Leadership during challenging times

© 2021 Zoryna O’Donnell

A year ago this month, the global pandemic changed life as we knew it.  

As we reflect on the past twelve months and look forward to lifting the current lockdown, we realise how much stronger and more resilient we have become. We have adapted – we learned new skills and new ways of living and working. Many of us had experienced a renewed sense of purpose as we got involved in supporting vulnerable people in our communities. And yet, one can argue that we are also more vulnerable now as we are dealing with the trauma and grief brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In their recent publication about key insights from people involved in recovery work around the world, The King’s Fund and the University of York research team pointed out that recovery from the pandemic will be long-term (about a 10-15 year timeframe); that progress will not be linear; and that successful recovery doesn’t just happen – it requires conscious attention and action from leaders at all levels, which includes focus on mental health and wellbeing.

The Gallup’s study of fears, concerns, and confidence of citizens from across the world through many of the biggest crises of the past 80 years (including the COVID-19 pandemic) condensed leadership traits essential during challenging times into four core universal human needs:

-       Trust: Leaders must be predictable in an unpredictable time;

-       Compassion: Leaders must show that they care;

-       Stability: leaders must ensure that everyone knows what to focus on and why;

-       Hope: Leaders must fuel optimism for a future worth working for.

But in a post-pandemic world these traits on their own may not be enough if we want our people and organisations to thrive, despite the trauma and grief experienced over the past twelve months.

A trauma-informed approach to organisations and leadership has been used in healthcare professions across the world for some time. Now, leaders outside the healthcare sector have a chance to up their game by considering a trauma-informed approach which can be implemented in any type of organisation during the post-pandemic recovery.

As for those leaders who are shaking their heads in disbelief and saying “But I am not a therapist!” - I can reassure them that they don’t have to be therapists, because this approach is different from trauma-specific interventions or treatments.

An organisation is trauma-informed when it:

-       Realises the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths to recovery;

-       Recognises the signs and symptoms of trauma in people;

-       Responds by integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and

-       Seeks to actively resist re-traumatisation.

Dr Dave Tweedy described trauma-informed leadership as a way of understating or appreciating that there is an emotional world of experiences rumbling around beneath the surface. When emotional responses are triggered in the workplace, each person responds according to the extent of his/her emotional scars, traumas and emotional strengths. He wrote: “Trauma-informed leadership recognises and honours the emotional scars that people may struggle with. It can help the leader have empathy and compassion for their employees, both powerful emotions themselves for a leader to have.”

Dr Ludmila Praslova, argues that key principles of the trauma-informed approach are:

-       Safety (including psychological safety) and non-violent communication which fits within the larger framework of emotionally intelligent behaviour;

-       Trustworthiness and transparency (decision-makers and managers who can't communicate outcomes in the midst of uncertainty can at least communicate processes);

-       Peer support (both within our own teams and organisations and beyond);

-       Collaboration and mutuality;

-       Empowerment and choice (which address our core needs such as agency and control); and

-       Understanding of cultural, gender and other diversity factors (because historical and lived injustices and discrimination, as well as certain health and mental health conditions create an exaggerated stress response).

As Dr Praslova pointed out in her recent article about trauma-informed organisational behaviour, these principles are easily transferable to any workplace and align well with existing models for improving team communication and developing emotional intelligence.

Adopting a trauma-informed approach to leadership and management can help us develop both individual and organisational resilience as we face the long haul of post-pandemic recovery.

This article was first published on https://thechangemakergroup.com/ on 30/03/2021.

Image credit: Alexandra_Koch via Pixabay.