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How to Lead Through Trauma

Saturday Spark #48

By Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder & CEO

In the past two weeks, I’ve gotten horrible news, twice, that involved customers, industry colleagues and workplaces. In both cases, people died at work as a result of another person who worked at, or for, the company killing them. It is heart-breaking and gut-wrenching. It is difficult to even fathom why someone would turn on anyone, let alone their colleagues, in this way. Unfortunately, workplace homicides are not wholly uncommon in the US. In 2018, there were 453 workplace homicides, about 9% of all workplace deaths. 

When such a shocking event occurs, what do you do as a friend or colleague? If it happens at your own workplace, what can you do as a leader?  Can the principles of how to lead and provide support also apply to other workplace traumatic events, whether the unexpected death of a colleague or their significant other, a severe illness, a natural disaster or a significant, if not fatal, violent event? It’s estimated that in any given year, 1.5% of all employees will be dealing with a significant trauma, 9 out of 10 will experience a trauma in their lifetime, and 30% will develop a trauma-related illness.

The best advice I’ve seen comes from Jane Dutton, of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, author of the book, Awakening Compassion at Work and the HBR article, Leading through Trauma. Her conclusions come after studying organizations and finding that some organizations suppress compassion, while others create not only an environment where compassion is expressed, but where it spreads. She points to the importance of taking actions that demonstrate your own compassion, thereby unleashing a compassionate response throughout the entire organization. 

Why is compassion important, besides being a decent human? Dutton and team found that it not only lessens the immediate suffering of those directly affected by trauma, “it enables them to recover from future setbacks more quickly and effectively, and it increases their attachment to their colleagues and hence to the company itself.” A leader’s ability to enable a compassionate response fosters the ability for the company to excel in difficult times.

So what does compassionate leadership look like? It turns out it’s not just about empathizing, although that’s important. The difference is back to something near and dear to WeSpire’s heart: taking some form of public action, however small, that is intended to ease people’s pain—and that inspires others to act as well. It’s why bringing meals or sending a personal note does matter. It tells those suffering you care. However, in the workplace, the first step is actually creating permission to take action as people are not always sure how to respond to a trauma at work. You not only need to create the space to talk, but it’s important to share your own thoughts as well and then ask employees what they need.

An example of compassionate leadership comes from TJX President Edmund English, who lost 7 employees from a plane that hit the Twin Towers. He gathered staff to confirm victims names, set up immediate grief counselors for all employees, gave people time off if they needed time to grieve whether they knew those affected or not, chartered planes to bring the victims families to TJX headquarters, and personally met them at the airport at midnight.

Compassionate leadership isn’t just helpful after an event, but it can also help build resilience prior to a trauma, especially if people are increasingly worried about something that could inflict trauma. While I find it infuriating that we live in a country where active shooter training is necessary (and at least for my child, the training itself was traumatic), there is research that shows that emergency preparedness training helps reduce anxiety about the possibility of an event, not just the negative outcomes of that emergency. 

If a situation is increasingly worrisome (i.e, a new, rapidly spreading virus or the increasing frequency of nearly wildfires), create a space to ask people how they are feeling about it as you may have people who haven’t given it a thought and others who are increasingly stressed or even who may already have been personally impacted.  Based on how your workforce is feeling, you can then calibrate what actions make sense.

For some people compassion comes naturally, for others it is much harder to open up and share feelings or even know what to do or say in a difficult situation. The good news? Compassion is a learnable skill. With two weeks of practice, you can be better prepared to be compassionate for whatever life may have in store for you or the people you care about.

Quote of the Week:  “Love and compassion are necessities not luxuries. Without them, humanity can not survive.” – Dalai Lama

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What is Saturday Spark:
As the leader of a purpose-driven company, I’m challenged daily to ensure our company is “walking the walk” and that I’m personally leading with purpose and impact at the forefront. The result is that I read, think, and learn a lot about the intersection of purpose, impact and leadership and have a few successes and a lot more “lessons learned.” I realized that my own insights may be helpful to other purpose-driven professionals if I took the time to reflect each week. If you find this inspiring, practical or helpful, I’d be honored if you shared it with your colleagues, your families and your friends.

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Read Previous Week’s Spark: What Will the Next 50 Years Be Like

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