By Leah Fessler
The past four months have been traumatic for each of us in different ways — from the loss of jobs and loved ones to being isolated at home, and the ongoing racial trauma of being Black in America, which is ever present but now under a more public spotlight.
Difficult as it may be to accept our present emotional upheaval as trauma, there is benefit in doing so. While traumatic events are not positive in and of themselves, they are catalysts for change. As individuals and leaders, we have power in deciding the direction of this change. This is the fundamental premise of post-traumatic growth, a psychological concept co-developed by Rich Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, both professors of psychology at UNC Charlotte.
Speaking on Harvard Business Review’s IdeaCast, Tedeschi shares the primary domains of growth most commonly reported by those who've experienced trauma: improved relationships, a greater appreciation of life, new possibilities or opportunities or priorities, a sense of personal strength, and spiritual and existential change, contributing to a sense of wisdom about life experiences such as accomplishment, progress, or death.
Importantly, the experience of growth and pain are not mutually exclusive. "Someone with symptoms of posttraumatic stress can also at the same time report posttraumatic growth," Tedeschi explains. However, he notes that in a recent study across 10 countries, participants reported growth after trauma significantly more often than they reported ongoing distress.
As Boston College psychology professor and trauma expert Usha Tummala-Narra, PhD tells Chief, the concept of post-traumatic growth should not imply that one must experience trauma in order to develop positive views of themselves, others, or their future.
"Rather, it suggests that the process of recovering from trauma, often with the help of trusted others, can contribute to personal growth," says Tummala-Narra. "Additionally, personal growth and transformation can look very different across individuals. For one person, it can mean developing new perspectives and possibilities for the future, and for another person, it can mean spiritual transformation."
Simply recognizing that post-traumatic growth is possible and common helps reframe your perspective on the present, offering hope amidst trepidation. While you cannot control trauma, you can work on your reactions. There are various actions you can take to position yourself and your team for post-traumatic growth.
First and foremost, share your experiences with other people, even if they're not going through the same thing. "We found that a lot of trauma survivors who report posttraumatic growth also talk about special people in their lives who seem to be particularly understanding, trustworthy, and there for the long haul," says Tedeschi. "We talk about these people as expert companions. They make us feel like we want to explain things and talk. We feel safe emotionally with them. That's very useful because saying things out loud is different than just thinking them." Research suggests that writing — both solo journaling and sharing reflections between teammates — is also helpful in moving individuals toward post-traumatic growth.
At the root of this self-expression is self-recognition — the essence of post-traumatic growth. Too often, we feel trauma but fail to openly recognize it. "Traumatic stress manifests in feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and relationships. It also manifests in one's physical body and in one’s spiritual life," Tummala-Narra explains. We need to recognize that trauma is a different and evolving experience for every individual. As leaders, it's especially important to bear witness to our employees' traumatic stress. This requires actively listening to their stories and finding ways to advocate for their growth, says Tummala-Narra.
"Leaders have to recognize that when they have human resources, they're talking about human beings. And human beings have stories. They have back stories. They have their lives outside of work. Everybody in their organization is an interesting story," Tedeschi concludes. "Starting to appreciate people like that can help leaders recognize the opportunities and capabilities that exist with all these people they employ. They've got a set of people that have been through a lot and know a lot. And they want to make the best use of these people by helping them be their best. By being their best, they're going to want to do more and have more to offer. It's a win situation for everybody involved."
Originally Published July 20, 2020