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New book focuses on preparing organizations for crisis after COVID-19

When COVID-19 shook our world to its foundations a year ago, organizations had to reinvent themselves overnight. Supply chains faltered, consumer behaviors shifted drastically, and workers either moved home or had to navigate a maze of safety protocols. Leaders and employees alike had to scramble to adapt to the “new normal” of work and life, and it was beyond stressful—it moved us into trauma territory.

The pandemic might seem like a one-off crisis. But Diana Hendel, PharmD, and Mark Goulston, MD, say all organizations should be prepared for future traumatizing events.

“We’re all caught up in a perfect storm of ongoing upheaval,” says Dr. Hendel, coauthor along with Dr. Goulston of Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, March 2021, ISBN: 978-1-4002-2837-9, $17.99). “‘Positive’ developments like AI have vastly accelerated the changes businesses face every day, to say nothing of natural disasters, politically and culturally driven changes, and so forth.

“This is just how we live now, moving from one massive change to the next,” she adds. “Frequency, intensity, and duration have all been ramped up. COVID-19 was one crisis, and many companies managed to weather it. Now the question is ‘How will we survive the next one?’

Dr. Hendel, who became an expert in organizational trauma after living through a workplace shooting, helps businesses prepare to adapt to all sorts of crises in whatever form they take. Hopefully you won’t face a deadly act of violence or another pandemic. However, you might face, say, mass layoffs, a restructuring, a sexual harassment charge, or a data hack. All are disruptive and can be traumatizing.

Here are some of the crucial actions that will help you to be ready for the next big change or crisis you face:

Get your Rapid Response Process in place and ready to go. A Rapid Response Process is a standardized, pre-planned approach for dealing with disruptive events. Dr. Hendel says you should appoint a team ahead of time, consisting of senior leaders along with leaders of key functions such as operations/logistics, security, finance, etc. Select a leader to delegate and manage all response activities. Establish a code word (such as “Code Blue”) to activate members. Then, when a crisis does occur, you will gather your team and collect all relevant information quickly to ensure the most pressing needs are met.  

Name, claim, and frame trauma from the onset. This is important because traumatic stress goes beyond routine stress, assert Drs. Hendel and Goulston. While stress upsets our balance in the moment, we still maintain a feeling of control over our lives. Most of us deal with routine stress daily and are able to manage it (up to a point, anyway). Trauma, on the other hand, overwhelms our self-protective structure and sends us scrambling for survival. It can shatter our sense of safety and security and changes how we look at the world.

Recognizing trauma for what it is allows leaders to understand what’s happening to individuals and to the group and take appropriate actions. It gives us the language to talk about it so that everyone is on the same page. It helps people understand “This is why I am feeling so bad!” And it gives everyone permission to seek real help if they need it.

Learn the “red flag” behaviors that traumatized employees often display. When major disruptive events occur, leaders and employees may go into the “fight, flight, freeze” survival response. Know what to look for. Some people might become hostile, belligerent, aggressive, or “difficult”—seemingly without adequate cause. Others might cling to their “competence zone” or dig in and resist change. Leaders might hide out in their office or start making uncharacteristic rash decisions. Eventually, people may split into opposing factions.

“Difficult behaviors in the aftermath of traumatic stress are not intentional,” says Dr. Goulston. “They are manifestations of fear, and call for understanding rather than punishment.”

Be prepared 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 often happen:

  • People become fearful, and that fear is exacerbated when an organization is unprepared and lacks a plan.
  • Confusion surges when there is no clarity around who is in charge.
  • With no common language to convey that a trauma has occurred, it’s difficult to activate people and teams.
  • There’s no clarity around how decisions will be made.
  • Communication falters, and negative narratives rise to fill the communication void.
  • People place blame. Guilt and shame creep in.

“The sooner you are able to address the disruptive event head-on, the sooner you can stop these negative consequences from causing more damage to your organization,” says Dr. Hendel.

Fine-tune your crisis communication skills. Good communication quells anxiety, reduces ambiguity and confusion, and keeps people focused on the right things. It promotes a sense of unity, which helps you prevent polarization (which often happens in the wake of trauma). A framework for remembering the tenets of communicating in a crisis is the acronym VITAL, which stands for Visible, In it together, Transparent, Accessible, and Listening. A few high spots:

  • Share information clearly and quickly.
  • Be transparent about what’s going on and do not mislead employees in any way.
  • Acknowledge people’s fears and anxieties and let them know what to expect.
  • Use all modalities (like video, email, intranet, town halls, etc.) to convey messages.
  • Most importantly, listen! Ask questions that leave room for inquiry. You might hear things you don’t want to hear, but your job is to deal with the hard stuff too.

Prepare for polarization and the problems it can create. In the best of times, businesses often struggle with questions that appear as choices between one side and another. For example, is the business better served by focusing on high quality or low cost? Should it be focused on short-term gain or success in the long run? Is it more important to make decisions quickly or to get input from a lot of people? Is maximizing financial margin more important than the fulfillment of mission? People tend to have different ideas on these issues even in the best of times, but trauma can stoke and inflame them. For example, the nation has grappled with the question of whether the health of the economy or the health of the populace is more important.

When a traumatic event occurs, opposing views can be taken to the extreme, and rifts can divide the organization. People believe the right course of action is either “A” or “B.” Their opinion is rigid and unmovable, and they see themselves as right and the other side as wrong. When one side is chosen and the other ignored, downsides quickly emerge. More often than not, leaders will then reverse course and go to the other extreme—which of course has downsides. It’s not uncommon for tugs-of-war to ensue and the pendulum to swing back and forth. With every swing of the pendulum, division deepens. This is incredibly damaging to your culture.

Instead of approaching these issues with an either/or mentality, Drs. Hendel and Goulston say that these are false choices, and organizations can, instead, leverage each side of these polarities with a both/and approach.

“Leaders can intentionally create mindsets to maximize the effects of both sides and minimize the downsides of each to achieve things they couldn’t otherwise,” says Dr. Hendel. “For example, in a crisis, effective leaders can BOTH take charge AND build consensus. They can be BOTH direct and candid AND diplomatic and tactful.”

These are just a few steps you need to take. The book provides many more. The important thing, say Drs. Hendel and Goulston, is to get prepared in advance.

“We all hope there won’t be another pandemic, of course,” says Dr. Hendel. “But there will be some other form of chaos. I think it’s safe to say traumatic stress is inevitable. Having a plan in place for when it strikes—next year or 10 years from now—may determine whether your company survives it. But, at the very least, it will help you become a stronger, more resilient, thriving organization in the meantime.”