“Your Work Narrative,” with Dr. Helen Chung
Dr. Helen Chung is an industrial-organizational psychologist with broad scholarship interests in narrative and storytelling, leadership and spirituality, and faith and work. She is passionate about examining the narratives that animate people in their work, leadership models and practices that foster inclusive communities, and the role of organizations in developing just ecosystems for individual and collective flourishing. She teaches courses in organizational behavior, motivation, leadership in teams, and history and systems of psychology.
Amanda Stubbert: Dr. Chung, thank you for joining us today.
Helen Chung: It’s so good to be here. Thank you for having me.
Amanda: Well, I happen to have a little bit of a psychology background and I’m a brain science junkie, but I think to a lot of people, some of the things in your introduction might have sounded like a different language. So can you give me a little bit of a background about your educational journey and what led you to where you are today?
Dr. Chung: Yes. So if it’s OK, I’m going to go back in time a little bit to my college days. So my BA is actually an English and religion, and that’s probably the place where my deep interest in storytelling really began. My plan was to be an English literature professor. So academia was always on the horizon for me, but I thought it was going to be in the discipline of English literature, interwoven with theology and religion.
From my BA, I went on to do a master’s in theological studies to kind of further my understanding and knowledge of the intersection of literature and faith and religion. And after I finished my MTS, I was a little bit at a loss of where to go; I didn’t have a clear direction. I was married. We did not have children at the time. And we were in Boston, decided to move back to Seattle. My husband is from the Seattle area originally and he thought Seattle is a better place to raise a family than the East Coast. I disagreed, but I acquiesced.
So I’ve been in Seattle for now, like the second half of my life. And during that transition period, when I was searching for what is my calling professionally, I began to get interested in psychology on my own. And I started actually coaching people, very kind of ad hoc, like on an as-needed basis. Individuals were coming to me just to talk about where they felt stuck. And the world of coaching sort of opened up to me and much of the coaching I did just pro bono. And it was really life coaching, moving into career transitions coaching. And then I began to start working with teams inside of organizations and started to get paid for what I was doing.
And I hit a wall where I’m like, “I’ve got some limitations.” I felt my own limitations in terms of what I could do with and for my clients. And so it started to explore: What are my options? What are the gaps in my training? What other competencies would be helpful for me in facilitating growth in my clients? So that’s really where I began to look at the field of organizational psychology. I found the program, the I-O program at SPU, and went for it. And then when I was working on my dissertation as a doctoral student, I began adjuncting for the business school at SPU and landed a position for a couple of years there and now have since moved over to the I-O department. So that’s a little bit of the backstory of how I got to where I am today.
“I found the program, the I-O program at SPU and went for it.”
Amanda: I find it fascinating, this idea of storytelling, which of course has been around since the beginning of humanity. And it’s how most of the Bible is written, most religious texts are written. And yet in our modern times, it’s almost like this new revelation of storytelling, because you talked about the storytelling that you use in your work, how not being able to tell the story led you to more research and more work. And yet I think we tend to think of storytelling as artists, when it’s all of us, it’s psychology, it’s the law, it’s all about the story we’re telling. And even the story we’re telling about ourselves in the moment.
Dr. Chung: I could not agree with you more, Amanda. I think that stories are fundamental to who we are as human beings. You called yourself a brain science junkie, right?
Dr. Chung: So you know this already, our brains work in narratives, in narrative structure. We learn in narrative structure, we embed and code experiences in narrative. So it’s so fundamental to who we are and how we make sense of the world and how we get a sense of other people, about our experiences of the world.
Amanda: And let’s now make a little more direct connection to your work. So work narrative, what does that mean in what you teach in your coaching? How can your story influenced the way that you work?
Dr. Chung: Yes. So work in narrative can mean many different things. So it kind of will depend on the person that you’re speaking to. And even, I could probably have a several-hour conversation about this, but I’m going to try to keep it simple and I’m going to offer one possible understanding of work narrative. So the way that I tend to think about work narrative is that it’s a personal story that can drive someone’s pursuit of a particular occupation, job, or role. And I’m going to tell a story about my mother and then one about myself. I think it’s fitting to use stories to talk about work narratives.
So my mother’s work narrative. And of course, this is my perception and my interpretation. So if you were to sit down with her, you might get something slightly different.
