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Growth After Trauma

By Richard G. Tedeschi*
© 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.
From HBR.org Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
Photos: Shutterstock

In times of crisis, people often ask, “What good can come of this?” This year, we’ve been hit by a pandemic that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and a global economic downturn. In the face of such a tragedy, it might appear that the answer to that question is, “Nothing.” However, at some point we will be able to reflect on the long-term consequences of this terrible time and what it has meant for us, our organizations, and our communities. Those outcomes will almost certainly include some good along with the bad. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “post-traumatic growth.”

Negative experiences can spur positive changes, including a recognition of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, and a greater appreciation for life. So, despite the misery resulting from the coronavirus outbreak, we can expect to develop in beneficial ways in its aftermath. And leaders can help others get there.

Although post-traumatic growth often happens naturally, it can be facilitated in five ways:

Education

To move through trauma to growth, one must first get educated about what trauma is: a disruption of core belief systems. For example, before the pandemic, many of us thought that we were safe from the types of diseases that endangered people in the past and that our social and economic systems were resilient enough to weather all storms. None of that was true. So now we need to figure out what to believe instead.

As we move through the crisis, consider how you can reinforce the recognition that it may have a positive impact as well as the negative impact we are now experiencing. For example, I know an information technology employee who works for a company that laid off most of its workers earlier this year.

As one of the few to remain, she was forced to work in areas she’d never touched before, which was a struggle. But she soon realized that, unencumbered by the usual bureaucracy and turf battles, she could ferret out inefficiencies and improve procedures.

Emotional Regulation

To do any learning, one must be in the right frame of mind. That starts with managing negative emotions such as anxiety and anger. Instead of focusing on failures, uncertainties, and worst-case scenarios, try to recall successes, consider best-case possibilities, and think reasonably about what you can do.

You can regulate emotions by observing them as you experience them. Physical exercise and meditative practices such as breathing also help. Employ these techniques yourself and share them to help others. Acknowledge that circumstances continue to be both challenging and frightening, then demonstrate poise under pressure.

Disclosure

This is the part of the process in which you talk about what has happened and what is happening: its effects —small and broad— and your struggles. Articulating these things helps us make sense of trauma and turn debilitating thoughts into productive reflections.

As a colleague and a leader you should understand the varying effects the pandemic and the ensuing market volatility, layoffs, and recession have had, and continue to have, on the lives of those around you. Start by speaking openly about your own struggles and how you are managing the uncertainty. You can then invite others to tell their stories, and listen attentively as these people locate their difficulties and come to terms with how their challenges and losses compare with those of others.

Narrative Development

The next step is to produce an authentic narrative about the trauma and our lives afterward so that we can accept the chapters already written and imagine crafting the next ones in a meaningful way. Your story —and the stories of people you’re helping— can and should be about a traumatic past that leads to a better future.

Consider a nonprofit executive who had been fired from two previous positions over sexual harassment allegations. One night, he and his wife were involved in a horrific car crash. His wife’s injuries were minor, but he was left comatose for a month and needed a year of rehabilitation. His new narrative went something like this: “Many would think it was this accident that put my life in jeopardy. But I was already in great danger. I was causing pain to others, ruining my career, and heading for a life without my wife or children. The accident forced me to stop, created time for reflection, and showed me what love really is.”

Service

People do better in the aftermath of trauma if they find work that benefits others —helping people close to them or victims of events similar to the ones they have endured. Two mothers I know who’d each lost a child started a nonprofit to help bereaved families connect with others who understood their grief. Forty years later the organization thrives under the leadership of people who have faced similar losses and want to share the strength they’ve gained.

Of course, you don’t need to start a nonprofit or a foundation to be of service. Focusing on how you can help provide relief during the continuing crisis —whether by sewing masks, retraining teammates, supporting small businesses, or agreeing to a temporary pay cut— can lead to growth. So can simply expressing gratitude and showing compassion and empathy to others.

How you and your group turn to service will determine whether you see the pandemic and its fallout as an unmitigated tragedy or as an opportunity to find new and better ways to live and operate. Maybe you can see how to ensure that similar emergencies are handled better in the future. Perhaps you can help those most seriously affected.

Hopefully, through this process, you and your organization will experience growth. People are often surprised by how well they can handle trauma. They are left better equipped to tackle future challenges. Groups often come through such trials with a clearer picture of their collective knowledge, skills, resilience, and growth potential. Trauma can also help forge new relationships and make people more grateful for the ones they already have. Coming through a crisis together is a bonding experience.

If you’re thinking this is all too optimistic, you may still be too close to the tragedy of this pandemic. So be patient as you work through and facilitate the process of post-traumatic growth. Growth can’t be forced, and it can’t be rushed. However, when you and others are ready, it is worth the effort. Let’s make sure that we derive something positive from this time of struggle.

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Richard G. Tedeschi is a professor of psychology emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; the distinguished chair of the Boulder Crest Institute; and a co-author of “Posttraumatic Growth.”