Survivor Syndrome: Tapping into the Player Within

By Fran Cherny
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When we are facing new, difficult circumstances that we’ve never faced before, it is often much harder to respond in a constructive way. Our reptile brain unconsciously chooses between two bad options: fight or flight. Although we know this intellectually, this doesn’t mean we can get ourselves out of the trap so easily, or support others to do so.

In the article I wrote with my colleague, Thierry De Beyssac, Survivor Syndrome: Overcoming Organizational Trauma in Times of Crisis, we talked about how leaders can to respond to the current challenges in a constructive way. One of these ways is asking people what they need to be at their best, inviting them to be players and to regain control of their situation.

Survivor Syndrome: Tapping into the Player Within. Image of two business women talking

When we are in a leadership position we must challenge ourselves, not only to maintain our center, but also to be at our best to help others around us. However, many times what we see, as Constanza Busto shared in her article Survivor Syndrome: Building Bridges, is that we believe we know what needs to be done and what’s best for the other person. We can’t believe they don’t see it when, for us, it is so clear. Often, while we are thinking that about others, others are thinking the same thing about us. So, how can we escape from this unhealthy loop? For starters, as Constanza suggested, we meet people where they are, with no judgement, just making their stories and situations true and reasonable. Before we make them wrong, try making them right.

Only once that step is done, once we empathize, are we ready for the next part of the conversation. It is time to “coach them out of victimhood,” to help them connect with the player mindset. This means empowering them to think for themselves, encouraging them in a gentle and kind way, and helping them discover their next best step (just one little step) toward a new trajectory.

How do we do this?

  1. Validate their story: Make them feel safe and understood. If we could put ourselves in their shoes, we would be feeling and thinking the same thing.
  2. Ask questions that empower:
    • Help them build a small, short-term vision: “If you had a magic wand, what would be happening now?”
    • Ask “What can you do about it?”: a) Based on what you have envisioned, what is in your control? What can you influence? Is there anything you can now do to start moving in that direction? b) Is there anything you can ask someone for? Do you need to make any requests?
  3. Listen without judgement: Becoming a sounding board, coming from a place of understanding and compassion, for what they feel they can and cannot do, will make a big difference.
  4. Moving from ideas to actions: Help them commit to one “baby step” and be of service.
    • What could be your next move that you commit to try? When will you try it?
    • Can I support you in any way for you to try this?

Tapping into the Player Within

Try to follow these simple steps and remember that it’s not just the questions you ask, but from which emotional state and with what intentions you do it. Make sure you prepare to be of service from a place of humility, care, and helping others. The goal is to accompany your employees to find their own way to be effective with the tasks ahead, to gain trust in you, and feel good about themselves in such difficult times.

Remember, when a person is not at their best, the question we need to ask ourselves as leaders is: how do I choose to respond to effectively support this person to move on and be at their best? Above all, keep in mind that this is not only my choice, but my opportunity to grow and develop as a leader.

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In our next article, we will discuss how we can all create a brighter future together in the months ahead.

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