“The way that I tend to think about work narrative is that it’s a personal story that can drive someone’s pursuit of a particular occupation, job, or role.”
Amanda: Right, right.
Dr. Chung: But the narrative that I tell about my mom’s work is that she worked a job that provided for us. So our family immigrated to the Detroit area when I was about 2 years old from South Korea; my mom spoke very, very little English, but my dad happened to find an opportunity for her and other women like her: General Motors was hiring people for their assembly line work. And you didn’t need a ton of English to get that job. You just needed to be able to do the manual labor aspect. And so my mom worked at General Motors on the assembly line. She worked mostly on the leather seats that went into the cars.
And it was a difficult job, she was on her feet for most of the day. She didn’t love the job itself, but she found a community within the workplace, a community of other Korean immigrant woman actually. And they were her people at her job. So that gave her some meaning. And the job was a lifeline for our family. It was our way to have health and dental care and a very steady income that really moved us from one sort of socioeconomic bracket to the middle class.
So her work narrative is different from mine in the sense that she didn’t work at General Motors because it was a personal or vocational calling. She did it out of love and devotion to her family, and that was meaningful to her. And she was motivated by different things.
So my work narrative is a little different in that my parents worked really hard to ascend all of their four daughters … I’m the youngest of four girls, put through college without any debt; they were able to pay for that. And I had sort of the time and space to think about what I wanted to do to fulfill myself and to kind of self-actualize in a way where we’re thinking about like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If my mom was motivated by taking care of the family, I was motivated … because I had sort of my survival needs met, I was motivated by, I want to do something that really fulfills me and allows me to make a difference in the life of other people, possibly that would be a great bonus.
And so my personal work narrative is about teaching, I feel called to serve students and to make the world a better place to the extent that I can. And I think the outcomes ultimately of my mother’s work and mine are actually very similar. We earn a decent living that enables us to add value to our families, to derive some level of personal satisfaction, and to add value to the organizations in which we’re embedded. And so the stories that I tell about my work and about my mom’s work give me a sense of history, givs me a sense of place and meaning, and also sort of orient me to how I think about work more broadly in terms of the meaning of work for human beings.
Amanda: And what I take from the stories you’re telling here is that depending on what work narrative you’re living by, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, that will define success for you, will it not? Like you said, your mom was working to provide for her family and was very successful at that. If her work narrative internally was self-actualization, she probably would have felt very unsuccessful and miserable, but like you said, her goal was being met and therefore felt successful and happy in that.
“I feel called to serve students and to make the world a better place to the extent that I can.”
Dr. Chung: Yes, Amanda, that’s very insightful. I think that had she focused on the personal meaning side of things, I think she would have been very frustrated. And actually she did express some frustration over the years because the job was so physically demanding, and at a certain point she decided to stop. And she wanted to, I guess, in some ways, adopt a different narrative about what she could do with her time, because we were at a place where we no longer … I was in high school at this point, we no longer needed her income. My father was doing better in his small businesses. And so economically she did not need to keep that job. And her narrative actually changed at that point.
Amanda: So as we approach the time we’re in, where so many of us are having to shift how we do our work or even finding a new source of income for now, how do we begin to rewrite our own narrative, especially when we’re forced to do so?
Dr. Chung: That’s a great question. In situations where we feel that there’s something external that’s pressing us to shift our narrative, that can be a psychologically difficult place to be because that’s a different situation than somebody just deciding on their own, “You know what, this isn’t working out for me. I want to change things a little bit.” So I’m going to maybe contextualize this and give an example of where some of us, even at SPU, might be feeling a little bit of this narrative shifting.
So at SPU, we are making strides to be more inclusive at the faculty level, at the student level. And what that means for instructors in the classroom is that we are looking at our curricula, our pedagogy, and thinking about whether, what we’re teaching, so the content, and how we’re teaching are serving our students well.
And when we think about our student body, our student body has changed over the years. Our students are diverse, culturally diverse, we have domestic and international students. We have students from multiple faith backgrounds, a range of Christian denominations, as well as students who have other faith traditions or do not identify with a particular religion or faith altogether. So lots of diversity in our student body, which is wonderful, I love the diversity at SPU, the pressure that faculty might feel. And I think it’s ultimately a positive, a very positive thing, is that we do need to re-engage the way we do our work. And fundamentally that is moving us to change our paradigms.
