Healing social trauma through developing transformative hope Part 1

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

I have been wondering what I had to say about the COVID-19 pandemic, and our response to it. I was struggling with my visions of possible futures — what I thought might emerge from the broken dreams of the present.

Photo by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash

Nothing was coming to me….nothing was clear…then I heard a media commentator refer to the trauma that most organisations (and people) in our capitalist system are experiencing and that this would need to be healed post-pandemic before we could move forward and then I had it, I can help with this!

I have spent the past 20 years or so working with organisations who were in some type of trauma. My ability to pick those I could actually help — that weren’t too far gone — is my super power. Working out what interventions could be put in place to try and tip their system into a healthier, more humane operating model has been my goal. I have learned lessons, gained insights and had failures along the way. Most recently, I have understood what it takes to overcome social trauma, re-build relationships and re-set for a new, desired future direction. I think what I have learned could be useful over the next few months, so I am sharing it here.

The current structure of most organisations is based on 20th century (or earlier) ideas of what works. This means that most are not fit for the 21st century conditions in which they are operating. As structure drives behaviour in social systems, this often results in cultures and interpersonal relationships that are working against future adaptability. The felt experience of working in such a situation can lead to trauma for teams and individuals. This may be at a low level — frustration with leadership and decision making, where trauma develops over a long period as stressors build up or it can be at a high level with bullying, toxic cultures and political grandstanding resulting in acute trauma.

A month ago, I imagine most people would have read the paragraph above and maybe agreed and moved on. The trauma of the past few weeks across the globe has highlighted the lack of planned organisational adaptability, the poor levels of leadership in companies (and in politics) and the central role work plays for people in assisting them to weather shocks such as a global pandemic. It has also shown us high levels of individual adaptability, the centrality of personal relationships and the effort it takes to learn new skills.

I think that if we do not meet people where they are, aim to heal the trauma inflicted by unfit structures, group behaviours and assumptions, we will not be able to successfully resurrect our organisations post this pandemic.

Transformative Hope

Hope is a concept which is central to human existence. It is large and inspirational enough to make people want to survive hell on earth, such as concentration camps, and small and pragmatic enough to be used in an individualistic sense, as in ‘I hope I can find a car park’. To talk about hope and the future is to bring a positive, proactive stance to human development and action. Rather than a ‘lets wait and see’ attitude, we can focus on a mechanism which can assist people to be driven to ‘let’s do it’.

The rising levels of complexity and uncertainty in the globalised world make a view of the future, whether positive or negative, vital for organisational survival. It is the capacity to see wider, deeper, and further which will deliver competitive advantage (of whatever type) to profit makers, but is also of prime importance to other organisational types. Having the capacity to leverage the potential of human capital within an organisational context is the only non-replicable competitive strength available to businesses. In a capitalist world, it is tacit knowledge that adds value to data.

The need for Transformative Hope is reflected in the presumption that, in general, the world is becoming worse place to exist rather than a better one; that our children will not have the same opportunities that current generations enjoy. Environmental changes; wealth differentials; levels of depression and suicide; instances of corporate misbehaviour; and reduction in the strength of social contracts, to name but a few, lead to the extrapolation of either a dystopian future view in the tradition of Blade Runner or The Matrix; or an optimistic ‘technology will save us’, trans-humanist perspective.

Some people, however, are embracing a more positive vision of what is possible, one which makes the moral and values base of futures images explicit and empowers individuals to act in a manner which enhances the collective good. A combination of foresight capacity, design thinking, adaptive cultures, shared images of the future and Hope Theory has the transformational capacity to move organisations, and the people within them, to an active empowered construction of their preferred future state. This approach has been the basis of my work in organisations.

What is Hope Theory?

Hope Theory was developed by Professor CR Snyder and has been the basis of research for more than 30 years. Hope comprises of three interrelated parts — goal pursuit, pathways thinking and will power/agency. Hope works in the following manner: firstly, you have an existing level of Hope based on your previous positive and negative experiences of successful goal pursuit. As you think about a new goal you give it an importance ranking relative to your current activities. You will then begin to think about the different ways you might achieve the goal (pathways thinking) and how keen or confident you feel about achieving those (will power/agency). During this thought process, if the level of effort and energy required to achieve the goal does not match or outweigh the goal’s importance to you, you will drop it as a goal.

