I got a suitcase, I take it everywhere I go
People I got a suitcase, I take it everywhere I go
It’s a big old bag of trouble, trouble’s all I know
There’s a great Keb Mo song called Suitcase. It’s about the baggage we bring to our relationships, but it’s also a good metaphor for what we bring to our workplaces. Although in a place like Afghanistan or other conflict/post-conflict zone, bringing a shipping container full of emotions, unprocessed experiences, beliefs and values is more like it. A lot has been written about cross-cultural communication, but I’d like to say a few words about emotion and trauma.
Most of us have a poor understanding of how emotions work. I somehow got through five years in Afghanistan without ever consciously addressing this issue. However, as a parent of two toddlers, I had to reach out for resources so I could understand why my kids were hitting, unable to listen, and challenged with some kinds of learning. A few basic principles emerged from my research (which I largely credit to Patty Wipfler) that have entirely changed my perspective. The basic notion is that people (no matter what age) thrive, work and learn best in the context of relationships characterized by safety, acceptance and connection. When people begin to heal from their emotional hurts (often by expressing tears of futility for what they have experienced), their minds become freer for learning and their hearts open to cooperation. This sounds pretty basic, but northern management ideology is simply not set up to understand this. The One Minute Manager just isn’t going to cut it in a conflict/post conflict society.
In Afghanistan, ethnic, gender and domestic violence has left almost everyone feeling unsafe, rejected and disconnected. People fall, often unconsciously, into victim and abuser behavior patterns. Culturally, Afghans tend to deal with their turbulent experiences by silence and stoicism, and repression of their feelings. This often manifests as contempt for the expression of feelings in general. If this weren’t dire enough, add to this situation the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Research has shown that women are twice as likely to develop PTSD as men. However, after violent conflict, almost everyone is left with PTSD to some extent.
We often think of PTSD as frightening flashbacks or nightmares—and those are key symptoms. More subtle and pervasive symptoms are emotional numbness, feelings of disconnection from other people, difficulty cooperating, memory disturbance, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal and loss of interest in normal activities, feelings of hopelessness and lack of future, irritability, paranoia, and depression (for more information, visit the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Association). Sounds heavy. It is. Just reading what I’ve written reminds me why I avoided the issue for so long. But it certainly explains a lot of the office politics, staff behavior, and so-called ‘competency’ issues I witnessed as a manager of various teams in Afghanistan. It also offers a partial explanation for why local staff can lack deep engagement in interventions designed to assist the marginalized and suffering. They haven’t been able to connect with their own suffering!
So what to do? PTSD requires specialized treatment—sadly, often not available in reconstruction efforts. Expatriate and local managers aren’t therapists, nor should they put themselves in that role. But I’ve come to believe that there is something we can and should do about all of this. All the treatment programs for PTSD I’ve seen revolve around one concept: compassion. As managers, we don’t need any special training to develop basic compassion for people that have gone through trauma–this modeling allows them to develop compassion for themselves. However, in order to awaken our compassion, we need to become conscious of our own feelings, and the values and beliefs we bring in our briefcase to work every day.
I’m stunned that none of the projects I’ve worked on—including those with massive budgets—have provided staff with training or resources on PTSD, stress management programs, bullying awareness, or access to counseling. I believe that development and reconstruction projects can and should adapt their overall expectations—from workplans and organograms to training and meeting procedures–to better meet the needs of staff and project clients with PTSD. This would be greatly facilitated by donor awareness and support.
I’ve searched for information in this area, and have yet to come up with easy-to-use resources. Noreen Tehrani is one specialist who has written about PTSD in the workplace, and additional research will likely uncover more. I plan to focus on this issue and offer more resources, so stay tuned. In the meantime, practice management by walking around and awaken your understanding and compassion.