This Is Your Brain on Trauma: Leading and Caring through Crisis by Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD

When I was a kid, the news was an evening affair: my father watched Walter Cronkite before dinner, and read The Wall Street Journal at night. The news was digested before bed, and the workday started without it. Now, news is a 24-hour affair. Your employees log on to their computers in the morning and watch villages washed away, see people crying out for help, and listen to frightening reports of radiation leaking.

During a traumatic event there is no such thing as “business as usual.” The hallmark of trauma is that it is an event that is outside the range of normal experience that evokes feelings of terror or helplessness. The fact that leadership plays a crucial role during times of crisis or trauma seems obvious. There is always scrutiny, and often criticism, of leaders during a traumatic crisis: the leaders in Japan currently, Tony Hayward during the Gulf Spill, Bush during Katrina. But when a trauma such as the Tsunami hits, and you are leading an organization in New York or London, what is the role of leadership? How can leaders better understand the impact of trauma and the leadership needs during that time?

The impact that trauma can have is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined by a set of symptoms: startle response, flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, difficulty eating, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, or persistent avoidance of anything that reminds the person of the traumatic event. One of the biggest problems with PTSD is that it can be easily re-triggered by another traumatic event—an event that evokes fear or helplessness.

Recent research has shown that war footage from Iraq and Afghanistan has significantly triggered PTSD symptoms in Vietnam war veterans—even though those experiences had previously been repressed or buried. So, while you might be leading your organization in New York while the Tsunami hits Japan and safe from the ravages of the water, your employees who witnessed 9/11 or lost loved ones in 9/11 are not having an experience of safety—their bodies and brains are likely responding as if they were in Japan. This is also likely for the Gulf Coast hit by Ivan or Katrina.

The problem with trauma is that it affects the way the brain works: the very thing we would appeal to our employees with is, effectively, off-line. Trauma engages our most basic survival systems: it shifts our brain functioning to our emotional right brain, it shifts our metabolic system into adrenaline high gear then takes our attention and makes it razor sharp—singly focused—only on the object of danger.

What does this mean?  For starters, we lose our usual cognitive capacity for putting the problem into language, flexibility of thinking, and an ability to see the bigger picture. This means our behaviors and actions are likely going to be about some form of self-preservation based on the traumatic experience, and not on the present work-related issue.

What can you do to be an effective leader during a traumatic crisis, even when it is on the other side of the globe? First, realize it’s closer than you think, and likely directly affects people within your organization. With that in mind, here are 4 concrete ways to lead when trauma hits:

Communicate: Acknowledge what is going on and let people know what your organization has for resources for those people who are affected by what is occurring.

Use Structure: While it’s not business as usual, keep up the routine as usual. The daily routines of a workday can help people feel grounded and helps them tap back into their left brains—the seat of the brain’s organizational system.

Connect with People: Go around and talk with people. Encourage your managers to reach out to their direct reports. Contact with people can significantly reduce the experience of isolation and helplessness. It doesn’t have to be trauma-related conversation—just checking in with people, letting them know that you are interested in them and their current situation is fine.

Find Ways for People to Be Helpful: One of the biggest factors in people experiencing trauma related symptoms is their experience of being useful or helpful. Vietnam war veterans who were able to help others during a crisis were less likely to get PTSD later on than those who were not able to. Create a forum to let people help: organize fundraiser for the crisis, or for a local charity, in a similar situation.

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One Response to This Is Your Brain on Trauma: Leading and Caring through Crisis by Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD

  1. heather says:

    I really loved the 4 ways to approach dealing with the continuing traumatic events that leave people feeling helpless and afraid (communicate, connect, create a fundraiser and keep a routine)…c c c k well that is how i will remember it. thank you dear.

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