Ananya was an IT specialist for a pharmaceutical company and part of the team that helped ensure 24/7 support for hardware issues across the enterprise. Her company had been experiencing record profits and sustained growth for a number of years when a promising clinical trial unexpectedly had to be aborted in a very public, painful way. Almost overnight, everything changed. Stock in the company tanked and leadership went into crisis mode. Several phases of belt-tightening measures were put in place, including a reduction in force.
Ananya survived the first round of cuts but she was greatly impacted as she saw friends and co-workers lose their jobs. She began to lose sleep and have difficulty concentrating. To make matters worse, the timing of the crisis overlapped with a downturn in the economy and she worried about losing her job.
Although her name is anonymized, and her story is a few years old now, drawn from interviews done as part of a university research project, Ananya’s experience is familiar to many of us, and whether or not you’ve been through a similar experience, you likely know someone who has.
These kinds of job-related experiences often come with their own versions of post-traumatic stress (PTS). Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, notes in his book Dying for a Paycheck that the kind of situation Ananya experienced can lead to decreases in health and increases in unhealthy behaviors and mortality.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story
Finding Growth After Stress
While stress can be a natural response to trauma, the human capacity for resilience can also lead to post-traumatic growth (PTG). PTG is the transformative positive change that can occur as a result of struggles with adversity. There are five factors associated with PTG: how you relate to others, to what extent you are able to see new possibilities, your perception of your own personal strength, changes in your spiritual well-being, and your appreciation for life. Researchers from Oxford University indicate that up to 70% of those who experience stress from traumatic events will also experience growth.
This was certainly the case for Ananya. As a means of getting her mind off her worries, she began learning to use a high-end animation program. She found animation allowed her to be creative in a way different from her hardware support duties. Although she began using the new software for personal reasons, she quickly saw applications that could be valuable at work. She sensed an opportunity to develop a digital twin to deal with some troublesome hardware configurations. This could be a low-cost, low-risk means of experimenting with new possibilities. Ananya mentioned this to her supervisor who gave her the go-ahead to pilot a project. The pilot proved successful, leading to breakthroughs that been eluding her team for some time.
Creating Post-COVID Growth
The disruptions resulting from COVID-19 have caused stress for many of us; for some, job loss and illness have been traumatic or even tragic. Even those who remain employed and healthy may also experience post-traumatic stress. And most of us, if the Oxford researchers have it right, will likely experience post-traumatic growth.
Most organizations have existing resources in place to help employees manage stress and trauma; some are adding new support services in the wake of COVID-19. Our colleagues in HR and wellness have helped meet the need. But what about resources to support and facilitate the kind of growth that Ananya experienced?
Here’s how two organizations found opportunities for growth.
Fix the Culture. Prior to COVID-19, about half of the IT employees at one company worked remotely, resulting in two-way dissatisfaction. Onsite workers were envious of the flexibility remote workers seemed to have. Conversely, remote workers felt they missed out on face time with supervisors or social opportunities. When everyone went remote, the company took active steps to engage the IT team in co-creating a new set of organizational practices. They encouraged active and ongoing discussions about what the team was learning in this new environment. They saw across-the-board gains in interpersonal growth, productivity and job satisfaction. This tech leader felt confident that the organizational growth they experienced would allow them to successfully remain 100% remote.
Make New Customer Connections. Despite great digital innovations in nearly every other business line at one financial institution, a large percentage of interactions with premium customers were still done the old-fashioned way – face to face at a branch. The leader of that business line had not been able to see it any other way – until he had a tele-health experience and could see firsthand how an important and trusted relationship could work via technology. Suddenly, growth in one area of his life informed how he could alleviate stress in another. With the help of the IT team, the high net-worth team began engaging clients via secure web conferencing. Early data indicated the clients were highly satisfied.
3 Steps to Preparing for the Gain
Organizational leaders have a unique opportunity to help their teams and peers work through the pain and prepare for the gain. The following are three actions leaders can take:
- Assess readiness for growth. Organizational leaders need to take care of themselves before they can take care of others. Part of that self-care should be to assess their own readiness for growth in response to trauma. A firm called Human Insight has developed a quick online assessment that provides a snapshot of post-traumatic growth readiness.
- Identify new knowledge gained. Once individuals are successfully managing their pains, identifying opportunities for gains is an important next step. Leaders can help their teams and colleagues by engaging them in deep, focused conversation, listening to how others have learned as they weathered the crisis and how their learning can support strength, resilience, and endurance for the next inevitable storm. For instance, asking open-ended question like, “What have you learned over these last few weeks or months that you think might be valuable to us in the future — about the way we work, about how we interact with our customers, or even from non-work-related experiences?” Then discuss how they could see those new insights being of value in the future.
- Launch experiments. When new insights are gained, leaders can further engage their teams and colleagues in low-cost, low-risk pilots to test out new assumptions about what might lead to new and better ways to work together and serve customers.
Whether it’s COVID-19 or another crisis, we are likely entering a new era in which our organizations and the people in them will need to be more adaptive and resilient. As we survive each new crisis we will be able to not only survive the next one, but achieve growth.
A version of this article was first published in CIO Magazine in July 2, 2020.