Over the past few months, organisations, leaders and their teams have experienced an event like never before.
The year 2020 has been unprecedented, not only in how often the word ‘unprecedented’ has been used, but in the challenges, change and uncertainty it has thrown at us.
Entire organisations have been managed and run from a network of lounge rooms across the nation. People have faced a set of workplace and personal factors that are entirely uncharted. Zoom meetings have become the new norm.
We have shared our home life and the emotional ups and downs of lockdown with our colleagues and friends and many of us have become overnight home school educators. The phrase ‘juggling personal and work life’ has taken on a whole new meaning.
Through all of this we have become accustomed to working together under a new normal – one that includes the full array of human imperfection.
As a horizon begins to emerge – still not without significant uncertainty – a return to the office, in some form or other, appears to be on the cards.
Now is the time to take stock of the new norms that have emerged, the new ways of working together, and how we might leverage these to build stronger more capable and innovative cultures and teams in the future.
I have spent that last 15 years researching and writing about the impact of adverse, stressful, painful, and even traumatic experiences on personal and team functioning. While experiences like these have the capacity to weaken us, they also have the capacity to build significant strength.
Yet, too often we fail to clearly see the potential in these experiences.
Here are three things that I believe we can take from our COVID-19 experience so that we can build better moving forward.
The meaning of life
Finding meaning in what we do is incredibly important to our wellbeing.
Our research has found that people find meaning in emotionally extreme experiences.
While many of us may consider calm, stress-free experiences (perhaps achieved through mindfulness or mediation) as important for our mental health, these don’t turn out to provide a great deal of meaning in life.
Other research has found that across countries, meaning in life is negatively correlated with Gross Domestic Product – so can we assume people experience less meaning in life in countries where life is easy?
Another study revealed that hospital employees who were involved in responding to the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in California shifted their focus from less meaningful goals, like “being popular” or “having possessions”, towards more meaningful goals like “maintaining close relationships” and “accomplishing things in life”.
Meaning is often found in adversity.
A sense of connection
Our research has found that stressful and painful experiences are a powerful ingredient in bringing people together and deepening interpersonal bonds.
For instance, we found that sharing a painful experience with other people leads to increased feelings of connection, increased trust and cooperative behaviour.
This is consistent with other research showing that painful cultural rituals increase solidarity and prosocial behaviour.
And there are examples from shared experiences of armed conflict – like frontline Libyan revolutionaries developing stronger bonds with their battalion than with their own families (think The Hurt Locker) or the outpouring of volunteerism across America in response to the 9/11 attacks.
It is also consistent with my own experience of the Brisbane floods where 55,000 volunteers swarmed to the affected areas to offer help.
Our research has also found that shared pain leads to an increased sense of psychological safety within teams, and that in turn, this leads to increased team creativity and innovation.
Given that ‘psychological safety’ was identified by Google as the number one characteristic of a high functioning team, and the observation by organisations worldwide that there has been an increased sense of connection within teams during COVID-19, we would be missing a significant opportunity if we didn’t explore how organisations might build on this moving forward.
Resilience through adversity
There is now ample evidence that adverse life experiences can build resilience.
For instance, researchers observed that personal strengths like gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, and spirituality significantly increased in a large sample of Americans in response to the 9/11 attacks, and remained high for almost a year.
Other research found that some victims of the deadly Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 showed improvement in levels of anxiety and depression over the course of this tragedy, in large part due increase feelings of connectedness to others.
Still other evidence shows that people who had experienced significant adversity throughout their lifetimes maintain higher levels of resilience and wellbeing in response to stressful life experiences.
COVID-19 has taken much from many of us but creating awareness of how this experience may offer some silver linings is worthwhile.
A failure to see these possibilities, and to explore how these could be incorporated into a ‘business as usual’ environment would be a missed opportunity.
Transporting the more human and psychologically safe norms that have developed into our relationships and workplaces, building a new found awareness of what really matters to us into our goals and aspirations and drawing from self-knowledge of the strengths we have all had to find and rely on during this crises will ensure we build better in response to COVID-19.
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