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  • Writer's picturephilippe bailleur

Restarting: Just press ‘start’, right?

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

Written together with Leanne Steeghs

Everyone eagerly follows the news about the tuning-down or adjustment of the corona measures imposed by the government. The pressure is increasing everywhere because in addition to fatalities, other possible victims are gradually starting to show up. On an abstract level one could think of the economy. And (s)he — as an abstract thing — can wait a while, unless you translate this to a very concrete level:

  • Numerous small and large companies still have a very limited amount of cash flow. Not enough to keep this up for a longer time. And that will have an effect on the level of the employees.

  • Some people and/or companies had no financial slack to bridge this kind of crisis and are already in trouble. Is there a safety net?

  • Start-ups that have just invested their entire private assets and were ready to launch their product or service when the crisis exploded.

Waiting to launch until we have full control of the coronavirus is impossible. And maybe this ‘trying to get full control of the virus’ will never even be possible or there will be a new variant after this virus. Rebooting by just picking up the thread and pretending nothing has happened is not an option either and, yet this tendency will be great. Our world has changed in many facets but it’s impossible to understand how and where exactly. We are only going to discover the colours of that change step by step and, it will have beautiful sides but also difficult sides.

What to do after a major incident?

A major incident, clearly delineated in time, is potentially traumatic. Without going into too much detail, this means that you (or your team, or your company, …) will continue to experience a certain amount of trouble in the here-and-now from something that is actually — purely chronologically — over. Because all of this is highly subjective, there is no list of what is or is not traumatic. After all, all of this is strongly connected to one’s own biography, previous experiences, and the resilience at that moment. Besides, it is not the event that determines whether or not trauma will develop, but rather the kind of symptoms that develop afterward. You can learn to recognize these symptoms in individuals as well as in teams or in entire organizations.

A major incident is usually followed by a debriefing. This is a moment where you take the time to map out the possible impact of a drastic incident on both the individual side (= zooming-in) and the organizational side (= zooming-out). This is the moment during which people try to reconstruct the puzzle together: What exactly happened? Who was involved? Who were impacted and to what extent? What are the possible causes and consequences?

We need the whole puzzle to build a coherent story in our (collective) psyche in order to limit the development of trauma symptoms.

After a debriefing you start gaining insight into the emotional state of all those involved, the depth and breadth of the impact of the incident, the damage to be repaired, the course of the incident, … This information is relevant to provide extra aftercare and guidance. This information can also help to harvest some lessons, both positive and negative. Please note, this is not intended to start a ‘witch hunt’. A witch hunt is about looking for a guilty party and that is often an ‘alibi’ to get rid of the (own) built-up tension. At this very moment of the corona-crisis you can already see this phenomenon. Just take the recent example of President Trump who stopped the financial contribution of the United States to the WHO, in order not to feel his own share in the problematic state of his own country.

In the context of this crisis, however, there are a number of difficult variables:

  • This crisis is not an acute, sudden incident but a long, drawn-out process. There is no unambiguous beginning or ending. Nevertheless, in some cases this crisis can and will lead to trauma at both the individual and the collective level.

  • The scale of this crisis is global. The consequences are, in fact, not to be overseen. Who will have to take care of stabilizing or healing people and groups affected by this crisis?

  • The nature of this crisis is new, so we have only a very limited idea of its impact. In any case, we can assume that the impact will be very diverse.

  • In the event of a major incident such as an explosion, there is a clear ending. So, at some point, you can say: “It’s over. We’re safe again.” This clear marker in time between the threat of then and the security of today is a first intervention to stabilize people. This clear ending is missing now, because even when starting up again, this crisis will not be over yet.

So, what is going on?

Recently, we stayed in touch with organizations in various ways. As a result, we are beginning to gain insight into a number of themes that we will be keeping on our radar in the coming period. These are some of them and deliberately very different in nature:

  • Some organizations chose to keep only the ‘vital functions or roles’ at work and to temporarily put the ‘non-vital functions or roles’ on standby. This is an interesting parallel with the fight-flight response of our body. When we feel threatened, the blood supply mainly goes to the large muscles in order to fight or flee. Our digestive system, among others, receives less blood supply in those cases. So far, the parallel. But what is the impact of this on the connectedness within the organization? Could this lead to a split in the organization that will continue to play for a longer time period and how?

  • People, who have worked at home for a long time and thus experienced the benefits of more room for self-regulation, are they willing to give up that freedom?

