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The Psychology of Letting Go



While recently rereading The Duke’s Children, the last volume of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, I encountered the following remark: “Nothing will ever be quite what it used to be.”1 Or, to paraphrase the title character in the movie The Big Lebowski, “Change abides.”Letting things go is simply one facet in the continuous process of change with which we all must deal: the “C-word.” It seems reasonable to consider the situations that cause us to let things go and to examine the various reactions I have observed in myself and others in such circumstances. I hope that this analysis will . . .
The Psychology of Letting Go
© 2011 Michael Fox
While recently rereading The Duke’s Children, the last volume of Anthony Trol-
lope’s Palliser series, I encountered the following remark: “Nothing will ever be
quite what it used to be.”1 Or, to paraphrase the title character in the movie The Big
Lebowski, “Change abides.”
Letting things go is simply one facet in the continuous process of change with
which we all must deal: the “C-word.” It seems reasonable to consider the situa-
tions that cause us to let things go and to examine the various reactions I have ob-
served in myself and others in such circumstances. I hope that this analysis will not
offend by pointing out the obvious. A little introspection is always useful, whether
or not you share my perspective.
It is said that where one stands has a lot to do with where one sits. My context is, of
course, the place where I have worked for the past 24 years. Because the Minnesota
Historical Society (MHS) may be different in some respects from your place of em-
ployment, my issues and examples may not resonate entirely for you, but I suspect
that you can draw the analogies. This is the situation in which I work: the MHS is
a private organization with substantial public funding. It is a full-service cultural
heritage organization with a complex set of programs: research library, manu-
scripts collections, the state archives, 26 museums and historic sites, publisher of
20–25 monographs per year and a quarterly journal, education outreach programs,
the state historic preservation function, and a field archaeology program. There are
around 700 employees, the equivalent of about 425 FTEs. As Deputy Director, all
day-to-day activity reports through me.
Let’s begin with a definition: letting go is what we do when a function, service, or
activity previously performed is discontinued, when ongoing work is modified in so
substantial a way that we perceive the resulting activity as fundamentally different,
or when we lose tangible resources, such as colleagues.
I can imagine four situations when “letting go” happens; there may be others.
1. Anthony Trollope, The Duke’s Children (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1999),
The Psychology of Letting Go 105
We let something go to make time for other, existing tasks. We want to do fewer
things simply so that we can devote more attention to those that remain, to do
less with more, or to do it better. We rarely have the luxury to do this. We discon-
tinue one activity to do something else instead: a change in priorities. We let go
of a facet of some activity as part of a major revamping of how we carry out that
work, or, the dreaded phrase “business process reengineering.” We let go when
colleagues leave, whether in the normal course of life—new jobs, retirement,
death—or involuntarily—the end of a limited term project, or due to budget
The Importance of Priorities
Most of us quite naturally want some measure of say over our work lives, what we
do, and how we do it.
Many of us find ourselves functioning in a work environment that is far more
structured than it was years ago. My own institution places increasing emphasis
on working within specific frameworks: coordination of action across programs, a
focus on strategic plans, concentration on service to certain audiences, and achiev-
ing specific goals and outcomes. Staff are responding to priorities that are being set
further and further up the organizational hierarchy. Multiple factors are driving this
trend. Reduced institutional resources make for keener internal competition for
funds. We also deal with the expectations of funders, internal and external, includ-
ing granting agencies, foundations, philanthropies, and the public, who increasingly
expect us to focus on meeting goals defined in terms of particular results, measure-
able outcomes, or definable benefits.
But the truth is that we have always lived within a set of priorities. Either we are
active and set them for ourselves, or we are passive and allow others to set them for
us, but we have to deal with them one way or the other. When the budget cuts or
mission shifts come, you can be prepared with an understanding of what is most
important and why—and act accordingly—or you can improvise.
Between 2003 and 2005, MHS faced a series of reductions that equaled about 16
percent of our operating budget. Unfortunately, we had no robust plan to guide
us because we were an expansive organization that had been fortunate enough
not to have faced the issue of contraction for years. When the next round of cuts
came in 2008 and 2009, the institution was better prepared because we had spent
time thinking about our institutional goals, audiences, programs, processes, and
priorities. And when new funding actually appeared in 2010, we also knew where
to focus dollars and staff.
106 RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage
What Compels Us to Let Things Go?
Let us consider, first of all, reduced resources. Public budgets have been cut in all
sectors. Endowments are down, and many foundations and philanthropies are fo-
cusing their attention on social issues. We are finding more interest in sponsorships,
where corporate donations are tied to marketing opportunities, than in purely
altruistic support for the civic and cultural life of the community.
But sometimes it is actually new, additional funding that force us to let something
go. Our program receives a grant and we are required to provide some form of
match. Something has to give way to get the work done. A further, complicating
and frustrating factor is that new money seems to be directed chiefly toward spe-
cific, limited-term projects rather the support of ongoing work. At MHS, signifi-
cant budget cuts to core programs on the one hand, and substantial new resources
on the other, have created a catch-22: the new money may not be used legally to
substitute for that which was lost.
Operating hours for historic sites were cut and most site managers would have
been reduced to 75 percent time, but we have been able to redirect the remaining
25 percent of their work week toward new activities, such as joint programs with
local libraries or involvement with schools in the national History Day competi-
tion. They had to let something go, though not always happily.
Sometimes there is a shift in institutional mission or focus, and we are caught
up in the redirection of level funding into different programs or services. The
most recent planning effort at MHS refocused the way we think about our work.
