What Is the Experience of Loss?

The maturational process, ideally a step-by-step evolution of continuous growth and integration, is frequently undermined by events which either undo some of the steps that have been taken or which inhibit the taking of further steps. In this chapter, I shall take a look at that most pervasive phenomenon that does both, namely, the experience of loss. It is when one must deal with such issues that he sees the most crucial difference between such conceptions as social man and self-actualizing man, on the one hand, and psychological man on the other. Earlier theories offer the executive little to increase his perception and awareness of such problems. However, with such perception and awareness, the executive can move to avoid impairment or to compensate, both in his own life and that of others in his organization, for the consequences of the loss experience.

Loss is a universal problem and probably the most psychologically costly one. It is the psychological experience underlying alienation, rootlessness, and the severe stresses of the family. Those terms and phrases -- alienation, transiency and the stresses of the family -- are short descriptive capsules that encompass complex and subtle processes. However, they say little about the underlying psychological loss experience on which they are based or how to cope with this loss.

1. Why is this experience so significant and how does it have its effects?

2. What implications does the significance of this experience have for the manager and his family?

3. What implications does it have for organizational practices, particularly those relating to people?

The reason the loss experience is so powerfully destructive can be seen in a simple analogy.
Imagine a tree rooted in the ground. The roots serve not only as a transmission route for nourishment but they also give the tree stability against the elements. When any of these roots is destroyed, some of its leaves begin to wither; some of the tree dies. If the tree is to be moved, a wise tree mover will cut away some of the more extended roots on one side of the tree, allow the tree time to adapt to that loss by developing new roots, then cut away some on the other side of the tree, leaving a large ball of dirt in which the remaining roots, including the newly proliferated ones, are contained. The human experience is much like that of the tree. We attach ourselves to other people, places, things, goals, wishes, aspirations, skills, knowledge and even life styles.

The experience of loss is the reaction to the destruction of attachments. It includes mixed feelings of deprivation, helplessness, sorrow, and anger in varying degrees. Deprivation of different kinds of psychological nourishment constitutes the essence of the loss experience. Among the most critical are: (1) loss of love, (2) loss of support, (3) loss of sensory input, and (4) loss of the capacity to act on oneself or the outside world.

Loss of love is easy to understand when a relative or a close friend dies. In the business world, being removed from one's old friends or business associates on whom one has depended for certain skills and competences and exchanges of information is an example. The separation from a highly valued business partner or colleague sometimes may be equally as painful as separation or divorce from a spouse. Movement within or out of an organization where important sources of regard and approval are left behind are other examples.

The second kind of loss, loss of support, occurs in the same three areas -- close personal relationships, moving, and career changes -- when one has to establish new ties or relationships, find new people to depend upon, and adopt new ways of doing things. This is one of the reasons why many people are confused in new situations, even when the new situation is a long-sought-for advancement. Loss of support also occurs when a man can no longer use once-valued skills, practices, or theories, particularly if he depended on them for his self-esteem. This is one of the major reasons why new advances are not adopted in business practice.The loss of sensory input occurs when people find it difficult to get the kind of data they need to protect and orient themselves. When people are in new situations as a result of being promoted, demoted, or reassigned, or when they have moved to a new city, they usually require some time to pick up significant cues about how to behave in a given location. This is particularly evident when people do not have the language facility or the familiarity with customs that the new place or new situation requires.Finally, when, for whatever reasons, we feel more dependent on others and less able to act to solve our own problems, we are less the masters of ourselves and our own fates. We don't like our incomplete, less adequate selves. The consequence is that we feel more helpless and, therefore, probably more frightened, more vulnerable, more defensive, more frustrated, more angry, and more depressed. This is seen most often when reorganizations take place, in mergers, and in the installation of new technical or managerial processes.The effects of loss are conspicuous in organizations. Certainly much of what is viewed as remaining on an organizational plateau, becoming organizational deadwood, or losing interest in one's job, even much of what is referred to laughingly as having risen to a level of incompetence, results from the burden of depression due to the sense of loss. The import of the loss experience for management goes beyond these common experiences. It is encapsulated in three axioms:

1. All change is loss. Promotion, transfer, demotion, reorganization, merger, retirement, and most other managerial actions produce change. Despite the fact that change is necessary and often for the better, the new always displaces the old and, at some level of consciousness, loss is experienced.

2. There is evidence to indicate that losses, particularly if they are chronic and are accompanied by a sense of hopelessness, precipitate major illness, including life-threatening maladies. All losses have important psychological and physiological significance, Extreme examples related to work include long-term unemployment or the inability to change or escape oppressive conditions of work. Less striking examples are the symptoms that arise when the plant itself is moved or when there are significant changes in the way work is done, as in automating work processes.

3. Moreover, when not inhibited from doing so, people automatically begin a restitution process to recoup their losses and compensate for them. And the manager, with little more effort than it takes to ignore the effects of loss, can become a facilitator of the restitutive process. Thus he is in a position to be both an agent of prevention and a healer while, at the same time, carrying out his managerial role more effectively.

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