Guest blogger Pat Vivian is a leader with the Community Consulting Project (CCP). CCP has partnered with Washington Nonprofits to provide executive coaching to our members. Pat is a nationally recognized organization development consultant and the co-author of the book, Organizational Trauma and Healing.
COVID-19 continues to profoundly alter our world as we seek to cope with it.
Many of your work lives and organizations have been disrupted before, whether you are a staff member, manager, or board member. You might have been part of a group going through a developmental challenge (as most nonprofits do) where the shift from one phase to the next was bumpy. Others of you have experienced a crisis in the life of your organization, but with skills, determination, and help found a way through to a solid level of functioning. Some of you may also have experienced organizational trauma and traumatization. (We usually think of trauma as an occurrence, while traumatization suggests an ongoing state of unhealed trauma. Both are harmful, but they are not the same.) Perhaps with help from peers and/or professionals, your organization engaged in a healing process, recovered, and regained forward momentum.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not like any of these experiences. It is not a normal occurrence in the developmental life of our organizations or our communities. COVID-19 has caused crises in our organizations: structures no longer functioning, staff suddenly faced with no childcare, finances disrupted and compromised, and exponential demand from clients and communities. We are likely managing and weathering at least some of these crises with known techniques and identified help. While we will successfully cope with some crises directly related to COVID-19, we are unprepared to cope with the enormity of the pandemic itself. We do not have familiar resources and strategies for something this overwhelming.
COVID-19 is also traumatizing clients, staff, families, and communities with reverberating and cascading harm. The difference in this COVID-19 circumstance of trauma and traumatization is that we are all in the midst of it and cannot see its boundaries. No one is outside this trauma. We do not know any developmental process that we can use to understand what is next for ourselves and our organizations. It is too soon for healing and recovery; we are faced with surviving each day the best that we can. This is overwhelming for most of us.
We have no road map to guide our way. Given that reality, we create the road we are on by walking it. That is a messy process (like bushwhacking when there is no trail.) We make lots of wrong turns before we find one that works. We get tired and discouraged because just moving forward is exhausting. We think maybe others have found some better paths through this and we are not competent enough to do this. We get scared because we think we are lost. We get confused because, when we listen to others, they offer lots of ideas, tell us conflicting information, or share unclear thinking or opinions. We feel inept that we are not doing a better job of coping and leading.
So how can we hold ourselves, our organizations, and our communities together?
We can learn from some principles that come from understanding organizational trauma and recovery.
1. Contain the experience and create safety and stability.
Every act should help us place boundaries around ever-expanding thoughts and emotions, focus our attention on what we can control, and communicate respect and compassion for ourselves and each other. If we create structures that keep us in contact with each other and communicate clearly when we have something to say, we can nurture stronger bonds with each other. In one of my client organizations, they talked about making sure everyone was in the boat. No one was floundering in the water without a life vest. We also need to be able to listen with respect and care to others’ fears and worries without amplifying their emotion by adding our own. Containment, stability, and security need to be reinforced regularly.
2. Understand that what you and others are feeling is normal.
We do not have any road maps for our experiences, so we are building the road as we go. That means we are learning from our mistakes and successes. We are feeling a range of emotions. We are finding distressing connections with past experiences. We are discovering joy. All of this is normal and not a judgment about what we are capable of or what we should be doing.
3. Accept that with no road map we will make mistakes.
In the best of times we make mistakes. If we can use a reflective learning approach to our experiences, we can stay on a spiral path of growth with each curve allowing for insights (from mistakes and successes) to become firmer ground for the next steps. This learning approach helps us avoid going around in circles with the same unhelpful discussions.
4. Share experiences and feelings with each other.
Many people have a tendency to withdraw when they are hurt, angry, or scared. In this time of COVID-19, we are required to withdraw and “self-isolate” for the safety of ourselves and others. To compensate for that isolation and withdrawal we need to increase our ways of staying connected. Holding virtual meetings or phone calls with everyone is not enough. We need to establish structures that make it easy for each person to share. For example, pose an open-ended question or suggest a topic that enables each person to contribute. (Avoid reporting out what each person is doing in detail or having one person talk for a long time.)
5. Collectively make meaning from those experiences.
Every conversation that allows for wide sharing and finding themes and patterns encourages individuals to feel part of a group. The insights are shared among everyone, though this does not mean everyone is in complete agreement. No one’s ideas should be ostracized. A common framework of understanding developed by the group reinforces the sense of being in the struggle together.
6. Identify pockets of resilience in your organization.
In any circumstances, strengths-based discussion is helpful. Counter the pervasive uneasiness in the pandemic by identifying current ways individuals and organizations as a whole are exhibiting resilience. That resilience can also be the basis for needed problem-solving and creativity.
7. Celebrate unity, caring for each other, and coming together.
Almost all of the advice circulating online and in print comes back to this. In the final analysis, counting on each other and the strength we have together will help us get through this devastating time. We will thrive again.