“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar….
“I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice replied rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then”.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
We need to talk less about ‘new normal’, ‘next normal’, and especially about going ‘back to normal’. In this post I share a point of view on why these concepts are not that helpful and how we might reframe the way we view uncertainty.
This morning I read a white paper promising to help me ‘learn how the acceleration of digital is shaping the next normal’.
I explored the related term ‘new normal’ in my second book, ‘Strive’.
Now the term ‘next normal’ is gaining currency.
In my work I regularly hear people talk hopefully about a point in the future when we can go ‘back to normal’. The words ‘certainty’ and ‘uncertainty’ permeate the airwaves.
These instincts to seek certainty, to predict a ‘new’ or ‘next’ ‘normal’, or to go ‘back to normal’, although completely understandable as psychological responses to uncertainty, are potentially self-limiting thoughts, and unhelpful uses of language.
In this exploration, I will share a few reflections on why this is the case, with some basic thoughts on alternative responses.
Both complexity science and post-normal science suggest that there might not be a single version of the truth about what normality means.
Normality is far from normal, and even in the brief periods in life, work, or even human history that each of us might point to and say, ‘that was normal’, this evaluation is extremely selective, loaded with subjectivity.
What you think is normal for the future of work might sound deeply dystopian to me. There is nothing normal or aspirational about huge chunks of the global workforce losing work or being unable to work.
Millions are being forced to work entirely from their own homes.
While the prospect of telecommuting may appeal to many, access to a collegiate, safe, and purpose-built professional working environment is a blessing to others.
A ‘next normal’ that involves the demise of beautifully designed learning venues and workplaces, the end of some performing arts, or the near collapse of urban economies, feels abnormal and unacceptable to me.
Technology can and should augment, even help to shape the experience of learning. But staying at home to undertake education, in the fullest sense of the word ‘education’, is like only ever ordering take-away from a fine dining restaurant; it might satiate one’s appetite, without feeding one’s soul.
If learning, education, and work are going to be more flexible, and hybridized in the way they happen – which the data does suggest is desirable – then this needs to be implemented thoughtfully. Such a massive transformation needs to happen in an evidence-based manner with peoples’ performance, creativity, mental health, and wellbeing in mind. A global health emergency might accelerate certain trends, but it should not become the crucible in which we re-design education and work.
The very idea of normality is also closely connected to history, culture, identity, and politics.
Notions of what is normal and what certainty looks like are entwined with power – who has power and the moral clarity with which it is exercised. Psychology can unwittingly reinforce and perpetuate the status quo in terms of who wields power, which people represent stability, certainty, or success, and how people are managed.
Normality, uniformity, and with them, a sense of predictability or certainty about the future are default psychological preferences that can be reinforced by the tools used to guide change, and transition. Used without nuance and subtlety, models of ‘transition’ have the potential to encourage people to be too simplistic, searching for a promised land, a next normal, rather than engaging with their realities.
Many pre-digital assumptions about behaviour at work are becoming obsolete. As Charles Handy foresaw, we do live in an ‘age of anxiety’.
Uncertainty and complexity are here to stay, and prompts all of us to make choices, to experiment our way forward, psychologists, coaches and consultants included.
The psychology of work must evolve.
In this context, my hope is that within public discourse there will be fewer hasty inferences or grand narratives about a new or next normal. It is also important to bracket our need just to go back to our previous comfort zones. A ‘new normal’ is imaginary, illusory, and if it does exist, it is also transient.
Professional helpers like me are here to help you deal constructively with existential uncertainty by making hard choices.
The capacity to do this in a digitalised world that increasingly requires this of us constitutes psychological agility.
In future posts I will share my reflections on agility in leadership, organizations, culture, and career development.
I will leave you with a few questions for further reflection.
· What are the most important choices you need to make?
· How effectively are you responding to your situation?
· What are you learning as you navigate your environment?