Trauma Informed Leadership

I want to take some time to talk about trauma-informed leadership. If you have any experience leading or managing a team, you know the challenges that come with it. It can be thankless and frustrating work that calls for a tall order of resilience. You’ve got to inspire people, deal with toxic personalities, build team morale, manage chronic poor performers and so much more.

Business is about results. We want people who do their job well and help the organization meet its goals. The priority is hiring the right talent, recruiting top performers, and getting poor-performers to either shape up or get out.

Improving Your Teams Performance with a Trauma-Informed Approach

So, what happens when your top performers suddenly stop meeting their goals? What happens when your star employee loses a loved one? What happens when a toxic personality is undermining your authority?  How do you successfully manage your team and employees to maintain excellent performance when a trauma has taken place?

Though we’ve become slightly more holistic as a society in our views of work, we still have a long way to go, when it comes to integrating emotional literacy in the workplace. I’m here to ask: What if approaching leadership with a trauma-informed lens is key to improving your team’s performance, and your own professional life?

According to SAMHSA’s concept of a trauma-informed approach, “A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed:

  1. Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  2. Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  3. Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  4. Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.”

Your employees are human beings. You are a human being.  We don’t turn into robots when we show up for work in the morning. And we certainly don’t leave all our emotional baggage at the door. Let’s go back, for a moment, to the situations listed at the beginning of this article that can cause trauma – remember?  “abuse of power”, “betrayal of trust”, “entrapment”, helplessness, pain, confusion, and/or loss, prolonged neglect and/or abuse.

Let me ask you: have you experienced one of those circumstances? Do you think that your employees have experienced one of those circumstances? The chances are pretty high, right? And because the chances that you or your team will be in one of those circumstances is high, it’s likely that you or your team may be traumatized in their lifetime.

Consider the lives of your team; imagine how they grew up, imagine what events may have happened in their life that caused them pain or fear or shame. Imagine how these traumas may be affecting how they show up each day at work in their role.

To be clear, having a trauma-informed approach is not diagnosing or psycho-analyzing yourself or your team. Having a trauma-informed approach is not asking your employees to tell you about their traumatic experiences.

The key to the trauma – informed approach is recognizing one simple fact: When we are holding onto un-processed trauma, we can’t show up as our full, true selves.

Remember: the very essence of trauma is that a traumatizing event causes the system to be unable to integrate the emotions of that experience into the SELF. Un-healed trauma can show up in many ways from procrastination, to fear of authority figures, to high absentee-ism, to strife and undermining patterns. Approaching leadership with mindfulness of trauma helps us see others, and ourselves, with more empathy.  It gives us the ability to be curious about what causes our employees to behave they way they do. Empathy leads to stronger and healthier communication. Healthy communication with your team means that collaboration and engagement are more likely.

You may be thinking: “It’s not my responsibility to process the trauma of my employees. I’m a manager, not a therapist”.  You are absolutely right about that! You’re not a therapist, and you certainly can’t heal your employees or process their trauma for them. That is up to them.  But, you are responsible for creating a healthy, integrated working environment where your employees feel empowered to meet their goals. This is what EIS capitalizes on and why.

Key Questions

Trauma Informed Leadership Asks: What may have happened to this person? Instead of: What’s wrong with this person?
Trauma Informed Leadership Asks: How is my unprocessed trauma affecting how I lead my team?
Trauma Informed Leadership Asks: How can I create a space that supports trauma recovery?
Trauma Informed Leadership Asks: How can prevent overwhelm, shame, and blame in my leadership?

Trauma Informed Leadership Asks: How have I judged my team, when I could have shown grace?

Working With Your Own Trauma

As leaders in organizations, we need to ask ourselves how our own personal traumas may cause us to show up at work. Consider your own life. Stop and think about the experiences in your life that caused you immense pain, could you be dealing with un-processed trauma? How is that trauma causing you hindrances in your own leadership?

If you’ve identified areas where trauma is holding you back, the best advice I can give you is to seek treatment with a qualified therapist or counselor that has experience with treating trauma.  Take a moment to breathe and exercise some self-compassion. Know that when you begin processing your stuck trauma, you’re on your way to becoming a more empathetic and effective leader.


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