Forget about getting back to normal

by | Nov 6, 2012 | Blog | 2 comments

You can’t return to normal—unless you’re from Normal, IL.

Normally, I don’t write about “returning to normal.” But in the aftermath of devastating Superstorm Sandy, that phrase is on the tips of so many tongues.

Government officials, company spokespeople and others keep talking about how it will take time to “get back to normal” or “return to normal.”

Forget about it! We have to delete that phrase from our vocabulary and our mindset—whether normal refers to recovering from a disaster, adjusting to a work change or something else.

Having been involved in a number of disasters (although none as severe as Sandy) and having co-authored the 2006 book, Leading People Through Disasters, I’m convinced that talking about “returning to normal” does more harm than good.

First, consider “normalcy” in the context of a disaster. Just as you cannot step in the same river twice, you cannot go back to the way things were before a disaster. Your life and the lives of others have been permanently altered. Those along the Atlantic Seaboard who experienced Sandy will always view hurricanes in a new way.

Second, think about “normalcy” at work. Whenever you go through major event, such as a merger or acquisition, a downsizing or outsourcing, conditions change. There’s no going back to what things were before the change, which is how people often interpret normal.

Instead, you need to focus on the present and provide hope for the future.

After Hurricane Katrina, when my co-author Kathy McKee and I were working on our book, I wrote about the importance of “creating a new state of normalcy that recognizes and builds on the changed circumstances.”

However, that concept, including the “new normal” phrase that is popular these days, now seems as antiquated as carbon paper and as incongruous  as the Placerville, CA Carbon Copy company that offers “office equipment for tomorrow.”

Instead, we have to be prepared for constant disruption in our VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).

Just think about these recent unexpected events:

  • Two 100-year storms in the Northeast US in two years.
  • A former graduate student in the field of neuroscience accused of killing 12 people at a Colorado movie theatre.
  • Free massive open online courses (MOOC), as described in the New York Times “The Year of the MOOC” article, starting to challenge traditional higher education.

You can’t make this stuff up, as one of my colleagues used to say.

With constant disruption, we have to ground ourselves with one foot in the present while leaning forward for the future. We can’t stay stuck in the past.

Even if we stand still, we fall behind, as progressive leaders like to say these days, especially when inspiring their employees to quickly yet carefully implement key strategic initiatives.  

Talking about “a return to normal” gives people a false sense of comfort.

Reserve the word “normal” for “normal distribution” especially in relation to “normal blood pressure,” “normal heart rate” and “normal pulse rate.”

In other situations, deal with the present and start shaping the future.

See you there!

Are you ready to leave normal behind?


  1. Suzy Johnson

    Could not agree more! I’ve done a lot of thinking about this lately, pre-Sandy even, when I unexpectedly broke my jaw at work (I fainted in the hallway; turns out, fainting often leads to broken bones). First, there’s just surviving the actual “crisis experience” itself; then you start to process physically and mentally and that’s exactly what it is — a process. Things will not be the same. When I broke my jaw, I made up my mind early on that I could dwell on “why me?” or choose to look at this as a learning experience and figure out what I was supposed to learn from it, and even gain something positive from the experience. Then, Sandy happened, and while I wouldn’t compare breaking a jaw to losing a home and going without power for a long time, it did give me pause to reflect on the different ways people will process the event and hopefully recover from it. We need to learn much more about resilience and adaptability — no one gets through life without disruptions and change. Our ability to change and survive is what has allowed us to continue as a species — when did we start to expect we even deserve things to be “normal”? Normal seems like a modern luxury to me, so maybe we should just stop expecting it and talking about it.

    Good post, Liz!

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Wow! What an experience, Suzy, and what great learnings to share. Thanks for your perspective. And hope you’re well on the way to mending.

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