Managing Post-Traumatic Growth
Supporting Positive Change After a Crisis
Life is full of surprises and, although we might wish otherwise, some of them can be devastating. So what can you do to survive, and even thrive, at work following a potentially life-changing or career-threatening trauma?
You can prepare for a crisis, even if you don't know what it might be or when it might happen. Sometimes, though, even the most forward-thinking and able people can find themselves being forced to question or reevaluate everything they know about their careers, or even their lives.
Such catastrophic changes can include being let go without warning, a business collapsing, being betrayed by a close colleague, or suffering a physical attack by a customer. The trauma could also be something outside work, such as a serious injury, the break up of a long-term relationship or marriage, or the sudden death of a child.
These extreme circumstances can bring our established way of living or thinking to an abrupt halt, and they can divide our old self from our new perspectives. But some people are able to turn disaster into something so positive that it's as surprising as the trauma itself. A relatively new area of positive psychology calls this Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG).
In this article, we explore what Post-Traumatic Growth is, how to manage someone who is experiencing it, and what you can do to grow – at least to some extent – if you've been through a crisis.
What is Post-Traumatic Growth?
The term Post-Traumatic Growth was coined in 1995 by psychologists Dr Richard Tedeschi and Dr Lawrence Calhoun, of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, U.S. They expanded on their research in their 2004 paper, "Post-Traumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence."
Tedeschi and Calhoun found that some people who had been through a "seismic" event experienced an unexpected, positive outcome. For example, they had a new appreciation for life, they developed more meaningful relationships, they felt deeper empathy for others' suffering, or they reported "an increased sense of personal strength."
In fact, the psychologists found that the people they studied weren't just coping or demonstrating resilience, and hoping to return to normality – they frequently expressed thankfulness for the altered life that now lay ahead of them.
PTG is not about ignoring the pain, fear or shock of what's happened to you, and carrying on regardless. And it doesn't remove distress, so people experience both negative and positive emotions as they grow. Tedeschi and Calhoun observed that an ability to handle such a paradox was key to continued PTG.
How to Manage Someone Experiencing PTG
PTG is often a welcome surprise to the people who are experiencing it. They don't plan it or aim to achieve it, but there are common factors that seem to increase the likelihood of it happening. As a manager, there are steps that you can take to encourage and support your team member during this process, and to create an environment that promotes PTG.
For example, being able to talk openly about what's happened, to people who are willing to listen, is key to PTG. Our article, Empathic Listening, explores how you can develop a deeper understanding of what people are really trying to say to you. This is important, as people going through PTG often fear being judged or disbelieved.
With your team member's permission, and within the bounds of confidentiality, you can make his or her colleagues aware of the situation, so that they can help you to create a safe and supportive environment. Our article, Building Great Work Relationships, has tips and strategies on how to do this, such as building trust, being emotionally intelligent, and showing empathy.
Some types of trauma can have serious psychological impact. Be aware of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as lack of concentration, memory problems, and anxiety. Alert your HR department if you suspect that your team member may be experiencing this, so that she can get the right professional support. The physical, mental and emotional impact of the trauma could become overwhelming if it's only addressed in an amateur, if well-meaning, way.
Also, someone going through PTG often feels a surge in ambition and in her willingness to learn, so don't be afraid to give her tasks that challenge and stretch her. You can find out how to do this in our article, High-Performance Coaching.
Managing Your Own PTG
If you've struggled, or are struggling, after an extreme career or life crisis, you will likely recognize some of the symptoms that we've mentioned, and others such as disorientation, mood swings and flashbacks. If so, the best thing you can do is seek professional help. Talk to your HR department or a health professional.
As we have seen, while trauma can have a huge emotional and physical impact, the struggle that you endure can lead to incredible personal change through PTG.
PTG can't be forced, but you can get yourself into the best place to nurture it. Following these seven steps will set you on the right path:
- Begin to think positively about the new you – you're at the start of a new stage in life.
- Engage with the world around you, and appreciate all the good things that it has to offer.
- Allow yourself time to talk honestly about how you feel, particularly with people who have suffered something similar to you.
- Reflect on any aspect of your life where your own actions had a negative impact on yourself or others, and make positive changes as a result.
- Accept offers of help.
- Help others. For example, you could do volunteer or charitable work in your community.
- Be open to new experiences and opportunities, including new friendships.
- Take on new challenges or learn new skills.
A person who already approaches life with an optimistic outlook will more likely grow after experiencing a major challenge. Also, those who are used to coping with adversity will likely do so again. Our articles on cognitive restructuring and resilience explore this in more detail.
Common causes of suffering in life are bereavement, illness, injury, or a relationship breaking down. But trauma can also come from work-based experiences such as redundancy, demotion, or the long-term stress of a bullying manager.
PTG is not a cure for suffering or pain. Neither is it simply about getting through a very distressing event in your life. PTG is transformative, when an individual perceives herself to be improved by having undergone an event that has completely shattered her previous view of life.
Many of the common outcomes of PTG can be advantageous in the workplace. Team members who have emerged stronger after trauma are often ready for new challenges and have a desire to help others.
To support a team member through PTG, create an environment that allows him to talk about his experience and assign tasks that match his desire to be challenged. But be aware that he may still suffer symptoms of trauma, and take swift, appropriate action.
If you are experiencing PTG, or hope to achieve it, don't be afraid to accept help. Allow yourself time to process your thoughts and feelings, and talk about them to people who you trust. Also, be as positive and optimistic as you can.
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