Transformative Adaptation: Extending Psychosocial Safety From The Board Room To The Family Room
As we emerge from the physical and psychological confines of the pandemic, it's important for families around the globe to manifest healthy adaptations to the stresses and disruptions of the last four years.
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As a social scientist constantly looking for trends in global mental health, I've been eagerly awaiting data relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on our individual and global well-being. While we've heard the term "unprecedented" repeated ad nauseum over the last four years in relation to the chronic stresses that have come our way, we've heard little about the highly precedented capacity of human beings when confronted with chronic stressors to evolve into more adaptive states of individual and collective well-being.
Over the last six months, I've begun to see evidence of transformative adaptation occurring amoungst my high performance and highly successful patients and clients. This recent shift has given me a renewed sense of hope that power, when expanded into responsible, empathetic, and compassionate hands, can repair the multitude of individual and global pathologies that plague the people we love, and the communities to which we are privileged to belong.
In my book, Fragile Power: Why Having Everything is Never Enough (Hazelden, 2019), I set forth a new paradigm for treating people of wealth and power for a host of mental health and relational disorders. The work has been widely used to enable family businesses resolve relational conflicts that limit their financial and emotional well-being. One of the things I'm most proud of about the book's release and distribution is in how it has found a deep resonance in collective cultures that value family coherence and traditional values. In this context, the book has enabled family businesses to build on their traditional values to expand the construct of psychological safety from the realm of corporate environments into the realm of family governance and holistic family well-being.
In her best-selling book, The Fearless Organization, Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmonson describes psychological safety as "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." In my work as a family therapist, I've extended Dr. Edmonson's definition from the board room to the family room by substituting the word "family" for the word "team." The net result is an expanded description of psychological safety that enlarges the construct from entrepreneurial success measured in quantitative values to a hybrid model that adds qualitative values measured in high relational functioning in the calculation of success.
That psychological safety adds value in the corporate realm is well established. According to McKinsey & Company, "when employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences," organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity and adapt well to change. In an identical fashion, families whose members feel safe enough to ask for help, respectfully challenge entrenched generational patterns and freely share their opinions without fear of being harshly criticized or silenced are able to successfully negotiate disruptions and setbacks.
One example from my clinical practice involved an Indian family living in Dubai whose eldest and Oxford-educated daughter had felt dismissed and silenced for decades when she offered up an opinion as to the direction of their family business. The family business, a textile concern, had seen its revenues consistently diminish for the past two decades as competitors, savvy in attracting younger clientele willing to pay premium prices for socially conscious products, infiltrated its customer base.
I discovered the unhealthy dynamic as I was working with the family to find culturally competent and clinically effective treatment options for a middle son who's debilitating depression prevented him from functioning in the world. In interviewing the family about its dynamics, I quickly found that all three children in the family felt dismissed and unsafe to be anything but "yes-men and -women" to the family patriarch. The net result of this dynamic yielded a daughter who was highly angry at her parents, a middle son who could barely get out of bed, a younger son who was completely detached from the family and living the life of a playboy in an expensive Parisian flat, and a business that seemed doomed to demise.
Moving this family in a reparative direction by creating an environment of psychological safety was not a process that occurred overnight. It was a slow and steady process that ensued over 18 months, and it involved the four distinct but inter-related steps outlined below:
1. Inventory the family's intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics As a licensed mental health professional, I entered the family as a trusted advisor ethically obligated to hold confidences, facilitate productive conversations, identify unhealthy and dismissive patterns of relating, and foster healthier interactions. In this position, I gathered information from individual family members that they had not been comfortable openly sharing before.
2. Create a strategic plan that was highly structured and outcome-focused Based on the family data gathered, I identified patterns and prioritized issues that needed to be clinically and systemically addressed. From these priorities, I set out a strategic plan to engage the family in new ways of relating based on psychological safety, rather than fear of rejection and reprisal.
3. Work in a safe and contained frame to educate the family on existing relational patterns, and give them the opportunity to engage in healthier, more productive ways of relating While some of the work can occur from a distance over technology, the initial work is most effective when done in person over a predetermined period of time. Towards this end, the family and I committed to meeting together at a resort in Bodrum, Turkey for a weekend where we came together to work on difficult issues, as well as spending time together in recreational activities. During this time, each family member was able to state their truth, and have it heard and held.
4. Engage in semiannual checkups to ensure the family is not relapsing back into old and toxic relational dynamics The nature of reparative relational work is that it occurs over time, and in a non-linear fashion. Lasting change occurs incrementally in advances and retreats. Accordingly, families must commit to the process over a period of time, and be willing to tolerate the discomfort that growth entails.
As we emerge from the physical and psychological confines of the pandemic, it's important for families around the globe to manifest healthy adaptations to the stresses and disruptions of the last four years. One of the best ways families can do this is by extending the construct of psychological safety from the board rooms of their businesses to the family rooms of their homes.
While the extension may meet with resistance from older generations who cling to their power out of fear and genuine concern for the well-being of their children, the net outcome will be a family that can innovate quickly and adapt well to change. As this relates to the family I described above, through the course of our work together, the daughter was able to express her opinions freely, support them with case studies from her time at The University of Oxford, and assume a leadership role in the family business.
While it took some time for the business to recalibrate on new realities, it ultimately reclaimed a highly profitable position in a highly competitive field. More important, perhaps, was the recovery of the son who suffered from depression, and the rejoining of the family by the son who was estranged. These two individuals found their place in the family as authentic and autonomous souls, united in a repaired and higher functioning family.