by Mark Goulston, MD, and Diana Hendel, PharmD, of “Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disorder and Thriving on the Other Side”
When COVID-19 shook our world to the ground a year ago, organizations had to reinvent themselves overnight. Supply chains stalled, consumer behavior changed dramatically, and workers either moved home or had to navigate a maze of safety logs. Managers and employees alike had to strain to adjust to the “new normal” of work and life, and it was beyond stressful – it put us in an area of trauma.
The pandemic appears to be a one-time crisis. However, all organizations should be prepared for future traumatic events.
We are all caught up in a perfect storm of ongoing upheaval. “Positive” developments like AI have greatly accelerated the changes businesses face every day, not to mention natural disasters, political and cultural changes and so on.
This is how we live now, moving from one massive change to the next. Frequency, intensity and duration were increased. COVID-19 was a crisis and many companies managed to get through it. Now the question is, “How will we survive the next one?”
Hopefully you won’t face a deadly violence or other pandemic. However, you could face mass layoffs, reorganization, sexual harassment charges, or a data hack, for example. All are disruptive and can be traumatic.
Here are some of the crucial steps you can take to help prepare for the next big change or crisis:
Set up your rapid response process and get ready.
A rapid response process is a standardized, pre-planned approach for dealing with disruptive events. Dr. Hendel says you should appoint a team in advance that is made up of executives as well as executives with key roles like operations / logistics, security, finance, etc. Select a leader who will delegate and manage all response activities. Set up a code word (e.g. “Code Blue”) to activate members. Then when a crisis arises, gather your team and quickly gather all the relevant information to ensure that the most pressing needs are met.
Name, aspiration and general trauma right from the start.
This is important because traumatic stress goes beyond routine stress. While stress is upsetting our balance right now, we still feel in control of our lives. Most of us deal with and are able to cope with routine stress on a daily basis (at least up to a point). A trauma, on the other hand, overwhelms our self-protection structure and makes us struggle for survival. It can destroy our sense of security and change our view of the world.
Recognizing trauma for what it is enables leaders to understand what is happening to individuals and the group and to take appropriate action. It gives us the language to talk about so that everyone is on the same page. It helps people understand, “This is why I feel so bad!” And it gives everyone permission to seek real help when they need it.
Get to know the behavior of the “red flag” that traumatized employees often show.
When major disruptive events occur, managers and employees can engage in the “fight, flight, freeze” survival reaction. Know what to look for. Some people could become hostile, belligerent, aggressive, or “difficult” for seemingly no reasonable reason. Others may stick to their “zone of competence” or dig in and resist change. Executives can hide in their office or make unusual rash decisions. After all, people can split up into opposing factions.
Difficult behaviors after traumatic stress are not intended. They are manifestations of fear and require understanding rather than punishment.
Be ready to break the chain reaction of events that can occur after a crisis.
A disruptive event can throw an organization into chaos. A predictable chain reaction occurs. Here are just a few things that happen frequently:
- People become anxious, and that fear is compounded when an organization is unprepared and has no plan.
- Confusion arises when there is no clarity about who is responsible.
- Without a common language to convey that trauma has occurred, it is difficult to activate people and teams.
- There is no clarity about how decisions are made.
- Communication stalls and negative stories fill the communication gap.
- People blame it. Guilt and shame creep in.
- And so on …
The sooner you are able to directly address the disruptive event, the sooner you can prevent these negative consequences from causing more damage to your business.
Optimize your crisis communication skills.
Good communication eases anxiety, reduces ambiguity and confusion, and keeps people focused on the right things. It promotes a sense of oneness, which allows you to prevent polarization (which often happens after trauma). A framework for remembering the principles of communication in a crisis is the acronym VITAL, which stands for Visible, In it together, Transparent, Accessible and Listening. A few highlights:
- Share information clearly and quickly.
- Be transparent about what is going on and do not mislead employees in any way.
- Acknowledge people’s fears and fears and let them know what to expect.
- Use all modalities (such as video, email, intranet, town hall, etc.) to deliver messages.
- Most importantly, listen! Ask questions that leave room for inquiry. You may hear things you don’t want to hear, but your job is to deal with the hard things too.
Prepare for polarization and the problems that come with it.
In the best of times, companies often struggle with questions that seem like a choice between one side and another. For example, will business be better served by focusing on high quality or low cost? Should it be geared towards short term gain or long term success? Is it more important to make decisions quickly or to allow yourself to be brought in by a large number of people? Is maximizing financial margin more important than completing the mission? People tend to have different ideas about these issues even at the best of times, but trauma can fuel and ignite them. For example, the nation has grappled with the question of whether the health of the economy or the health of the population is more important.
When a traumatic event occurs, opposing views can be brought to extremes and rifts can split the organization. People believe that the correct course of action is either “A” or “B”. Their opinion is rigid and immobile, and they see themselves as right and the other side as wrong. If one side is selected and the other ignored, disadvantages are quick to emerge. Most of the time, the executives reverse course and go to the other extreme – which of course also has disadvantages. It is not uncommon for a tug of war to follow, with the pendulum swinging back and forth. The division deepens with every swing of the pendulum. This is incredibly harmful to your culture.
Instead of approaching these issues with an either / or mentality – these are wrong decisions – organizations can instead use either side of these polarities with a both / and approach.
Executives can purposely develop mindsets to maximize the impact of both sides and minimize the disadvantages of each side in order to achieve things they otherwise couldn’t. For example, in a crisis, effective leaders can BOTH take responsibility AND build consensus. You can be both direct and frank, as well as diplomatic and tactful.
We all hope, of course, that there won’t be another pandemic. But there will be another form of chaos. I think it’s safe to say that traumatic stress is inevitable. Having a plan for when the strike will take place – next year or 10 years from now – can determine whether your company will survive it. But at least it will help you become a stronger, more resilient, and more successful organization in the meantime.
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 certified 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 negotiation trainer. 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.