Ryan Armstrong
Change management. Learning. Maps.

An article on work, supervision, and trauma

30 June 2019

Enjoyed reading a hot-off-the-press article in Academy of Management Reviews:

Vogel, R. M., & Bolino, M. C. (2019). Recurring Nightmares and Silver Linings: Understanding How Past Abusive Supervision May Lead To Posttraumatic Stress and Posttraumatic Growth. Academy of Management Review, In Press.

Abstract and brief thoughts below:

Research on traumatic events indicates that the effects of abuse can last a lifetime. It further suggests that people who have been mistreated can grow and experience positive outcomes from their traumatic experiences. In this manuscript, we integrate theory on traumatic events, the self-concept, appraisal, and coping to develop a process model about the effects of abusive supervision after it has ended. According to our model, the more employees experience abusive supervision as extraordinary, uncontrollable, and overwhelming, the more likely they are to experience changes to the content of their self- concept, which leads to posttraumatic stress (PTS), a state characterized by alternating states of intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and hyperarousal. Relatedly, we propose that having a complex self-concept protects abused employees from experiencing PTS by diluting and segregating the self-concept content changed by abusive supervision. We identify differences in cognitive processing regarding employees’ experience and appraisal of memories associated with past abuse, arguing that these differences determine whether abused employees recover from PTS, endure prolonged PTS, or experience posttraumatic growth (PTG). Finally, we explain how prolonged PTS and PTG resulting from past abusive supervision affect employees’ personal and professional lives, thereby revealing a unique set of consequences for the abusive supervision.

There is a lot in this article that is relevant to work life.

The article centers on abusive supervision, but I wonder to what extent we are all exposed to extraordinary, uncontrollable, and potentially overwhelming situations and therefore abused in some sense. Reflecting on my own work experience I can think of a few times that felt traumatic even though I couldn’t point to a particular person. That makes me think the research could be relevant to those distributed systems as well where the (ambiguous, uncertain, conflicting, or stressful) situation is a potential source of trauma.

In any case, I certainly know several cases of trauma in the research related to Ph.D. well-being. I appreciated the authors’ proposal that we can grow from the trauma if we can learn to experience it differently:

Proposition 4: Employees experience PTG when they engage in purposive re-experiencing of the prior abusive supervision and reappraise prior abusive supervision and associated reactions as challenges.

And further they propose that this can have some positive, transformative outcomes:

Proposition 6: Employees who experience PTG from prior abusive supervision will be more likely to make radical career shifts, exhibit positive leadership behavior, and experience increased meaningfulness at work and at home.

So, I take this as that if we can reflect honestly on the potential or past trauma we could end up better off than if the trauma hadn’t happened at all. There are some fairly dire consequences discussed if we do not.

Last thought: The authors list a good deal that we can do to support positive growth. Most of these appear well within our control and in line with research on problem structuring and organizational learning: create the opportunity for safe sensemaking where we can support each other, training and practice in mindfulness, and making time for other awareness-generating activities. To end on a positive note:

...the mere awareness that growth is possible after a traumatic experience and/or having a role model who has achieved such growth can lead people toward silver linings (Cobb, Tedeschi, Calhoun, & Cann, 2006).