Leading in challenging times: responding to the survivor syndrome & uncertainty

Leading in challenging times: responding to the survivor syndrome & uncertainty

In times of uncertainty, crisis, and an ever-growing disarray, it’s no surprise our reptilian brain—the one that goes into fight or flight mode—takes over. However, as you may know, the limbic system and its emotions have much to say, and the neocortex has a great deal to calculate, think, reflect and decide. In addition, there is a phenomenon that few recognize but is very present, which affects the ability of teams to focus and be effective: the Survivor Syndrome. 

In this article, I’m going to share with you some ideas to lead, in times like these, suggestions to face this challenge and support your employees and colleagues, activities to empower them, and practical steps you can take to shape up your team and take effective actions. Even in times of high instability and uncertainty. 

Leading in challenging times: responding to the survivor syndrome & uncertainty

What is the Survivor Syndrome?

Physical wounds are easier to heal than mental ones. During the previous crisis, many companies invested in psychological counseling and relocation of people who had been laid off. 

However, many times we forget about the survivors, people who:

  • Have to take on more responsibilities in an organization where economic or human resources are becoming scarce. 
  • Must learn to cope with some of the guilt and stress of being “chosen to stay” when others weren’t so lucky. They might feel relieved, but sometimes can’t help but wonder: “Why me and not them?”.

“There is a feeling of loss every time we need to leave the past behind, and the things we were used to.”

Fran Cherny

The organizational trauma that can result from this survivor syndrome has symptoms that are likely to be familiar to you. Some examples are:

  • Workers who have kept their jobs must work overtime in order to absorb the tasks of their former co-workers. 
  • Employees (who feel guilty) keep in touch with ex-employees (who can’t find work).
  • Employees try to prevent layoffs by taking a cut on their pay or other benefits.
  • Some feel they can be next, so they resist the measures

Ignoring this problem can have consequences, since the remaining employees will be the ones dealing with the crisis. And the question is: Are they emotionally, physically and mentally prepared to do their best? Guilt, stress and fear can influence their abilities, paralyze them and prevent them from being at their best.

How to rise up to the challenge and support your employees to help them be their best?

In these circumstances, stress (hoping that what is happening isn’t really happening) is very present in companies at all levels, and in every meeting and interaction. And for this reason, if the issue can’t be properly approached, we can unconsciously drift towards old recipes and habits based on fear, and choose “passive-aggressive” or “passive-defensive” positions. 

Now that we know what not to do, I’ll show you how to face the challenge in a constructive way, leading people to be more proactive, to move forward with resilience, integrating emotions and focusing on what they can do to improve everyone’s situation:

  • Create a safe space where people can talk about their feelings, engage in constructive dialogue and develop a collaborative emotional intelligence.
  • Find out where everyone stands using empathy, compassion, without judgment, showing our own vulnerability. 
  • Figure out what they need to be at their best and help them take action for themselves.
  • Create a future together so that they feel part of the organization, not only as employees but also as solution makers.
  • Make use of new technologies so you can take swift action based on facts, not opinions.

Empowering exercise for your employees so they can build a player mindset.

Do you want to help them build a player mindset? Do you want to empower them to think on their own and take their next best step? Let’s get on it!

  1. Always keep in mind that the objective is to guide them to find their own way to be effective with the tasks they have ahead, to gain confidence, and to feel good about themselves in such difficult times.
  2. Your emotional state and intentions are really important. Stay humble and caring.
  3. Start by validating their point of view without imposing yours, so they can gain confidence. Work on your empathy. Listen without judging. Show your understanding and compassion for what they feel they can and cannot do.
  4. Ask empowering questions: “If you had a magic wand, what would you want to happen now?” and “What can you do about it?”. A) “Based on what you have imagined, what is under your control?” “What can you influence?” “Is there anything you can do now to start moving in that direction?” B) “Is there anything you can ask anyone?” “Do you need to make any requests?”
  5. Moving from ideas to actions: Help them commit to a first step. “What could be your next move that you would commit to try?” “When will you try it?” “Can I support you in any way to try this?”

How to plan the future in the face of uncertainty?

How can we create a future together when we are still living in uncertainty and growing disarray? Can we plan and create a vision if we are yet to know how to adapt to recent changes? How can we help our team members overcome anxiety and find a path that’s beneficial to everyone?

“Planning for a future in crisis has never been more challenging or important.”

Fran Cherny

And because of that, we must change our paradigm.

I’ll show you how to create a roadmap with your team on how to do it, but keep in mind that you will have to do the exercise again and again depending on the frequency on how quickly things change (currently it’s about 60 days, given the level of disruption we have). 

  1. Understand and align common assumptions. Ask your team: “What do you think will happen in the world in the next 3 months that will affect our business?”. Allow them to discuss common assumptions that will put them to work in the same direction.  
  2. Common assumptions in task teams: Analyze how the assumptions will affect each team’s work. “How will it affect and what should you do differently to address it?”
  3. Linking our team’s needs to our leadership approach: If the team needs to do some things differently, we need to think quickly about what we need to do to make it happen. The key question is: “What should I do differently in the next two weeks to support my team and make quick changes?”

Leadership is the key to transformation, you have to #LeadToTransform

Fran Cherny

Just remember, you are the main lever to get your team up and running quickly. Leadership is the key to transformation, you have to #LeadToTransform (my motto). By doing this exercise with your team, you will provide direction, a clear sense of alignment and you will also contribute to the common strategy. You will move from uncertainty to action and help everyone feel part of the solution. Are you ready to start?

In short, the Survivor Syndrome is a threat often hidden in organizations in times of crisis and uncertainty, at times when we need everyone to do their best to move forward. You may think you have bigger problems, but what could be a bigger problem than the people in your organization not doing their absolute best to come out of the crisis together?


To delve deeper into these topics, you can read the Survivor Syndrome post series on Axialent’s website:

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In these challenging times, we can practice more of those little things that completely change how we connect with the world and people around us. Are you ready?

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