And so for me, what is the role of faith in rewriting the narrative? Well, my faith, rooted in Christ, leads me to believe that we are all created in the image of God. So my job as a professor is to create an environment, a space in which everyone can bring their histories, their experiences, their worldviews to the table in an authentic way, without judgment. And we can have deeper conversations about who we are, what we believe, what we’re learning. In my classrooms, I really strive to be more integrative and to be more holistic. And what I mean by that is, I think as learners, we bring our humanity into this space of learning. We’re not there just with our brains, we’re there with our hearts and our bodies and our souls and our spirits.
“My faith, rooted in Christ, leads me to believe that we are all created in the image of God. So my job as a professor is to create an environment, a space in which everyone can bring their histories, their experiences, their worldviews to the table in an authentic way, without judgment.”
And so for me, the faith component leads me to want to create a more open environment for the diversity of our students. And I think about Jesus’ parable of old wine and new wine, and you’re not supposed to put new wine into old wineskins because back in the day, biblical times, the wineskins came from, I believe goat hide. And over time that hide would no longer stretch. And so if you put new wine into old wineskins, those wineskins will break apart, they’ll burst open because the new wine is still fermenting. And so I think about that parable and I’m inspired by it because it reminds me that what I’m doing, it’s not about throwing out the old, it’s actually adapting to new ways of doing things, it’s being more flexible. And for me, my faith enlivens and inspires, and actually strengthens my commitment to transforming the way that I teach so that I can serve my students more holistically in ways that are going to be more meaningful for them.
Amanda: So one of the classes you teach in the I-O psych program is called Motivation. And when I think about the time we’re in, where more people, I think, are in transition or being asked to deal with more than probably ever before. Can you tell us about how that work narrative that we’ve been talking about, how does that play into our day-to-day motivation?
Dr. Chung: Yeah. I think of our work narratives, and sometimes these narratives can be very macro-big, and sometimes they can be micro, but whatever level it may be, I think that the stories that we tell ourselves and each other about why we do the work that we do can help us get up in the day and get going. I think that’s particularly true in these times when we’re living through this pandemic. And we’ve also had a lot of political and social unrest, and we are dealing with systemic racism, and it will be an ongoing struggle and there’s ongoing work to do in that space.
But the pandemic brings another layer of, I think, sometimes difficulty for some, not all. I think there are some who are able to, for example, work from home and they love it. There are others who enjoy aspects of it, but that are frustrated by the fact that there are so many other bodies in the home, especially small children who are doing much of their learning virtually. And so now parents, mothers and fathers, are managing their children’s education while having to do the same amount of work that they’ve done before. So they have to be productive in an environment that has some barriers to productivity. And, of course not everybody can work from home. There are frontline workers who are simply not able to do that. And thank God for the work that they are doing to keep our lives going; we’re indebted. So I think that, especially now, the way that we think about the work that we do and the deeper why, helps us to stay motivated.
Amanda: So you’re the co-founder of Pathways Coaching and Consulting. And when you work with a client, what do you do to help shift those narratives? What do you do to help them get into a place where they can stay motivated?
Dr. Chung: Yeah, that’s a great question. So coaching is really this process that’s typically oriented around the goals of the client. And generally clients come find coaches or seek coaches out when they’re feeling stuck, right? So that stuckness, how do we move people out of stuckness? Well, I really believe that coaches don’t do that for the clients; the clients do that for themselves.
So let me maybe share this breakthrough moment that I had with a client. And I was working with somebody in their later 20s, early 30s, new manager, had only been managing for about six months. And basically she reached out to me and said, “I need to shift the way that I do my work, because now I’m managing other people and I’m not sure that I’m doing such a great job.” So in our conversation, I had her describe what was going on and where she felt that she was stuck and what the challenges were. And I heard in her voice and in what she said kind of not a high level of self-efficacy in her role. She really didn’t feel confident that she could do the things that she was being asked to do now as a manager.
“How do we move people out of stuckness? Well, I really believe that coaches don’t do that for the clients, the clients do that for themselves.”
And so how did this manifest? Well, she would ask for permission to do things rather than trying things out and then getting feedback. She would want confirmation that her ideas were good enough to move forward. And this was a pattern that was coming up. And I began to ask her, “In this situation, what would do you want to do?” And just had her think about possibilities that she can map out for herself. And then we talk through, “Well, which of those options do you think is ideal and why? And then who might you need to help you be successful in executing on that particular option?” And then we get to a point of, “Would you be willing to try that out for a week or two and reflect on what you learn? And then let’s come back and talk about what happened and what worked well and what you might want to change.”
