Find the good in everything, they say. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. This year we’ve been hit by a pandemic that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, unprecedented unemployment, and a global economic downturn. In the face of such a tragedy—personal and collective—it might appear that the response to those statements is “How is that even possible?”
However, there will come a time where we will be able to reflect on the long-term consequences of the global pandemic and what it has brought for each of us as individuals and for our organizations, communities, and nations. Certainly, those outcomes will include some good along with the bad. According to the Harvard Business Review over the past 25 years psychologists have been studying this phenomenon referred to as posttraumatic growth.
Psychologists have learned that negative experiences including people who have endured war, natural disasters, bereavement, job loss and economic stress, serious illnesses and injuries, can spur positive change, including a recognition of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, a greater appreciation for life, and spiritual growth. Despite the hardships resulting from the coronavirus, many of us can expect to make lemonade and develop in beneficial ways in its aftermath. And strong leaders can help others to do so.
Although it is said that posttraumatic growth happens naturally, without intervention, it can be facilitated in five ways: through education, emotional regulation, disclosure, narrative development, and service. You can emerge stronger yourself. And you can serve as what we call an expert companion for your colleagues/employees, encouraging introspection and curiosity, actively listening, and offering compassionate feedback.
The Five Elements of Growth
To move through any trauma caused by COVID-19 to growth, you must first know what trauma is: disruption of core belief systems. For example, before the pandemic, many of us thought that the US was safe; that bad things happened in other parts of the world but not ours; that we had strong and resilient social and economic systems. None of that was true. Now we need to figure out our new beliefs.
As we move through the current health and economic crisis, consider how you can reinforce—to yourself and others—the recognition that it may have a positive as well as a negative impact. Remember that you and others in your team and organization can reimagine how you operate and innovate in new circumstances.
- Emotional Regulation.
For learning to occur, one must first be in the right frame of mind. That starts with managing negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt, and anger, which can be done by shifting the kind of thinking that leads to those feelings. Instead of focusing on losses, failures, uncertainties, and worst-case scenarios, try to recall successes, consider best-case possibilities, reflect on your own or your organization’s resources and preparation, and think reasonably about what you—personally and as a group—can do.
This is the part of the process in which you talk about what has happened and is happening: its effects—both small and broad, short- and long-term, personal and professional, individual and organizational—and what you are struggling with in its wake.
It is important for you as a colleague and a leader to understand the varying impacts the pandemic and the ensuing market volatility, layoffs, and recession have had and continue to have on the lives of those around you.
- Narrative Development.
This step is about producing a narrative about life after the pandemic which should be one that includes how it has led to a better future. When you’re ready, start to develop the narrative for yourself and your organization. How has it caused you to recalibrate your priorities? What new paths or opportunities have emerged from it?
People do better in the aftermath of trauma when they can help others. Of course, you don’t need to start a nonprofit or a foundation to be of service. Focusing on how you can help provide relief during the continuing crisis—whether by sewing masks or producing content, stocking shelves or retraining teammates, supporting small businesses or agreeing to a temporary pay cut—can lead to growth. So can simply expressing gratitude and showing compassion and empathy to others.
How you and your group turn to service will determine whether you see the pandemic and its fallout as an unmitigated tragedy or as an opportunity to find new and better ways to live and operate.
Hopefully, through this process, you and your teammates or organization will experience growth in one or more of these areas; personal strength, new possibilities, improved relationships, appreciation for life and spiritual growth.