Explainers

How to Learn and Grow from a Difficult 2020

Borrow from the concept of post-traumatic growth to increase your team’s resilience in the future

2020 has taken so much from us—isn’t it time we took something back? If you have the discipline to pause, the courage to reflect, the patience to listen, and the willingness to act, your organization can learn from the concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG) to harness adaptation and resilience for the future.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

Hemingway

During the Vietnam War, psychologists began to study trauma in earnest. More than 700,000 troops (a quarter of all those deployed) required psychological treatment during and/or after their tours. The enormity of the population and an evolving understanding of the human mind led to a deeper exploration of the nature of trauma and possible interventions. The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” originated during this time, and became officially recognized by the medical community soon after.

While so many soldiers struggled to move past the visceral shock and terror of their traumas, researchers were stunned to discover that even more showed signs of personal growth and adaptation. Surprisingly, the majority of those exposed to the horrors of war, close-up, showed a deeper appreciation of life, strengthened relationships, a greater ability to relate to others, and a belief in new possibilities. As counter-intuitive as it seems, combat exposure was related to greater life satisfaction. So in addition to identifying PTSD, researchers (beginning with Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD) also uncovered post-traumatic growth (PTG): that those who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward.

Before we go further, we acknowledge that for some the term “trauma” has experienced a bit of “concept creep” in recent years to include all manners of harm. Psychologists consider the following to determine if an event is clinically traumatic:

  • The event is sudden, unexpected, or unusual
  • The event typically involves physical harm or perceived life-threat (this can include experiencing it directly, witnessing it in person, learning about it from a family member or intimate acquaintance, or repeated exposure to details of the event)
  • The event is perceived as outside of the individual’s control

Those criteria sure sound a lot like the year we have all collectively experienced (including both COVID and racially motivated violence). The silver lining is that we really can emerge stronger if we are willing to put in the work. Two factors appear most vital to PTG: an openness to new experiences (AKA a willingness to explore different personal beliefs) and extroversion (AKA a willingness to connect and share personal feelings about traumatic experiences). 

Some important caveats: psychologists are quick to point out that it’s not the trauma itself that spurs growth; it’s the individual’s struggle with the new reality in the aftermath of the trauma that is crucial to producing growth. And, of course, there are many variables that impact an individual’s personal resilience, such as genetics, that may lie out of their control.

Of course, you’re (probably) not a trained psychologist—just a concerned leader who wants to support your team and position your organization to thrive in the years ahead. Fortunately, one of the original authors of post-traumatic growth theory laid out his five elements for growth, and how leaders can help:

  1. Educate. Help individuals understand that trauma often leads to positive life outcomes (i.e., tell them about post-traumatic growth and encourage openness)
  2. Emotionally regulate. Encourage individuals to avoid ruminating on worst-case scenarios, and instead, recall past wins and imagine positive possibilities. Here, mindfulness exercises and free-writing assignments can be powerful tools.
  3. Disclose. Create space for individuals to share their experiences of what’s happened or is happening. Don’t interrogate them through incessant questioning about the event itself; instead, ask your folks to describe their feelings and concerns and connect as they feel safe to. Remember that the goal, foremost, is connection.
  4. Develop a narrative. After listening to your people, hone the story of the year. Reflect how your priorities have shifted—not only strategic priorities, but cultural ones as well.
  5. Serve. Finally, in telling your narrative, be sure to include how individuals can support the change and more importantly, support those affected by the change. Give folks a part to play in the organization’s story of the future.

Published December 6, 2020

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