And in the several of those conversations, or after a few conversations, I saw light bulb moment, and I could see it in her face where she just really did light up and her eyes got really big. And she said to me, “Oh my gosh, you’re getting me to create my own solutions and to try them out along the way. That is brilliant.” And so I know that’s kind of like a lot. It was sort of this process that she went through, I facilitated the process. She created her own solutions, tried them out, and then revamped going forward.
So the narrative that changed for her is, what it was prior was, “I don’t know the answers, so I’m going to ask my boss for the answers on how to do this thing.” Or, “I’m going to ask my coach how to do this thing.” And that narrative shifted to: “Wait a second. I don’t have this figured out yet, but I have some tools that I can use to figure things out. And I have people and resources around me that I can leverage to help me figure that out.” So the self-efficacy actually began to rise because it wasn’t about her not knowing the answers. It was about her realizing that she had the capability to find her answers.
Amanda: And what I love so much about those kinds of breakthroughs is instead of trying to change what’s going on around you, because there might be things within your work environment that could change, that make work for you more difficult. But so often our biggest barriers are within.
I remember when I first went back to work after having the privilege to be able to stay home and raise my kids when they were little, I found myself asking, I would phrase things a lot with, “Am I going to get in trouble if…” “Who would be mad if I…” And I said it so many times that other people started saying to me, “Why do you keep saying that? Who’s going to get you in trouble?” And I didn’t even realize that I was going into my day-to-day work and life with this idea that I’m probably not good enough, that I’m probably behind the times. And probably my ideas are probably not going to work, and then someone’s going to be mad about it. I didn’t realize that that was my mindset, like you said, until someone puts that mirror up and you realize, “You know what, I don’t actually have to go through life this way. I’m not actually going to get in trouble. Even if I do fail, it’s just something that we’ll deal with. It wouldn’t be the end of work as I know it.”
Dr. Chung: Yes. I love your story because you point to the need for a growth mindset around mistakes. And so often when talk to emerging leaders or leaders who have moved into new positions where their role and responsibility have expanded, there is a great fear of making mistakes. And certainly there are some mistakes that might lead to some bad consequences, but most of the mistakes that we tend to make when we take on new new roles or try out new things are absorbable, and they’re necessary for learning. I love that story that you just told.
“Most of the mistakes that we tend to make when we take on new new roles or try out new things are absorbable, and they’re necessary for learning.”
Amanda: Yeah. I’m so glad that someone finally said it to me, put that mirror up and said, “It feels strange that you keep saying this, why are you saying this?” Because I didn’t realize I was doing it. And obviously I did not realize that that was, indeed, how I was feeling. I realize there is no one-size-fits-all here, but assuming that most of our listeners are thinking, “Boy, I could use a little bit more motivation myself.” Is there a takeaway, is there an exercise? What can you give us all to try at home that might help us up our motivational game?
Dr. Chung: Oh, wow. I love that question because it’s so practical. All right. So is it OK if I answer that in two parts?
Amanda: Of course.
Dr. Chung: I’ll start with the practical thing that I think people could do today. So if I could have people wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently, what would that be? I’m going to first share a quote that comes from The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. He wrote, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” And I love this quote because it reminds me to think about the day-to-day food and cheer and song and the people in my life, above hoarding whatever it might be. Gold may represent different things to different people. For me, gold represents productivity, competence, showing people that I’m competent, and to some extent, money, because I have a big family and a big extended family. And so money is helpful to keeping things going.
So here is the takeaway in terms of what can people do, take one day in the seven day week to rest, to pause, to stop focusing on stuff, taking up space, making more time for this or for that. And I think some of us even hoard learning, that can actually be something that we hoard. So pause with whatever we tend to focus on in the other six days, pause and stop being so busy and take some time to meditate, to contemplate, to walk and reflect on what’s happening in one’s life, what’s going well, what you’re really enjoying. And what is giving you a hard time and why that might be. So this is just really a practical thing. And maybe you don’t have to take a whole day to do it. Because some listeners are probably like, “Oh my gosh, how can I take a whole day to pause and to rest?” Well, why not just start with 30 minutes or one hour, and then see where that reflection takes you. You may actually want to extend it into several hours, a half day, or a full day if you’re able to do that.
