool to assist you:

  • Convey a sense of maturity and professionalism during times of adversity.
  • Prevent a chain reaction of negative language and associated dialogue/thoughts from impacting on your state of mind, biology, mood and perception of events.
  • Bouncing forward in a way that optimises your wellbeing, relationships and prospects for success.

THE HOW  |  Developing An Exit Narrative

Below are some points to take into consideration while preparing your exit narrative.

Remain Neutral

  • Refrain from any criticism, blame, or speaking negatively about a company, people or position – “I bad-mouthed my way to success” said NO-ONE!

Keep It Factual

  • There is no right or wrong when it comes to change and departure, but remain clear, use factual language and be objective. Reasons can include macroeconomics shifts and downturn, market circumstances or broader organisational imperatives, organisational restructuring, acquisitions, career change, culture fit, family circumstances or health reasons.
  • Interviewers may contact your previous employer(s) so it is important that what you say reflects what actually happened.

Letting Go of the Underlying Commitment to Being Right

  • Despite the circumstance underlying a departure, it is a relief in itself to step forward, move on and let go of what did, should, or could have happened. There is nothing to be gained from jumping on the ‘blame train’, recounting any drama or tales of conflict, using emotive language and trying to convince people that you were right – it won’t change the past!
  • Once you feel ready, letting go of this past attachment can serve to unlock your e-motions and energy so that you can redirect your attention on creating momentum for the next chapter.

Less Is More

  • Keep it short, concise and simple – one to two sentences or approximately 30 seconds long.

Re-Appraise/Direct Attention to the Future

  • With change comes a new life chapter or epoch. Start to consider how change may open up an opportunity to direct your energy into reinventing and/or cultivating a new direction.
  • What do you want to focus on next – study/retraining, another job, a transition to a new industry, time with family or a sabbatical? There is no right or wrong – do what is best, taking into consideration your own and family’s wellbeing.

Take Ownership 

  • Don’t wait for interviewers to ask you the ‘question’…where appropriate, incorporate your ‘exit narrative’ as part of your introduction.  
  • There is no value in waiting, having an ‘elephant in the room’ or being caught off guard. Take ownership of your exit narrative and move forward with the remainder of a conversation.

GUIDED QUESTIONS TO HELP DRAFT YOUR EXIT NARRATIVE

Use the three questions below to start thinking about and writing down the circumstance(s) that evoke change. Your responses can then be combined to compose your exit narrative.

1. What Are the Facts: Timeframe, Context, Change?

Examples

Involuntary

  • Five months ago, company XYZ merged with ABC and as a consequence underwent a restructure, making 200 positions redundant.
  • Due to the recent downturn in the economy and marked reduction in revenue, company XYZ underwent a major restructure.

Voluntary

  • I have spent 12 years working for XYZ, however, have aspired to transfer my knowledge of the market and technical expertise, to contribute to business development.

2. What Was the Outcome?

Examples

Involuntary

  • As a result, XXX positions were affected including my own.

Voluntary

  • After 15 years in the industry, I have decided to explore an opportunity to transfer my extensive knowledge of ABC to a client-facing and revenue-generating role.

3. What Are Your Intended Actions?

Examples

Involuntary

  • While disappointing, I am using this opportunity to speak with a career coach and think more expansively about how to invest the next ten years of my career.
  • I am taking this opportunity to pause for a few months, upskill in ABC and then contribute my broader commercial and technical expertise in a start-up environment.

Voluntary

  • I have reached out to industry peers and contacts within companies to start to explore possible vacancies in business development or solution sales.

To help you draft your own exit narrative, CLICK HERE to download a complimentary TEMPLATE including our 3 guided questions and example exit narratives.

For more insights and practical tips that can assist you to bounce forward after redundancy, build momentum with transition or focus your attention on the ‘what next?’, visit our blog Pause…Reset or Pivot?

REFERENCES

Brown, P. T. & Dzendrowskyj, T. (2018). Sorting Out an Emotional Muddle: insights from neuroscience on the organisational value of emotions. Developing Leaders, Issue Spring, pp. 26-31.

Brown, K. W., and Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 84, 822–848. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.4.822

Houggard, R., Carter, J. & Coutts, G. (2016). One second ahead. Enhance your performance at work with mindfulness. United States of America: Palgrave Macmillan.


Your Authors

Karen Gotthelf, Founder, Pathways Limited

Registered Australian Psychologist (AHRPA), Associate Fellow HKPS, RIOP(HKPS), Member Australian Psychological Society (APS), MBPsS, Accredited Coach ICF(ACC).
MSc(Organisational Psychology), BSc(Hon)Psych

Dawn Chan, Associate Consultant, Pathways Limited

MSSc (Applied Psychology) CityU, PhD (Industrial-Organisational Psychology) CUHK