Once your goal pursuit has begun, feedback loops begin to develop through the process of pathways thinking and will power. Having attained (or not) the goal which was pursued, emotional energy (positive or negative) will flow back through the process to inform the next pursuit. So a successful goal pursuit will reinforce your belief in your ability to pursue future goals.

Research has found that Hope has a strong future orientation “as a positive future is made more likely by goal directed thoughts and actions occurring in the present moment”. (Shorey et al 2002, p326)

Using hope to achieve shared futures

Images of the future are used by humans to orient themselves in time by holding their future hopes and dreams and behaving in accordance with them. This natural ability to think in scenarios and hold future goals as a guide for present behaviour is present in most people and is central to undertaking foresight or futures activities. Shared futures exist where individuals agree to act to bring about an image of the future.

Creating a shared future takes time and energy, and the foresight and futures studies field has many tools and techniques through which this can be achieved. Once a future view is shared, organisations and the people who work in them, can generate purpose alignment through embodying this future view. At the organisational level, most often we see these shared futures in mission or vision statements. Communities can also develop shared futures, these will turn up in engagement processes with government, or in small groups that want to make change. This type of work has been my focus since the mid-2000s.

My interest over the past 18 months or so has been to find out whether creating shared futures can be used to improve organisational trauma at the team level. My observations about the lack of fit between most organisations and the external environment, with the resulting outcomes for teams and individuals, has led me to develop an approach to try and improve the situation. I initially worked this into digital transformation programs I was running, then into a change management approach. Most recently, I have used it in an intervention at the team level, to improve working relationships and deliver better services internally.

My experience is that in situations of organisational trauma individuals in groups are able to take the hope approach (set goals, plan pathways and willpower) and combine it with a shared view of a preferred future, for that group, to create outcomes that would have otherwise been inconceivable.

The work I have done in organisations always starts with some kind of trauma or mismatch between the interior capacities of the group and what the external environment requires of it. Creating shared purpose through developing a preferred future view is one part of the solution, the other is to increase each individual’s ability to set goals, plan pathways and learn to achieve outcomes.

Additional foundations

I take a bricolage approach to my practice, building up a toolkit of frameworks and tools over time to meet the challenges and opportunities I have faced as leader and consultant.

For the Transformative Hope process I utilised a number of ideas and approaches. Much has been written on each of these, so I will point you in the right direction rather than summarising here.

Human centred design — I use the design approach as taught by Stanford — you can see a bootleg version here

Stanford process

Co-creation — this approach does innovation with people rather than to them. It is loosely based on the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum with this form of engagement down the collaborate and empower end of the spectrum. Being very clear with the group which decisions they will have power over and which will be taken by others.

Jobs to be done — based on the work of Clayton Christensen, this approach to understanding customers looks to find out what what an individual really seeks to accomplish in a given circumstance. There are pain and gain points which can be surfaced and responded to via services.

“A Job to be Done is the process a consumer goes through whenever she aims to change her existing life-situation into a preferred one, but cannot because there are constraints that stop her.”

Adaptive cultures — culture is something that needs to be consciously curated to match the external environment faced by an organisation. Cultures are living systems and can be engaged with to evolve (or devolve). Find more information here.

“If we accept that the world is constantly changing and evolving, the implication is that we need to find a way for organisations, as well as individuals, to constantly develop and grow in order to meet the challenges these changes present.”

Servant leadership — based on the work of Robert Greenleaf , this is a stance towards leadership for the growth and well-being of the people you are leading.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

Vertical leadership development — I like the work of Nick Petrie at the Centre for Creative Leadership (opens pdf) in this space.

“In a VUCA world, everything is interconnected and no one can predict what big changes are coming next. Leaders who are equal to the task are those who can deal with constant ambiguity, notice the key patterns amongst the noise, and look at the world through multiple stakeholder perspectives. These are both the types of capabilities that flourish at more advanced stages of development and those that produce outstanding leadership in complex times.”

I also like the approach taken by Jennifer Garvey Berger and her simple habits in the leadership space.

“Leaders need to connect at a human level as well as at a system level, to make sense of grief, anxiety, anger, desperation. Leading at the edge of chaos means understanding the many ways humans interact with chaos — the whole range of those who find themselves more able, more helpful, more connected and those who find themselves more protective, more self-oriented, and more isolated. Leaders need to communicate clearly and empathically; they need to repeat their message again and again, and they need to listen deeply to what’s going on for others.”

Part 2 of this piece will outline how transformative hope has worked in practice and suggest some steps for organisations and communities post the COVID-19 pandemic.

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