3 things leaders can do right now to inspire progress in the face of collective trauma

A new dawn.
A new dawn.
Image: REUTERS/Lee Smith
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There’s no denying that society as a whole is experiencing the effects of “collective trauma.” We are all, together and right now, feeling a deep sense of distress. Covid-19, police brutality, systemic racism, election highs and lows, the deepening divisions that our politics continue to highlight, the deepening feelings of loneliness and burnout nine months into a global pandemic—no matter the cause, many of us are feeling a sustained threat to our sense of stability, and as a result, a crisis of personal wellbeing.

On a collective level, when the vast majority of society feels a sense of threat simultaneously, the resulting distress takes on a whole new meaning. It becomes a collective trauma. And its presence unfolds a new world for all of us to navigate, from children to parents, teachers to scientists, governments to brands.

For leaders, there’s much at stake, because while individual trauma can result in a crisis of personal identity, where we feel out of control of our own lives, collective trauma can result in a crisis of social identity. This is a grave loss, as our social identity helps us understand our reality, the world we live in, and our place within it. And ultimately, our social identity is what shapes our culture and shared purpose.

There are two ways people tend to cope: First there is a surge in solidarity followed soon after by a retreat to our respective corners. First, camaraderie and support; then, polarization and discord.

At the onset of a crisis, we handle collective trauma through cohesion. We come together, and find solace by helping and connecting with others. At a basic level, the shock of the crisis triggers a flood of empathy. But once we start to feel the slightest sense of equilibrium return to our own lives, our concern for others tends to diminish. And soon, weakness in our social fabric emerges and the makings of society break. Tribes begin to form as people look for enemies to blame and pit against themselves.

Case in point: A global pandemic brought out the best in us, at first. We understood that we were all in this together. We became supremely compassionate—7pm claps, elderly hours at grocery stores, widespread demonstrations of support for first responders, etc. We were determined to leave no one behind. But soon after, Covid-19 effectively divided us into two camps—those who believe in wearing masks and social distancing versus those who do not. Who knew masks would become one of the most  deeply dividing issues in the United States?

How leaders can extend the solidarity surge for real progress

So how do we find progress in the face of a collective trauma? Is it possible to move forward, repair, and reset? Or will we always end up reverting to a divisive retreat?

And what is the responsibility of leaders specifically in this new context? Can their influence serve as a current for cohesion in a crisis?

To grow from trauma and come out better on the other side, we must understand how to prolong the surge in solidarity. And leaders have a unique burden to resolve these tensions and lay the groundwork for progress for all.

At Sylvain Labs, the strategy and design firm I founded, we’re seeing three trends—three things people are asking for, if you’re listening, to remain in that sweet spot of solidarity before the natural urge toward mistrust and division sets in.

Collective care and action: People need to know that our new understanding of interconnectedness is being recognized, because we cannot create a better world if we ignore what is happening to others. We’re all linked by a collective fate.

One thing leaders can do right now: Take stock of your capabilities, products, or services and shift your focus to the collective by prioritizing a co-created future. Enable your followers to take part by giving them the tools to care for those around them in pursuit of that future. For example, rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft are giving drivers the opportunity to provide non-emergency medical transportation to those in their communities who are in need. They’re also supplementing existing grocery and pharmacy delivery systems that are overwhelmed. No matter what kind of leader you are, consider: Can your organization facilitate compassion for others in some form? An opportunity to work together? Pivot accordingly.

Shared languages: People need a common language with which to communicate. And language that is easy to rally around, from words to symbols to hashtags to vibes, signals hope in reaching a shared goal.

One thing leaders can do right now: Measure your messaging differently. Is it clearly denoting forward momentum? Think back to the Obama campaign in 2008. Though Barack Obama wasn’t naive enough to think that one election cycle could fix the country’s problems, the undertones of his language and the theme of “hope” were clear: change and progress were within reach. It encouraged people to fight for that change in their own ways. Is the story you’re putting out into the world encouraging progress? Or is it just noise and oversaturation?

Gathering places: People need places to come together and acknowledge their trauma, while also attempting to heal together. There has never been a more valuable need for “place.” This can include virtual workplaces, religious institutions, fitness communities, museums, memorials, apps, etc..

One thing leaders can do right now: Understand whether you can meaningfully provide the safe space, or the resources for a safe space, for your followers to interact, gain insight, and escape. Just as internet fandoms are using Zoom to create “a new place to hang,” as The Verge put it, when they want to listen to their favorite songs together or watch their favorite shows, how can you create your own space for followers to connect? Can you facilitate the vibe they need to feel at ease?

Leaders must create more opportunities for people to overcome this collective trauma, achieve a sense of social identity, and progress—because when leaders bring us together on a path toward a common purpose, the feeling of excitement for what’s possible is what will propel us forward.