Grief and Growth at Work

 Appalachian trail: photo by ian matta

Appalachian trail: photo by ian matta

All change involves loss and some degree of grief, but we rarely help people – or ourselves -- process loss at work. Never mind learn ways to recover and become stronger. 

Losing a job. Losing work mates from downsizing. Losing the respect of executives because we challenged their beliefs -- beliefs that we know will soon cause problems. Losing the confidence in our employer because they sacrificed beloved organizational values to gain another two percent growth.

We deny our sadness and say things like, “It’s just a job, not brain cancer.”

We suffer. Beat ourselves up.  Become bitter. Curse our bosses and the rigid, hierarchical bureaucracies posing as progressive organizations. We get riled up and think, “Somebody should sue the bastards, for God’s sake.” 

Or we choose to find meaning and learn from what happened, which not only eases suffering, but can potentially transform our careers.

Post traumatic growth

Admiral Jim Stockdale was repeatedly tortured for eight years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He didn't have much reason to believe he’d ever make it home. He said he survived by framing the experience as something that would define the rest of his life. 

Rather than denying reality or taking on a victim mindset, Admiral Stockdale lived each day in prison trying to help the morale of his fellow prisoners. The overly-optimistic POWs without this mindset, however, didn’t fare so well.

Stockdale came out of the war experiencing post-traumatic growth, which is a positive psychological change resulting from adversity. (As opposed to the more commonly written about syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder.)

People who experience post-traumatic growth find a new appreciation for life, new perspectives on work paths, and a renewed sense of meaning.

In fact, some psychological research shows that finding benefits from a trauma can lead to personal transformation, according to University of California/Riverside professor Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness.

“Focusing on the lessons you can learn from the ordeal will help soften its blow,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky. “The lessons those realities impart could be patience, perseverance, loyalty or courage. Or perhaps you’re learning open-mindedness, forgiveness, generosity or self-control. Research shows that with post-traumatic growth you not only can you survive and recover, you can flourish.”

Social support, meaning and self-compassion

Three proven practices to experience post traumatic growth are social support, finding meaning, and self-compassion.

Carmen and I have always said that having a trusted tribe of friends is essential for all who identify as Rebels at Work. While your Rebel Alliance can help make your ideas better and move them through the bureaucracy, these friends can also help you recover from setbacks.

“Social support is pretty incredible, a strategy of almost magical proportions,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky.  “Talking to others about a traumatic experience not only helps you cope and see the event with a new perspective.”

A second strategy for coping is to find meaning and new perspectives by writing about the experience. 

Expressive writing forces us to organize our jumble of thoughts and feelings and construct a new narrative.  Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, who has been studying the benefits of writing for 30 years, found that it is a far more powerful tool for healing than anyone had imagined.

Writing for just 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days can produce lasting results in health, happiness and outlook. His recommended approach and writing prompts can be found here.

The trick, he says, is to not keep writing about the negative incident in the same way.

“If you catch yourself telling the same story over and over to get past your distress, rethink your strategy. Try writing or talking about your trauma in a completely different way,” Dr. Pennebaker advises in The Secret Life of Pronouns.  “How would a more detached narrator describe what happened? What other ways of explaining the event might exist? “

The third strategy is self-compassion, accepting that you’re human, acknowledging failures and frustrations and not dwelling on mistakes.

“Rather than relentlessly condemning ourselves when we fall, even if our fall is a spectacular one, we do have another option,” says Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

 “We can recognize that everyone has times when they blow it, and treat ourselves kindly," she says. Maybe we weren't able to put our best foot forward, but we tried, and falling flat on one’s face is an inevitable part of life. An honorable part, in fact.”

If we’re really pushing the envelope to do great work, we will fall.

Friends, self-compassion and finding meaning from what happened can help us rise up and push even further.