Help Your People Grow Through Trauma
Leadership 09/25/20 Jeff Bondy

Managers and leaders should take this to heart. Rather than aiming for a recovery or asking employees to return to normal, they should ask bigger questions about how their organizations can grow through this moment. The author of this article cites two insights from psychological science that can be of help: affirming values and emphasizing community.

Many managers and leaders are losing sleep not only over their own struggles, but over those of their colleagues and employees, whose sense of security and self-worth have been jeopardized. One way to combat these threats is to focus on the values that define us, regardless of the circumstances. A really simple exercise in values affirmation can help boost team morale and restore a shared sense of purpose. Have team members list their most important guiding principles — for instance, helping others or expressing creativity — and write about why those values matter to them. Participating in an affirmation exercise like this produces powerful, long-term results, including fostering resilience and growth in the face of adversity.

The pandemic has caused current workplaces to be saturated with trauma. Leaders are agonizing over how to keep their teams healthy as everyone works remotely juggling any number of stressors. The science of trauma offers some insight about this moment, and some surprising hope: Instead of asking how we will recover from these painful times, we should ask how we will be changed by them. In many cases, we have an opportunity to change for the better.

Leaders should take this moment to affirm their organization’s values as well. Here it’s critical to be concrete. When the values on a company’s wall diverge from the reality on the ground, talk alone can produce disenchantment and cynicism. If you want to emphasize the well-being of your team, allocate time and resources for employee mental health. If you want to address racial justice and go beyond bias training, it may be time to rethink your company policies and systems. For example, commit to diversifying top leadership. By linking words and action, you can help your team focus not just on what they do, but why they’re doing it.

Survivors are more likely to experience post-traumatic growth when they have a  supportive community with which they can openly share experiences. Social connection has rarely been more important, or more difficult to maintain. Our new video-conference reality lacks in-between moments in hallways and breakrooms, time for processing, kibitzing, and hanging out, all of which are vital to foster community. Thankfully, there are ways to restore connection, even at a distance. Leaders can build time into meetings for check-ins, and be open to the messy intimacy that comes with seeing coworkers’ homes and meeting their families and pets. Leaders can create peer-to-peer support networks in which working parents, those caring for sick relatives, and other groups can discuss struggles and compare notes.

Values-based leadership and attention to the community are always smart, but now they are mandatory. Under so-called normal circumstances, teams that are clear on their purpose work harder, smarter, and more collaboratively. And when leaders exhibit empathy, their employees: feel safer, work more creatively, and perform better. The pain associated with these past few months has destabilized us, but it has also held up a mirror, stripping away comfort and routine and revealing who we truly are. The choices we make in this moment will shape who we are going forward— and what our organizations —will become. In times of trauma, these strategies can help organizations not merely survive, but build what we wish what had been there all along.

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