Richard Izard, Managing Director of Global Leadership Associates and Board Chair of World Vision UK, shares his sense that Covid-19 is a genuine trauma and gives his top ten tips for leaders to navigate the pain.
Many leaders that I speak to in these strange days talk about the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses. Most however, seem less aware of the impact it is taking on their confidence, their bodies and their spirit. The clues are there of course: ‘First drink of the day gets half an hour earlier each week!’ ‘Lots of domestic arguments!’ ‘I’m just very, very tired, even though I’m not commuting to work’ and ‘I want to expel my children from home school’…
All the signs are there yet few of us would ever use the term “trauma” to describe our situation. Dan Allender, a leading trauma psychologist explains the three keys signs of trauma. I agree with the conclusion he makes upon listing these signs; they are evident in spades with Covid-19.
The three signs of trauma are:
- Threat/Danger/Harm – many of us have experienced a sudden bereavement, an accident, the sudden loss of a job. When things have not turned out the way they were meant to, it can be a big shock. For many bankrupt, small business owners, Covid-19 certainly fits this description. For others fighting back to health after catching the virus or even worse, suffering the death of a loved one, this virus is inflicting tragic consequences. For some, the experience of lock-down has had a major impact on mental health.
- Uncertainty – when you add uncertainty to the possibility of harm, a feeling of deep anxiety and even panic about the future can arise. Many leaders simply can’t see a way back from where they find themselves and the feeling is one of complete fear.
- Powerlessness – when fear is accompanied by this third sign, a feeling of powerlessness and stress can be acute and the feeling of hopelessness complete. Most of us feel powerless during this pandemic. We can wash our hands and observe the rules and this somehow restores some sense of balance. We know however, if we touch the wrong door handle at the wrong time we might be dead three weeks later.
It seems clear that all three elements that comprise the definition of trauma are present, in fact inevitable, as we battle with Covid-19.
My first advice to leaders is to acknowledge what is going on, recognising that it is not your fault and the pain is real. It is beyond our control that we feel traumatised and I suggest that leaders acknowledge, rather than ignore, this reality. It seems to me that the denial of the trauma is where we can often put ourselves at risk.
Allender suggests three typical reactions to trauma:
- Fragmentation – many leaders say to me that they are really struggling to get anything done. The ‘to do’ list gets longer and longer, they are working harder than ever with no sense of achievement. One leader I work with who has a PhD from a leading business school told me that he has got to the stage where he can read a simple sentence and not be able to understand it. He is overwhelmed. The idea of fragmentation is that parts of the brain shut down and executive function is deeply impaired. It may be that you are experiencing vivid dreams and can’t focus on the day job. This is because part of your brain has effectively shut down to block out the trauma.
- Numbing – many people describe with great levity via memes how they are crowding out the pain of lockdown through alcohol, chocolate and other vices. Whilst these are tongue in cheek, the paradox is that the numbing effect which we seek in trauma has the effect of cutting off joy as well as pain. We sub-consciously disengage from the threat by using one or many possible numbing techniques. Of course, there is a cost to this.
- Alienation – one of our most effective strategies is to cut ourselves off from others. Have you noticed that there are friends that you simply don’t have the energy to contact? Are there family members with whom you have fallen out? Do you feel like throwing something at the television as the people you disagree with politically talk away. My wife says that I usually start my rant at about 10.00pm every evening when the evening news comes on. All this is typical of alienation in trauma – we need someone to blame and it gives us some sense of power if we can attack someone else.
What are we to do:
How do we navigate these confusing experiences? Here are my top 10 tips for managing this trauma.
- Accept What Is – be kind to yourself, you are not at fault and the pain is real. If it is true that our executive function has become impaired, then we should not be surprised that we are performing below our normal capacity. I so often see leaders ignore the pressures that are on them thereby losing all sense of the impact a stressful event is having. I believe it is important to stop being so heroic and pretending that nothing is up. There is something up! It is a global pandemic and the first step to dealing with it is to acknowledge that and the impact it is having on us. Being a little less self-critical and not feeling crippled by responsibility gives space for the brain’s executive functions to roll into effective action.