  • The past time has been busier than usual for many people, strange as it may sound. And certainly, for the people who were in the ‘front line’. They are looking forward to a moment of rest to catch their breath. At the same time, there is also an economic reality. From that reality, business leaders will try to make up for lost sales or backlogs as quickly as possible. From that perspective, there is no time or space to catch our breath again or is there?

  • Many managers (and employees) have noticed that it actually works without much formal guidance. Are we going to use those insights to set up the workplace in a smarter way or are managers going to take the reins back again in order to feel useful and valuable again?

  • Are we aware of the fact that there is a great fragmentation of perception on several levels? When people come back from holidays, you see that they take the time to exchange this with each other. This is a process to get back on the same page with each other. Now each employee will come back with their own story, their own experience. One has lost a loved one, the other has felt very lonely, someone else has taken this time to reflect on his career and actually wants to do something completely different and yet another is exhausted, because in addition to working from home he also had to take care of his children or teach them.

  • And what if those ‘non-vital’ roles return to the work floor and want to take up their role again? Can that happen just like that? Will their attempt to influence operational work again — for example in the case of staff or support functions — be welcomed as if nothing happened? Or do they run the risk of being blamed for suddenly interfering in everything again of for not being there when most needed?

  • Some salaried employees have noticed that the payment they now receive as being technically unemployed was almost as high or even higher than their real wages? How do they return?

  • Employees who were used working with some supervision, or who just joined the company — and really needed supervision — when the crisis exploded, come back with a kind of feeling of guilt whether they have worked (good) enough or not.

  • Nursing staff in hospitals or residential care centers have been confronted with death and the vulnerability of life in a profound way. This can get pretty messy… What safety net is available for them?

  • There are people who have lost a loved one without being able to say goodbye in a good way. Due to the lack of rituals (such as in this case attending a funeral service) saying goodbye is difficult, which also makes the mourning process more difficult. After all, mourning is necessary in order to give meaning to loss and is necessary in order to reconnect fully with life.

  • Others fear that they will be cleaned up for the umpteenth time because their employer will make cutbacks. Because, there is no doubt about that.

  • And yet others are completely led by the fear of being infected after all.

As you can deduce, from these examples, the impact of this crisis is incalculable and not to be overseen.

How could you do a debriefing in the workplace?

Based on the above, it seems particularly important to us — despite the pressure to go back and catch up — to take time to reconnect with each other and with the organization. You should preferably do this with the existing teams. By preference, not with too large groups. Such a debriefing could look like this:

  • A short introduction in which you create a clear and safe framework. If necessary, use some elements from this text and in any case start with a personal story. It is by no means a briefing in which you mainly send, you rather create an open and safe space — a holding space — in which people feel safe enough to share how they experienced things. After all, the goal is to get in touch with where people and teams are from a psycho-emotional perspective.

  • We would then give people some time to think about the following questions:

What has had an impact on you in the past period? You don’t have to limit the space for the purely professional stuff. After all, people are not ‘compartmentalized’ beings who can store their experience in separate boxes in their psyche.

What are you worried about now that we are resuming work?

What did you experience as particularly powerful or helpful during the recent period? Think about moments that felt powerful. What kind of lessons are in those moments?

What are you looking forward to?

  • Set aside enough time for everyone to come in. We think it would be advisable to take five minutes per person for such a first meeting. That means you need an hour for a team of twelve. So again, it’s advisable not to work with too large groups. In any case, keep an eye on the timing so that you can finish the session in a good way. Based on the first session you will see in what kind of state everybody is. This will allow you to schedule further follow-up moments, but more about that later.

What else can you monitor during a debriefing?

The first goal of a debriefing is to identify where everyone is — from a psycho-emotional perspective — after a major event, as mentioned earlier. However, there are also organizational elements that will show-up during a debriefing.

Everything in ‘the collective cooker’

When there is a split within an organization between the people who have been busy on the operational side and the people who have worked at home, it is necessary to pay attention to this. After all, the perception of these two groups and what they have experienced is completely different. You could think of a dialogue or a format in which these two groups discuss what they have experienced so they can open up for each other. This sharing puts everything back in the ‘the collective cooker’. This is what is necessary to recreate a sense of collectiveness. The more there is in this collective cooker, the better the subtle dynamics in and between groups can be ‘managed’.

