by Mark Goulston, MD, and Diana Hendel, PharmD, of “Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disorder and Thriving on the Other Side”
While the end of the tunnel is light with the increasing availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, times are tough everywhere and many companies are still under great strain. Given the events of the past year, it would be unusual if you and your employees weren’t at least a little stressed out. Managers need to ask themselves: Has your organization left “stress” in the rearview mirror and has entered the area of ”traumatic stress”?
Many co-workers are the walking wounded. We all have different thresholds for stress and are all affected to different degrees by COVID and other crises. No wonder some of us have been struggling with the aftermath of trauma.
Trauma has long-term effects that can cripple your business. That’s the bad news. The good news is, the sooner you find out that people are traumatized, the sooner you can take action to help them heal. “
COVID isn’t the only culprit (although it is a major player). The authors describe a “perfect storm” of massive, persistent upheaval: everything from political and social turmoil to massive technology-related disruptions to natural disasters. The frequency, intensity, and duration have all increased – and these conditions lead to the transition from stress to trauma.
(Note that trauma isn’t always the result of a single shocking event. It can also be cumulative, like the pot of warm water slowly warming around the unsuspecting frog.)
Here are some “red flags” that can indicate that people in your company may be traumatized:
RED FLAG # 1: People dig in and resist when asked to change.
Instead of stepping back, assessing what needs to be changed and adjusting to the new situation, traumatized people can double up and build strong walls of resistance. This stubbornness is a fear response, not a sign of willful willingness to fight. It is a manifestation of the fight / flight / freeze response that occurs whenever people experience trauma.
Instead of looking forward to looking forward to a new way of learning, they cling to their own way. Instead of finding ways to use their wisdom or finding new ways to add value, they can’t turn or reinvent themselves. Eventually, they become dysfunctional according to the needs of the situation.
RED FLAG No. 2: You are sticking to your “competence zone”.
People can strictly cling to what has worked for them in the past. “I am competent here. I am confident here. Here I am in control. “
They may blindly continue doing what they always did, even though it no longer works – or even though their skills are less in demand than they used to be due to the pace of change around them.
RED FLAG # 3: People appear to be angry, aggressive, or “difficult” in other ways.
Employees can be uncomfortable and opposing. They may give you unexplained rebound or develop a negative attitude in place of their usual optimism and tenacity. You can have angry outbursts. They can become increasingly uncomfortable to work with. Again, all of this is fear-based. Unfortunately, this behavior pushes others away when they are most needed for support.
RED FLAG # 4: They resort to self-destructive behavior.
People who have been traumatized can develop an exaggerated stress response. This occurs when the stress they are feeling turns into distress. In the face of stress, people can still get back on track (with difficulty) to achieve their goals. In distress, the new priority with the highest priority finds a way to alleviate it. People can resort to excessive drinking, overeating, avoidance behaviors, overworking, etc. to numb or mask their pain. These behaviors can be counterproductive methods of coping and can be a slippery slope when they become habits or addictions.
RED FLAG # 5: They insist they are “okay” or are unusually quiet.
Trauma-induced behaviors don’t always show up as negative. However, when people refuse to acknowledge that they are affected in the first place, especially when others are clearly having problems, it is often a sign that they are masking their pain. An interesting observation about people is that if you ask them how they are and they say, “Great”, they are usually good. However, if they answer “good,” they usually aren’t.
RED FLAG # 6: Executives do not act in a leadership position.
Remember, those red flags indicating trauma aren’t unique to employees. Managers are just as susceptible to traumatic effects as employees. For example, an executive might be paralyzed and give up responsibility – hiding in their office and not doing what they have to do to get the company out of trouble. On the other hand, they could overreact and make rash, jerky decisions, even though they were previously known for their level-headed persistence.
RED FLAG # 7: You notice a lot of guilt and pointing.
Speculation and second guesswork can create a wide web of secondary guilt that extends well beyond the causative agent. Why didn’t the organization prevent or stop it? How could the leaders not have known about it? In some cases, people accuse victims of overreacting or accuse the organization of failing to prevent “witch hunts”.
RED FLAG # 8: People can be polarized in two opposing camps.
Often times, multiple narratives spread throughout an organization after trauma. There are hundreds of unique viewpoints, and each person creates a narrative based on their own perspectives, personal stories, and relationships with those directly involved. Guilt combined with opinions about why the trauma happened can create a “us and you” mentality. People split into factions – and one day you may find that the organization is deeply divided.
When you recognize some or all of these signs and symptoms, you know that people are not intentionally resisting change or trying to sabotage the company, the authors say. You can very well react from a place of traumatic stress and anxiety.
Fortunately, strategies exist to address the individual – and corporate culture – effects of trauma. When leaders manage trauma effectively, they can minimize risks to employees and the company, help people recover and heal, and position the company to thrive in the future.
As CEO of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Diana Hendel one of the largest acute care, trauma and education hospital complexes on the west coast.
Dr. Mark Goulston is a licensed psychiatrist, a member of the American Psychiatric Association, a former clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA-NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage-taking negotiator. He is the creator of Theory Y Executive Coaching, which he offers to CEOs, Presidents, Founders, and Entrepreneurs, and is a TEDx and international keynote speaker.
You are co-author of “Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption (and Thriving On the Other Side),” which is available from major online booksellers.