So that’ll be the practical thing. And of course it requires some reflection. And I think the deeper we move into reflection, we can make some little shifts in how we might do life the next day. And these are very, very incremental things.
Amanda: Well, what you just said reminded me of, again, my time when I was blessed to be able to stay home with my children when they were little, but like so many other people out there, I’m very agenda-driven, goal-oriented. And when you’re at home with young children, that’s very difficult to be motivated by agendas and goals. And I found that I would be so frustrated because in my head, we were supposed to be at the grocery store by 9 in the morning, and that didn’t work out. Well, no one was expecting us at the grocery store at 9 in the morning; we weren’t going to be marked tardy. And it took me a couple of years of pain before I realized that something that was actually a good thing, that makes me successful in some ways was really hindering my mental wellbeing for being a stay-at-home mom, and I had to let some of those timeframes go. So I’m just applauding your suggestion there. Because every time we stop and reflect and enjoy and be thankful for, I think we realize when we’re tripping ourselves up.
Dr. Chung: Yes, you’re speaking my language, Amanda. I tend to be a very agenda-driven individual and I’ll self-set these time appointments and my husband will ask me, “What will happen if you don’t show up at that time? Who is waiting for you?” I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s right.”
Amanda: Right. Like, nothing’s actually going to fall apart if you’re a couple minutes late. I’m the kind of person that would text someone and say, “I’m going to be two minutes late.” And they wouldn’t even have noticed if I was going to be two minutes late. Well, Dr. Chung, thank you so much for joining us today. I know I feel better and more motivated already, just honestly, being given permission to stop and think about what I’m doing and why, and to breathe and to maybe be able to make some small changes just within myself, that is going to make my life a little bit easier.
Dr. Chung: Yeah. Yeah. And Amanda, is it OK if I quickly talk about the second part of your question?
Amanda: Of course.
Dr. Chung: OK. This is not super practical, but I think people can find their own ways to make it practical. So there’s a recent emergent motivation theory that I’ve kind of fallen in love with. And it’s called the Theory of Mattering and it articulated, outlined by a community psychologist named Prilleltensky. The theory is essentially this: There are two things that people need at a deep level, fundamentally. People need to matter; they need to experience dignity and value. That’s the first part. And the second thing is they also need to help others matter. And that’s the contribution piece, contributing to other’s experience of dignity and value.
“People need to matter; they need to experience dignity and value. That’s the first part. And the second thing is they also need to help others matter.”
And I think if we take that theory of motivation as a lens for thinking through our contacts and our situations, we can ask ourselves these two questions: “What am I experiencing right now? Do I feel valued? Do I feel a sense of dignity, what I’m doing or who I’m with?” And also, “How am I adding value to other people’s lives? Am I just taking up space, or am I contributing to other people in the ways that they need me to contribute?” The reason I fallen in love with this theory is that it’s relatively simple and it’s easy to remember, and it encapsulates our need to matter to other people and our need to give meaning to other people. I think that’s the way God has designed us to be in relationship with one another and with God. And so that would also be something that I’d like to leave listeners with, is this very simple theory of mattering. And you can, in any context, ask yourself those two questions: “What am I experiencing right now? Do I feel like I matter, and how am I contributing to other’s experiences, as well?”
Amanda: That’s great. I love That. Like so many things in life, it is simple, but not at all easy. Right? Simple to remember and grasp, and yet a lifetime to perfect.
Dr. Chung: Yes. Yes. And I would say maybe rather than thinking about taking a lifetime to perfect, I would reframe that as take a lifetime to journey and there will be bumps and there will be ups and downs … that’s all part of it. So the goal is not perfect, the goal is a good and great enough.
Amanda: Right. Because it’s going to shift throughout your lifetime, and it doesn’t mean you have to wait until the end of your life to be good at something, right?
Dr. Chung: Yes.
Amanda: Yes, absolutely. Well, Dr. Chung, thank you so much. You’ve given us so much to think about. Let me just pray us out with our prayer of blessing over you and your work. May the Lord bless you and all you put your hand to. May the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May he bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thank you so much.
Dr. Chung: Thank you so much. It was really a pleasure and a blessing to be here.