- Honour your body – it may be that you have developed a sweet tooth or a desire for red wine during this trauma. Reports suggest that more than a third of UK adults admit to putting on weight during lockdown. Maybe the odd chocolate bar is ok. If, on the other hand, your way of numbing the distress of Covid-19 is having an impact on your health then maybe it is time to address it. Patterns we create now are in danger of continuing after lockdown. I liked the observation of Tom McGrath from Wicklow who wrote to the Irish Times Sir, – For God’s sake, open the pubs again before we all become alcoholics.
- Increase simple pleasures – most people I speak to agree that there is a gift associated with the trauma as well as the pain. I have noticed the colours of Spring more than any year I can remember. My son has started drawing the most amazing pictures. I have loved cycling with my daughter on our new bikes and teaching her the rules of the road. A spirit of resilience and fortitude that seemed lacking before can arise personally and in the workplace as our opportunity for new pockets of pleasure opens up. I do not wish to detract from the suffering that Covid-19 inflicts. I merely wish to point out that in amongst the hardship, I have noticed (and read widely) that there is a passion to harness the deeper joys of life.
- Consider Others – realise that the pandemic is most certainly also having a similar impact on those around you. Have you noticed yourself become more critical and less forgiving of others? If so, there is space for a little humility here. None of us has all the answers. As leaders, in this way we may be able to see new levels of collaboration and petty squabbles falling away.
- Wise Decisions– -seek to make wise decisions rather than right decisions. We are operating in such complex contexts right now, that seeking right answers is a fool’s errand. Adaptive challenges by their very nature do not have right answers. Covid-19 is one of those challenges: so complex, that there are no right answers. Wisdom and good old common sense are important here. Seeking the views of trusted advisers is also a great idea in times like this. People who can point out a dimension of the challenge that we aren’t seeing.
- Expertise is not enough – I laughed this week as a member of the government started to blame scientists for the ‘wrong’ advice. However brilliant a scientist is, their perspective can only be partial. Their model is underpinned with lots of assumptions. The next scientific expert may interpret the same data and derive a different view. In other words, it is ridiculous to blame the experts for bad decisions. Leaders need to add wisdom to advice and data. Instead of blaming others, let’s ask ourselves, ‘How can we use the advice to make wise, balanced decisions?’ Seeking multiple perspectives and carefully weighing them against each other is surely a good start.
- Life Changing Decisions – Avoid life changing decisions if you can. I have spoken to a number of leaders who just want to resign from companies they say they hate. I have spoken to others who want to leave relationships they have invested decades in. The old adage of ‘decide in haste and regret at your leisure’ seems very apt here.
- Take a systemic view – It is important we leaders debate these issues in the widest context. One aspect of taking a systemic world view is seeing that everything is interconnected. I am struck, for example, that whilst locking down countries in sub Saharan Africa may slow the spread of the virus, the impact on food supply chains may kill more people through starvation than the virus would ever do. These are complex and delicate judgements. The impact of Covid-19 impacts the world on so many different levels. There is a danger that we become self-absorbed. Whilst it might be very healthy to question ourselves and our way of seeing the world, our own thinking is only one of the systems at play. There is our family, there is our work, there is the health of our nation, there is the economic and health impact of shutting the country down. Also of course questions about the environments and humans’ relationship with the earth are also important
I often say to leaders, ‘if you are a leader in an organisation then you are also a leader in society’. We can at least engage in the wider dialogue and seek to understand multiple perspectives.
- Let go of control – most of us when under stress grip tighter, trying to control what is happening. If ever we needed proof that most of what happens is outside of our control then surely Covid-19 proves that point. It can be very liberating to realise that we can’t control much of what is going and then to give up trying.
- Managing Your Boss – If you are caught in an organisation and with a boss who doesn’t understand any of this, then I can only suggest finding outlets for your frustration – taking into consideration point 7 as it pertains to resigning on the spot. Mentors and friends are vital to offload to about your frustration and maybe leave a copy of this article on your bosses desk, if they still have one. Seriously though; seek advice on how you could work with your boss to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. I assure you, they will be holding as much fear as you are.
There is a lot to consider, a lot to take on and a lot to release ourselves from….now where did I leave that bar of chocolate?
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