“We just never realized the number of things to which we were attached.” – Marilyn Mendoza
Dr Marilyn Mendoza’s quote from her article “Mourning the little things” is a perfect introduction to thinking about Survivor Syndrome. It hints that it’s not about the big stuff. It hints that we might not be aware of the many small losses that we have all suffered. And it’s something to reflect on with our clients and customers.
But before we get to that, let me take you back to 1993.
My brother had come to see me in London for the weekend. With a damp Sunday afternoon free before he headed off, we decided that a movie in Leicester Square was the perfect activity to complete our time together.
Our choice of film was Fearless, starring the amazing Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez. It was my first exposure to Survivor Syndrome – a topic that wasn’t mainstream at the time – and we came out reeling.
As the main character, Max Klein struggles to come to terms with surviving a plane crash. A the same time his life is intrinsically connected to those who, because of it, have suffered physical loss.
It is one of those films that changes how you think. It opens your mind to how complex our brains are and how overwhelming guilt can be.
Now you might be thinking Survivor Syndrome is bit heavy handed for our current Covid-19 times, but as life begins to normalise – for now – it’s something to reflect on both for yourself and for those with whom you work.
In whatever way you have moved through the last 3 months, something will have been lost.
For some it might be minor, an infringement on being able to go out shopping and seeing friends, for others it will be major, the death of loved ones and livelihoods and future dreams wrecked.
There will also be those whose loss is to come in the shape of the impact of economic uncertainty and decisions made that are beyond their control.
As a leader, you will be working through your own experience of these times
whilst at the same time keeping focused on a possible new direction and seeking out opportunities for how you can help your team. In some cases, the team may be the “lucky” ones who are working like crazy and for whom life is just a very busy “normal”. Even so they will be returning to something that is both the same and different.
And there is a need to recognise that in how you work with them.
“When tragedy strikes, we thank our lucky stars. But we also may feel guilty”
It can be easy to assume these peeps will be grateful. Hey, they’ve got a job! Hey, they’ve got lots to do! Hey we’re all good!
Sure, they appreciate that they are in a better place than others.
But with networks broken, faced with new – and possibly tedious – ways of working and the lurking fear that it just might be their turn next there will be a lot of unintended unconscious negative energy.
So what can you do?
None of this is rocket science, but it’s worth considering how you can:
- Help them understand and embrace the journey they are on. Allowing time to offer a space to process their thinking can be of huge value. Being heard is essential to being able to move on. Don’t tell them what to think – help them think.
Listen out for those throwaway comments that will tell you what they really need (the ones tossed aside with an uncomfortable laugh), take action, either to find out more or help them be effective.
Consider how to make work as simple and frictionless as possible. Energy levels are low, distraction is high. Anything you can do to make life easier is going to be valued.
Be patient. Energy is going to ebb and flow. Ride that wave for now.
In times like these there’s one leadership model that fits beautifully and one that you can employ when looking at how you work with others. It’s the CASE model created by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in their book – Why Should Anyone be Led by You?
Community, Authenticity, Significance and Excitement.
These are basic human needs. This is what people want.
Jeff Bridges’ character Max Klein said:
“People say they want to know the truth, but what they really want to know is that they already know the truth.”
Right now, that as your job.
Help them know the truth. Help them find significance and through this, you will help them shake off their survivor syndrome, rediscover their purpose and begin to move forward.