Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

Pandemics. Natural disasters. Wars. Political upheavals. Recent events have forced organizational leaders to ask what their role is when the world brings heightened levels of suffering and uncertainty. 

When the world is in turmoil, people will naturally look to those at the helm for stability, empathy, and a clear path forward. Leaders set emotion and action norms. This means that, as a leader, it is your responsibility to set the tone and take swift, thoughtful action to support your team through the chaos.

So, how do you steer your team through the turbulent tides of global crises and widespread uncertainty?

In their extensive research on compassionate leadership, Dr. Jane E. Dutton and colleagues[1] have found that compassionate leadership amidst trauma is about creating a “context for meaning”—that is, an environment in which people can give free and open expression to their questions and feelings surrounding a traumatic event. Deep pain brings existential angst. People wonder:

Why did this happen?

Could I have prevented it?

How will I cope?

What’s the greater significance of this?

Of course, leaders can’t be expected to answer these questions for people. But leaders can create a holding environment for them to be worked through. The message you want to send is something like this:

“I understand that this event raises big questions and stirs up big emotions. This is a place where you will be supported as you search for ways to make meaning and find your best strategies for coping.” 

With that in mind, let’s explore how developing this type of empathetic, action-oriented leadership is possible when facing collective trauma.

Three Key Insights to for Navigating Collective Trauma

In her TED Talk on “How to turn climate anxiety into action“, psychologist Dr. Renée Lertzman shares three vital insights that I believe hold valuable lessons for navigating collective trauma within the workplace.

1. Understand Your “Window of Tolerance”

How much stress can you tolerate before becoming dysregulated – either shutting down or responding rigidly? When we exceed our window, it inhibits our ability to be resilient and adaptive, which are crucial for taking effective action. This challenge is playing out globally, as people worldwide struggle to process the flood of distressing climate and political information.

2. Acknowledge the Double Bind

Each new piece of societal data or bad news that we take in ends up pushing us outside of our window of tolerance. We care deeply, yet also feel scared, powerless, and unsure of where to start. This “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” predicament is an intensely intolerable human experience. From the outside, this can appear as apathy or lack of motivation. As leaders, it’s important to recognize that this outward response often masks the complex emotional landscape beneath the surface. Trying to simply provide solutions or increase motivation may backfire, as it fails to address the deeper psychological factors at play.

3. Cultivate Attunement

The antidote to this double bind is attunement – the feeling of being deeply understood and accepted exactly as we are. When we can approach ourselves and others with this level of compassion, we become far more capable of solving problems, tapping into our creativity, and rising to meet challenges.

What if our workplaces, communities, and society at large adopted this framework? It starts with turning inward – being compassionate with ourselves, and understanding our own emotional landscapes. From that foundation of self-awareness, we can then attune to those around us, creating the conditions for authentic dialogue, collaborative problem-solving, and collective resilience.

As daunting as the global societal landscape may be, each of us has the capacity to meet this challenge. By first developing self-compassion, and then extending that same kindness outward, we can work together to navigate these uncharted waters. The tools are within our grasp – we need only have the courage to wield them.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.