Embracing the ‘not knowing’

Fear (and other complex emotions) about what might happen in the future will burn tons of energy. So, this energy won’t be available for organizational purposes anymore. Bringing this kind of complex — but normal in this kind of situation — emotions to the table is important if not they will have a huge impact on the dynamics between people. The aim is not brushing them away or solving them, but simply acknowledging their presence. They belong to a period with tons of ‘not knowing’. We are stepping in this liminal space altogether. By being clear about that, you normalize all the strange feelings people have in this kind of foggy zone. This will help to embrace the ‘not knowing’. Just that could help to bring the focus back on the here-and-now. Referring to Eckart Tolle, most stress is because our minds, our thoughts are in the past or in the future.

A new choreography

When restarting, also pay attention to ‘the new choreography’ resulting from the ‘1.5-meter society’. When we will start being physically present again in our offices with more and more people, how will we deal with the layout of workplaces, walking routes, the use of shared materials (such as printers and coffee machines)? What arrangements need to be taken with regard to ‘physical distancing’ about coffee breaks, lunchtimes, meetings, …? How (and who) are we going to flag situations where this distance is not (sufficiently) respected? And how do we keep in touch with the psycho-emotional of this — unnatural — way of living and working together?

Finding a new form

During a briefing you might also spot signs about tensions within or between teams or departments. That kind of information, too, is particularly relevant, not to deal with in the moment but to follow-up as a manager. At the same time, it’s also important to have an eye for the positive things, the insights gained, the opportunities showing up. After all, this crisis will also have positive side effects both on a personal and organizational level. What are these and how can they be integrated into a new way of working. The post-corona era will anyhow force us to transform a lot of our habits.

These are a number of phenomena that we could ignore in the benefit of a quick-start or we could use this emerging information to redesign the organization and fine-tune it to this new reality.

Debriefing is not a one-off, noncommittal intervention.

One of the main criticisms of making use of a debriefing after an overwhelming event, is that it is seen as a one-off, technical solution. That is why we invite you to see a debriefing as a process. Not everything can be discussed in one session, not everything comes to the surface the first time and the new post-corona reality anyhow will continue to evolve in an unpredictable way. So, regular connecting moments and mood or emotion management must become part of ‘the new normal’, both for the well-being of employees but also for the effective functioning of the organization. It would be extremely unwise to believe that the organization can simply function as it did before the crisis.

The most striking example is the following and we have heard it several times in the meantime. Employees who worked from home during the first period of the lock-down were given all the freedom and time they needed to find their bearings and many of them managed to arrange their work perfectly. At the same time, we hear that control from head office is steadily increasing again and again — sometimes because a limited number of employees had taken advantage of that acquired freedom. This is a return to the existing classical concepts, perhaps in an attempt by managers or leaders not to lose grip. So rather from an own inconvenience than from a real need. So, let’s hope that the necessary redesign of organizations will not happen ‘inspired’ by old reflexes and beliefs, but by emerging insight into what is needed now.

A restart with (at least) two dimensions.

A restart, through a crisis that is still going on, requires a short cyclical process with (at least) two dimensions:

  • One dimension is about the well-being of employees, teams, and the relational fabric of the organization. Looking through this lens, you pay attention to the psycho-emotional state of people and teams. Where does it flow and where is it (still) stuck? Where is further support needed and where do new abilities unfold?

  • The other dimension or lens is about the organization and its more structural side. To what extent is it attuned to the changing reality? Where is it okay to fall back on familiar organizational practices and where is a need for new ways of working, collaborating, organizing, …? And what is needed to allow these new forms to reach full maturity? After all, many new organizational practices are shot down before they get the chance to really show their added value.

Despite the pressure to catch up, this restart is also an invitation to slow down from time to time. If not, there is a good chance that we will ignore or even stay blind for what is trying to unfold. And chances are that — without realizing it — we will continue to carry a heavy emotional backpack in a world that just expects lightness from us. Unfortunately, this ‘cleaning up’ and ‘transforming’ can only take place if the right forums and channels have been set up. Only in this way, the system can raise up again and find its new rhythm again. What this means in terms of leadership will be discussed in our next blog.

Philippe Bailleur & Leanne Steeghs

Leanne Steeghs is the author of ‘Unlocking Systemic Wisdom

Philippe Bailleur is the author of ‘Stuck! Dealing with Organizational Trauma’.

Get a free read of the book or order the book online, Kindle or paperback.

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