Perhaps we’ve all been on the Hero’s Journey recently. So how will we manage our return?

  • Posted by: James Marshall
  • Category: Leadership
Hero's Journey

As the first phase of Covid-19 recedes and we start the process of a return to “normality,” there will be plenty of opportunity for reflection.

How has your last two months been?

For me I had some memorable times with my wife and children in our house and garden. I’ve built some great relationships, read a lot and have a new fascination for blossom! But there have been some dark times too with the loss of a loved one and having to own how I behave when stressed or around grief.

Maybe it’s not just essential workers who’ve been on a Hero’s Journey, perhaps all of us have been on one whilst staying between our own four walls.

Many of you will be familiar with Joseph Campbell’s idea of “The Hero’s Journey.” Campbell identified a common template among cultures of a story that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, crossing a threshold into an unknown (or unconscious) world and after a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home transformed.  (Think Star Wars, the Buddha, all Disney films….in fact think most films.)

The Hero’s Journey came to mind yesterday when a client asked us to design a workshop around the theme “The Return To Work.” I started to wonder whether we might all have been on a hero’s journey in our own home? If so, one of the key aspects of the Hero’s Journey is the return back home. So, could we argue that, for many of us, our return will be returning to work?

Let’s be honest, it might be really difficult for those who return to a shop, a physical factory or an office. What will we encounter when we get there? Will people be joyful, sad, difficult or scared? Will it be a catalyst for bringing in new practices or going back to the old? How well do people feel they’ve been supported?

Campbell writes that most legends show the hero returning a different person, matured by the psychological journey they’ve taken. (Think Arya Stark from Game Of Thrones.) What will they find when they get “home”? But the hero can often return carrying a heavy psychological baggage. Who will help them unpack it?

For me much of the heavy lifting around the return will be carried by the individual but supported by good leadership, the team and the culture. But this will all have to be done in the shadow of a recession, cost-cutting and continued ambiguity.

I think one of the leading thinkers in this area is Daniel Kahneman “Thinking Fast And Slow.” Once you understand the interplay between System 1 and System 2 it can be important how you where you place your focus and help your people manage their emotions. Whilst it’s about helping others it is also about looking for opportunities. We have identified three potential issues leaders may have to deal with.

The team atmosphere.  Whilst many people may have had positive experiences of Covid-19, many will have been isolated, lonely and just plain miserable. I’m hoping as a leader you’ll know what your team has been through. How will these two groups integrate? Added to that some workers will remain scared by the workplace and the virus risks. Despite all the pressures, leaders will need to create time and space for those important one-to-one conversations. Expect to see greater emphasis on listening, “meeting people where they are at” and understanding what people have been through.

New ways of working and going back to the old ways. I have a client who told me recently, quite forcefully, that she can never see any reason to go into her office again. Her productivity has been astronomical because of no commute and the avoidance of long meetings. This experience will be shared by many. I am currently running a webinar programme with a large manufacturing client. Covid-19 has meant they have been forced into the agile and lean experiments they’ve been promising for years. What will happen to these new practices in the new world order? What happens when you have senior people demanding a return to the old ways sending out a frenzied whirlwind of emails and invites to 2-hour meetings. No more time for thinking or experiments? Organisations need to find a way of listening to their staff to capture all the new-found ways of working before we go back to our old habits.

Dealing with complex emotions. Did your company look after your staff during lockdown? There may well be some underlying emotions behind how staff were treated. The world seems an angry place during increased ambiguity. I am shocked by the amount of intelligent people I know who will refuse to take any C-19 vaccine because they are believe Bill Gates is trying to control them!! But so what? People can think what they want. How do we ensure that people are allowed to co-exist with different ideas? Angry at Boris Johnson or think he’s marvellous? See Covid-19 as some kind of spiritual reckoning? (Let’s not even mention the return of Brexit.) We have to learn to live together. This will require strong leadership, strong team values and an acceptance of real diversity of opinions. There has never been a more important time for psychological safety.

Leaders will need to prepare for their team’s journey back to work because it may represent as big a challenge as lockdown. Campbell talks about the hero returning having found “the ultimate treasure”. Perhaps your ultimate treasure may be to see how well your staff return to work. It may well be indicative of the kind of culture you’ve created.

Here’s a good video on the Hero’s Journey.

Author: James Marshall