Leadership development: Resilience in times of trauma

The vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as president of the US meant that 2016 was a traumatic year. Dr Amy Armstrong looks at how leaders can use these uncertain times as opportunities to learn and develop.

Last year was a turbulent one. As one journalist lamented: “If Brexit was a wake-up call, the Trump victory is a full blown existential pummelling.” For some people, the events of 2016 have thrown into question the fundamental assumptions upon which their views of themselves and the world are based. These existential “shocks to the system” represent something potentially traumatic. However, if we are open to learning, it is in times of trauma that we develop most.

We know there is a link between negative emotions and memory, with the most salient memories being laid down in our brains in times of adversity. However, the key to building resilience in difficult times is whether we psychologically shut down and close off, or find a way of seeing difficult experiences as opportunities to learn and grow.

As CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese cautioned: “We should not freeze in the headlights of uncertainty, but instead embrace the opportunities that these challenges bring.”

In a six-year study of growth through trauma among leaders, I found that despite intense suffering, many individuals saw their traumas as catalysts for learning. It was when these leaders were given the space and time to reflect that they were able to see the learning opportunities that were present in these experiences and, as a result, how they and others viewed them as better leaders.

In the same way, this is a critical moment for us as a society. Rather than burying our collective heads as a result of these seismic shifts, we should use them as important moments for collective reflection and recalibration.

Take the death of a loved one or the shock diagnosis of a critical illness, the leaders in my study were able to find meaning in those experiences and see their hardships as a springboard for positive change.

HR professionals should look to create ‘safe’ spaces in which leaders and managers can openly reflect on their challenges and struggles as critical moments of learning

Some saw their traumas as a wake-up call that life is too short to sweat over the little things or to spend time politicking at work. Others found a new found perspective on the relative importance of work compared with family; or even discovered a new direction in life post-trauma.

Some found they were more in tune with themselves and more self-aware. This may be because in times of trauma we are forced to ask ourselves questions such as “who am I?”, “what are my values?” and “how am I perceived by others?”. It is in these situations that we learn about our strengths and our coping mechanisms under pressure and we have an opportunity to re-assess what is truly important to us.

Timing and context are crucial, however. If an event is truly traumatic, learning may not happen “in-the-moment”, but if we are able to give leaders and managers the time and space to reflect with the support of others, the culmination of this is a heightened self-awareness, which we know lies at the heart of effective leadership.

Furthermore, we know that some of the most powerful lessons are present within negative experiences. However, most of us work in environments where conversations about personal struggles, or mistakes and failures at work, do not happen.

This is because in many organisational contexts people fruitlessly strive to keep their personal lives separate. As one HR director recently said to me: “If anyone in my team knows I’m having a bad day, then I’ve failed.”

The prevailing culture in many organisations is one where people are expected to put on a brave face, so their true feelings are not shown and personal struggles are not shared. As a consequence, the powerful learning that is present in adversity can remain unsurfaced.

Most of us work in organisations that are so preoccupied with success that people are rewarded for sticking to plan and any mistakes or failure are swept under carpet. Just look at the VW emissions scandal.

Furthermore, our preoccupation with success in organisations leads to a false belief that you either have talent or you don’t.

In a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, research by the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder is reported to have found that hiring people with a growth mindset, ie those people who are open to acquiring new skills and have a deep curiosity for learning, are more likely to outperform new recruits whose hiring decisions were based on academic qualifications and past performance alone.

As we look towards a future in which the concept of leadership itself is in transition, there is clearly an important role for HR professionals to ensure a context for learning is created so that we remain adaptable, purposed and resilient.

HR professionals should look to create “safe” spaces in which leaders and managers can openly reflect on their challenges and struggles as critical moments of learning, which then sets a tone and culture for learning across the organisation.

Charting an uncertain course ahead, it will be those organisations which are able to adapt, stay connected and compassionate to its employees during times of stress and pressure, and which operate with clear purpose and meaning, which will survive and thrive.

Parts of this article are based on findings in Dr Amy Armstrong’s PhD, “I’m a better manager: A biographic narrative study of the impact of personal trauma on the professional lives of managers in the UK'”, Aston University, 2014.   

Dr Amy Bradley

About Dr Amy Bradley

Dr Amy Bradley (née Armstrong) is a member of Faculty at Hult International Business School, where she specialises in employee engagement and compassion at work.
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