Post Traumatic Growth – Recognizing Opportunity in Adversity

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

– Ernest Hemingway

In the mid-1990’s, two psychologists working at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, coined a new term for a long-observed phenomenon. The term was, “post-traumatic growth”, or PTG. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun created the term to refer to growth as a possible outcome of experiencing crisis or adversity. The idea is that when a person faces trauma, the act of struggling with the reality of the hardship can lead to positive change. Or, as Nietzsche put it, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” 

By experiencing hardship, we often must become more than we currently are, in order to adapt and survive. Think of the most challenging times in your life. Did you struggle? Did you learn? Were you the same person afterwards? Chances are, you developed resilience, picked up some new tricks, and learned from your mistakes. In other words, you grew. The crisis might not have been a pleasant experience, but it did create the opportunity for you to grow. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The things that hurt, instruct.”

PTG is focused on the growth of individuals, but the concept of growth and development catalyzed by hardship can also be applied to organizations. When organizational crisis or change occurs, it takes a toll on morale and employee engagement. Change is hard. We get comfortable in familiar, stable environments. During a transition, we experience increased anxiety as we struggle towards an uncertain future. We often fear the worst possible scenarios and outcomes. However, within the discomfort of change lies the opportunity for us to grow.

I’ve heard it put this way, “There is no growth in our comfort zone, and no comfort in our growth zone.”  To improve as individuals or organizations, we have to be challenged beyond our current comfort level. And don’t worry, the challenges–both professional and personal–will come. But how can leaders support individuals and teams as they struggle and grow? I have two suggestions for leaders:

1. Monitor and balance the challenges placed on teams and individuals.

Some growth is only possible through experiencing challenging situations. Yvon Chouinard, CEO and founder of Patagonia, values a crisis. In fact, he goes much further than just appreciating the challenges as they come, he actively creates them. In his book Let My People Go Surfing, he states that a company must “constantly stress itself in order to grow.”  And, “when there is no crisis, the wise leader or CEO will invent one. Not by crying wolf, but by challenging the employees with change.” 

I’m not advocating the idea of burying employees in adversity. Too much change or challenge at once can overwhelm and burnout even the best of us. However, there is value in providing stretch assignments to teams and individuals–to push them to explore more of their potential. Consider providing a new challenge to a team when you feel they’ve become too comfortable and are at risk of slipping into complacency.

2. Help employees recognize the opportunities within the challenges they face.

When someone is struggling with something, it can be hard to “look on the bright side” and to see the gifts within the hardship. Gaining some perspective can help individuals navigate the bumpy roads ahead. Managers can help employees see specific opportunities as they take on new challenges.

My colleague, David Long, has written an excellent blog entry entitled, “5 Growth Conversations to Engage and Retain Your Employees.” One of the five conversations Dave mentions is called, “framing.” Within a framing conversation, a manager helps an employee recognize the growth opportunities that lie within a challenging assignment or situation. To quote Dave’s article:

“Employees taking on challenges need positive framing. Without framing, some of the benefit of the challenge is lost. People still grow, they just don’t view the growth as positive.”

A tactful manager can help employees get more out of difficult assignments by connecting-the-dots to growth along the way. In one of my favorite books, The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, the author states, “Through our perception of events, we are complicit in the creation – as well as the destruction – of every one of our obstacles.” Effectively framing conversations can help employees form healthier perceptions of the challenges they face.

Continued growth is key to finding engagement and happiness in our work. Being challenged means we are continuing to grow. A sense of continued growth and development is essential in fostering healthy employee engagement within an organization. Change, challenges, and hardships are a part of professional life. Learn to identify and embrace the hidden opportunities for growth within. Frederick Douglas captured it well, “where there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

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