At this point, it’s important not to fall prey to hubris (“We’ve got this under control!”) or resort to the stiff-upper-lip approach (“Stop whining! We’ve just got to tough this out!”). Also, we need to be careful not to let the traumatic event become taboo. Most companies need help facilitating this part because the whole subject is so emotionally charged.
It’s here where many companies drop the ball. Some semblances of normal life returns, work gets busy, and it feels like there is no more time to spend on the trauma. But if you stop now, the impact of your initial hard work will be lost.
By leaning into the next three tactics—Conducting a Look Back, Seeking Outside Help, and Naming the Trauma—you’ll go a long way toward making sure the healing process that you’ve already established keeps going.
What is a Look Back? Some people call it an After Action Review, or AAR. Essentially, it’s a structured review or debriefing process for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be handled better in the future. A Look Back should be conducted immediately following a crisis to chronologically recap the event; elicit feedback, observations, and perspectives from the larger group; and identify gaps in protocol or lapses in performance.
Ultimately, the goal is to generate a comprehensive list of lessons learned. The Look Back gets to the heart of what happened and why. It captures the organization’s successes and failures regarding how it handled the crisis. Done well, this increases transparency, bolsters teamwork, and creates a culture of continuous improvement. But be careful: Done poorly, it can result in more blame and finger-pointing.
It’s vital to make the Look Back a priority. Quite often, leaders are so focused on moving forward that they don’t take the opportunity to formally review what went well and what didn’t. Admittedly, looking back takes a lot of discipline, and it’s understandable that many leaders are reluctant to do it. Not only are they exhausted and overwhelmed, they often have an “It’s in the past so why dwell on it” mentality. The problem is, the longer you wait after the trauma begins to resolve, the fuzzier the key details become.
In fact, you might want to do a quick, COVID-19 pandemic Look Back right now. Carefully analyze the immediate safety and containment response your organization implemented in the early days of the pandemic. Identify specific actions. What went well and why? What did not go so well? Identify specific outcomes and behaviors. Capture unexpected dilemmas that arose and clarify processes to use in future crises. Let’s say an employee had to make a workers’ comp claim from being injured “on the job” at home. How was this handled? How might it be better handled next time?
As much as you can, follow the “how-to” guidelines in this article. You may not be able to answer all of these questions. For instance, you probably didn’t have a Rapid Response Team in place before the pandemic started. That’s OK. The purpose of this exercise is to give you a feel for how the Look Back works. In future crises, after you’ve created your roadmap, you’ll be able to answer them more thoroughly.
First, assemble a Look Back Team. This is typically comprised of senior leadership and the “section leaders” of those involved in the Rapid Response Team. Call everyone together and explain what you are doing and why.
Keep it simple. Have a facilitator and a record-keeper. Ideally use a flip chart so that everyone can follow along during the process.
Be sure to establish ground rules for meeting. For example, everyone has an opportunity to speak. Only one person speaks at a time. No finger-pointing or blaming.
Up front, emphasize that everyone needs to be brutally honest and transparent about where the failures were as you do this hindsight evaluation. (Sidenote: People must feel psychologically safe to tell the truth. If they don’t, you’ve got a serious cultural issue to address.)
Lay the groundwork that it’s expected that there will be lots of different points of view, lots of emotion, lots of different opinions around what happened and why. Assert that it is important that the full picture is captured and all perspectives are accounted for.
• What went well and why? What were our strengths? Where did we shine? Be as specific as possible.
• What were our weaknesses? Where was there confusion? What went wrong and why? Be as specific as possible. Were processes not followed? Why? (For example, did people not know what to do? Were they overwhelmed with fear or chaos? Were they unaware of safety plans, processes, policies?)
• What things happened that weren’t covered by an existing policy or process (in other words, gaps in planning)?
• What conflicts arose?
• What issues arose with convening the Rapid Response Team? Were there delays in alerting/calling for the assembly? Were there logistical issues? Was it clear how decisions were being made?
• What issues arose in communicating what was happening to the broader organization? Were they timely? Were there delays? Was there difficulty in getting the messages out?
• Was it difficult to get information as the situation evolved?
• What questions remain?
Make sure the Look Back session is well documented. Create a summary with actions to be taken to improve, by whom, and by when.