There was a shift away from an emphasis on the services we provide—supporting
research, publishing books, or creating museum exhibits—and a redirection toward
the primary audiences we serve: students and teachers in grades 4–12, adults over
50, families with children, and young adults. The point here is not whether this
new approach is right or wrong, better or worse. It is simply to observe that forces
other than budget cuts can just as surely redefine our work.
Sometimes someone has an idea that there is a better way to do what we do. Op-
erations are changed; things are done differently; some activities cease. Sometimes
one’s job status changes: perhaps a formal promotion or more project management
and less hands-on work. Professionals often yearn for a time with a smaller staff,
less public and organizational visibility, and simpler performance measures.
There are several reasons why, in an environment where our choices are increasingly
set by others, we might react by accepting or even embracing “letting go.” We might
be disposed to do so, willing to let go and do something else because it makes sense
The Psychology of Letting Go 107
to us. Or perhaps the change was our idea, and we have pride of ownership and
the firm conviction that this must be right. Some people like challenge, and enjoy
learning new skills, or realize that the “same old, same old” no longer excites them,
and would like to try new approaches or methods. Sometimes letting go of the old
allows you to make way for something that will advance your career, such as the
realization that archivists would do well to learn Encoded Archival Description.
Other factors are less noble: realizing that change is necessary to stay employed,
or responding to peer pressure, or what I refer to as the “Eyeore complex”: just
putting in your time, doing what you are told to do. This attitude might also be re-
flected in a “short timer attitude”: counting the days until retirement, for example,
or hoping that sooner or later, the organization will go back to the old way. A per-
son who has gone through one too many strategic planning processes might well
exhibit the attitude that they have been there and done that many, many times.
Alternately, rejecting and resisting letting go have many potential reasons. Some-
times, change simply does not make sense to us; the purposes for and advantages of
doing so were not clearly explained or just do not make sense. We may also believe
the change is wrong, the priorities it reflects are wrong, or that our ideas were better.
We may be responding to a feeling that these changes were not what we anticipat-
ed when we began our working lives. We do not enjoy them and have no aptitude
for them. Sometimes colleagues leave institutions or retire when they feel this way.
This response seems far more honest than the situation where someone hangs on
until retirement, complaining endlessly.
A lack of institutional communication and shared mission can be at fault. For years
at MHS, the processing staff often resisted change by insisting that the reference
folks demanded they do something in a particular way even after the staff members
in question had long since departed. Changes in reference service have pitted the
interests of a large body of students and the historically-minded general public
against a small cadre of academic and public historians who claim to be our most
important customers. Balancing competing needs and audiences is always an
important and complex issue, especially when change results in gains for one audi-
ence at the expense of another.
We may believe that everything we do is essential, and we cannot see how it is pos-
sible to discontinue anything. Or we may cling to the assertion that, as a profession-
al, we get to decide what to do. Our status as tenured faculty or union membership
may lead us to assert that “they” cannot change the way I work or what I do. I have
not worked in an academic environment, but I have worked under civil service
108 RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage
regulations and union contracts. I certainly understand the rationale for employee
protections against unreasonable and arbitrary actions. But to me this legalistic
response seems to suggest that one has no richer, intellectually robust, or practical
counterargument to offer.
Sometimes we doubt our leaders, believing the boss makes bad decisions or is just
changing things to feather his or her own nest. However, as we climb the organi-
zational ladder, we may find ourselves becoming more tolerant of the motives and
shortcomings of supervisors.
Finally, we may honestly and nobly believe that what we do has value, and we are
good at meeting the public’s needs, advancing scholarship, and the like. These are
important thoughts, and perhaps the following ideas will help clarify.
Five Strategies for Dealing with Letting Go
1. Pick a strategy. Times of change are transitional zones. If you are unhappy about
the direction that the organization is taking, you have to decide for yourself how
you want to come out the other end of the tunnel. Do you want to be right in your
opposition to this inappropriate turn of events and defend the high moral ground
to the bitter end and at all cost, or do you want to manage the change successfully?
Your chances of doing both are slim to nil. It is your decision how you will respond.
2. Acknowledge that there is a loss, even if you are in favor of the change, but
certainly when you are unhappy about it. A thoughtful consultant I know who
works with organizations undergoing change suggests holding a formal event to
collectively acknowledge loss that comes with letting things go, even when you are
in favor of the changes this reflects. Publicly acknowledging loss can help us move
on just as a funeral does.
A review of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief gives us examples that apply
to any cause of grief, not just death.2
• Denial: “I feel fine.” “This can’t be happening, not to me.”
• Anger: “Why me? It’s not fair!” “Who is to blame?”
• Bargaining: “Can we postpone or minimize this?”
• Depression: “What’s the point?”
• Acceptance: “It’s going to be okay.” “I can’t fight it. I may as well
prepare for it.”
2. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, (paraphrased from) On Death and Dying (New York: Simon and Schuster,
The Psychology of Letting Go 109
3. Take control of the situation. Ask yourself, what can you do in a positive way to
participate in the process and shape the outcomes?
4. Develop your repertoire. What new skills will I need to succeed: technical, mana-
gerial, operational? How can I acquire them?
5. Focus on the benefits. Any manager who wants you to let go of older ways and
techniques better be able to articulate the benefits that will result. Insist on this.
It might actually provide an opportunity for creative thinking. For example, it is
difficult to perceive a positive benefit in having to reduce reading room hours. But
we at MHS used this situation as an opportunity to improve service to specific audi-
ences by creating a new schedule that actually added more evening and even Sun-
day hours for those who could not do their research between 9 and 5 on weekdays.
Change is constant. Though sometimes hard to acknowledge, in the end, how
it works out in each of our lives is pretty much up to us. Good luck with letting
things go.
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