Relevance Deprivation Syndrome

Posted in: Bloggery

I was asked recently by a journalist to comment on a term she had heard:  “relevance deprivation syndrome”.  Was this something one saw much of?  Was there a psychological term associated with this?  How serious was this issue?

My main reaction was to say that I thought this was a really unkind term:  a pejorative label used very much at the expense of another person.  It has connotations of an arrogant person pushed off a platform by events, and of being humiliated.

From time to time we work with senior people who have been CEOs, for example, or partners in large professional services firms, as another – where the many years and intensity of effort to get them to that level have resulted in them being very much invested in their roles. To a large extent internally, and in their immediate surrounds, they come to define themselves by their working roles.

But this huge investment of themselves (and identification with their working role) comes at a price when events cause them to lose their positions – at least initially.  Mergers, acquisitions, changes in markets, changes in boards can all lead to the demise of leaders – but the impact on the individual is often very significant.  Our culture requires us to internalise feelings in these situations and to put a brave face on the outcome, but often beneath that brave face there is a world of pain going on.

In these circumstances we work with individuals to emphasise that a career has not been taken away, simply a current appointment.  The knowledge, skills and built capabilities remain, and simply need a new context in which to once again be exercised.  By working on their articulation of achievements and capabilities we quickly see a recognition of this truth and often too a growing desire to design something different and better in the next career.

The term “relevance deprivation” does not do justice to the real inner struggle of the first few days of significant involuntary career change at these levels, nor to the complexity and layers of the worlds in which we live as individuals.

I also have a question:  “Relevant to whom?” in this context.  A career change, or shift, is a great time to take stock of a bunch of things, one of which is the meaning and fulfillment attached to work, and the balance of things in all the lives we lead.

If someone is overwhelmed with grief and anger with an unplanned career change, a little time and coaching with these questions in mind can be pretty useful.

Increasingly we need to see ourselves as self-employed:  a business of one, which we have touched on in earlier blogs.  Our responsibility is to design work which feeds our inner beliefs and aspirations, and then to move comfortably between different working envelopes, or “markets” – sometimes in other organisations, and sometimes in portfolio careers or in new ventures.  It sometimes seems that career resilience and a bit of courage and tenacity (as capabilities to develop) is more important than simply hitting the search firms, landing a new appointment and then hanging on to that as an end-game.

Many CEOs understand this – and I don’t think worry about “relevance deprivation”,  but sometimes those beneath them are not quite so pragmatic, and a little too dependent on the grace and favour of their current employers.