Leaders are typically conditioned to focus on the future. It can go against our grain to look at the past. But only when we look back can we see where our weaknesses and shortcomings are. It’s the only way we can improve and grow as we move forward.
And it’s the only way we can get a handle on where we need the expertise and support of others—which happens to be the next part of the roadmap we’re creating.
Few companies have the expertise needed to survive a trauma and come out stronger on the other side. They need outside support to help the company and employees function better. The problem is that most leaders are so busy working in their business that they don’t have time to work on their business. Generally, our shortfalls and weak points kind of get ignored or glossed over. We just keep steamrolling on, compensating for our weaknesses as best as we can as we make the most of our strengths.
But when trauma, crisis, or major change happens, suddenly these weaknesses are exposed. We’re navigating new territory and we don’t always have the knowledge and skills we need to find our way. Plus, leaders and employees alike are often traumatized. It suddenly becomes obvious that we need outside help. If we haven’t planned for this moment, it can be hard to know where to turn in the heat of crisis.
That’s why right now is the time to start compiling a guidebook/library of resources. Don’t think because you made it through one crisis that you’re okay and will just know what to do next time. First of all, consequences may still be unfolding. Second, the next crisis that hits might be worse. Third, you shouldn’t accept just “scraping by” as good enough. This is a chance to get stronger and better.
We view seeking help as a two-pronged endeavor. Prong one is logistical. Here we’re talking about the stuff you need to keep the business running smoothly, keep customers satisfied, and so on. Prong two is psychological. Very often after a trauma, people will need help processing intense emotions. Let’s talk about these one at a time.
Here you will identify gaps in your internal expertise. Again, you might want to use your experience with the pandemic as a jumping-off point. What weaknesses did this recent crisis unearth? Do you need updated technology? Better logistics? Supply chain enhancements? Do you need help with media relations? A better security system? Extra legal support? Do employees need regular COVID-19 testing?
If you did the COVID-19 Look Back we just described, it may have identified some gaps, but feel free to add to that list.
Slowly start taking steps to shore up these gaps. Rome wasn’t built in a day—but get started sooner rather than later. Put together a schedule and put some deadlines in place. If you don’t get things on the calendar, they won’t happen.
Outside help is often needed for a traumatic event to be fully processed. It’s important to a) know the “red flags” to look for that show people may be traumatized and b) make sure people can get the help they need.
It’s especially important to get outside help if leaders are impacted by traumatic events. Their emotional health impacts their behavior, which impacts everyone else, so if they have an issue it can have a big impact on the organization.
Signs of trauma can include people refusing to change, lashing out angrily, or exhibiting a marked change in personality (such as suddenly going silent). They may well need counseling or some other form of mental health assistance.
Be especially mindful of people who were “close to the action” during a trauma—meaning those who may have witnessed an act of violence or who may be especially close to someone who was directly involved. And pay special attention if a trauma is an ongoing one that will involve a long investigation or end in criminal charges or termination for those involved.
Ensure that people are able to get the psychological support they need. Some organizations have robust Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), peer-to-peer support groups, and access to one-on-one counseling. If yours is one of them, make sure people know these services are available. Even if a formal EAP is not in place in your organization, it’s still important to urge people to seek mental health support when they need it.
Do all that you can to destigmatize the need for mental health support. Go out of your way to assure leaders and employees that getting help isn’t a weakness. Rather, it’s a way to strengthen yourself, your team, and the entire organization.
Excerpted from “Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side” by permission of Harper Collins Leadership (March 2021).
Mark Goulston, MD, FAPA, hosts the “My Wakeup Call” podcast, where he speaks with influencers about their purpose in life and the wakeup calls that led them there and is the co-creator and moderator of the multi-honored documentary “Stay Alive: An Intimate Conversation about Suicide Prevention.” He is a board-certified psychiatrist, fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA-NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer.
Diana Hendel, PharmD, is an executive coach and leadership consultant, former hospital CEO, and the author of “Responsible: A Memoir,” a riveting and deeply personal account of leading during and through the aftermath of a deadly workplace trauma. As the CEO of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital, Hendel led one of the largest acute care, trauma and teaching hospital complexes on the West Coast.
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