In the past year and a half, many organizations may have felt like they were at war. They have sustained casualties, resources are low, and the troops are exhausted. With the glimmer of better economic times on the horizon, these beleaguered organizations may be tempted to forget about the past. Yet research shows that it is crucial to debrief the shaken troops now or pay the consequences later.
Much of existing scientific knowledge regarding recovery comes from the military. Dr. James Loehr has studied data showing that soldiers who face crushing trauma and extraordinary levels of stress often became completely nonfunctional. The technical term for this condition is “parasympathetic backlash.” When a person faces unremitting, extreme stress for a protracted period, the parasympathetic nervous system shuts down all physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy systems to force recovery. You might recognize one aspect of this response by the more generalized term “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The darkest part of this response is severe depression.
With the loss of jobs, wealth, homes and self-esteem, our workforces have experienced similar trauma. Those still employed often feel misplaced guilt that they still have jobs while others do not. According to Lt. Col. David Grossman, fear of death and injury is not the principal cause of psychological damage from battlefield experience. Instead, it is the fears of letting others down and of failing to meet obligations that most haunt soldiers.
The corporate parallel to this is the immense pressure employees feel to provide for their families, contribute to their communities and live up to societal expectations. Layoffs, reductions in the labor force, business closures and early retirements can stimulate guilt, shame and a debilitating sense of loss in both those who leave the workforce and those who remain.
Even in less difficult circumstances, fatigue from heavy workloads and serious responsibilities can result in an energy shutdown during “off” hours. This sudden avalanche of involuntary recovery, manifested in bouts of physical exhaustion, is often interpreted by family and friends as a lack of interest, commitment or engagement. In fact, it is a backlash of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Gen. George Patton once said: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” One of the most effective solutions Patton and other more contemporary commanders have found to deal with “battle fatigue” is the post-battle assessment debriefing. Functional capacity expands significantly and resiliency increases after appropriate debriefings. Grossman said the objective of these sessions is to separate and disengage the link between the meaning and memory of an event from its associated emotional arousal. This is achieved by focusing the briefing on a factual and respectful account of the events that occurred.
Some of the essential conditions for the debriefing include:
1. Conducting it as soon after battle as possible with small intact teams.
2. Clear ground rules for constructive contribution by team members.
3. Factual accounting of actions and implications.
4. No semblance of status or rank differentiation.
5. Diffusion of shame or embarrassment by providing low-key, genuine affirmation of all present and lost.
6. Respectful acceptance and acknowledgement of emotions without focusing on them in an unhealthy way, since that could link them negatively to the memory of battle events.
7. Not affixing blame, but rather solving the problems and focusing on lessons learned for future implementation.
The objective of the post-battle debriefing is to create a break from emotional rumination associated with traumatic events of the past. The facilitator must help the group acknowledge the reality, honor each other, make peace with memories and move forward to identify appropriate ways to think and act in a constructive manner. This approach has proven essential not only for combat veterans, but also for people involved in a variety of demanding situations similar to today’s business climate. When the debriefing is done poorly or not at all, the resulting backlash can be debilitating.
It is tempting to smooth over or ignore the challenges of the past. But consider what we have learned about recovery from the military and equip your leaders to facilitate debriefings in which people learn from their experiences and build resilience and momentum for recovery.