Trauma from the past can block positive and creative work environments in the present, reducing an organization’s capacity to survive and thrive in the future. Leaders can help change that dynamic.
Defining Trauma In The Workplace
When we hear the word trauma, we often think of extreme abuse, neglect, or a horrific accident in which the impact of these experiences is personal and doesn’t belong in the workplace. Trauma, however, runs deep and wide on a spectrum that we are all a part of and affects every aspect of our lives, including our work and how we run our businesses around the world.
Past traumatic and adverse experiences may lead to behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and sensations that block well-being, creativity, and trusting relationships. In essence, we stop growing and adapting. The lasting effects of trauma include depression, anxiety, sleep issues, hyper-vigilance, and emotional dysregulation.
At Switch On Leadership, we have developed a theory of change called Bio-Transformation. One of our principles is what we call “protective patterns.” These patterns can show up in the workplace in behavior that is either inappropriately aggressive — such as bullying, abusive, and manipulative behaviors — or passive, such as dissociation or people-pleasing. People develop trauma-driven protective patterns that once helped them feel safe, and now lead to problems in the workplace, diminishing psychological safety, team trust, collaboration and effectiveness. These four qualities are necessary for employees and leaders to be adaptive, innovative, and collaborative.
Lacking ways to transform trauma, or at least be aware of and informed about the dynamics of it, teams and organizations become overwhelmed and lose their competitive edge. Simply put, trauma from the past can block positive and creative work environments in the present, reducing an organization’s capacity to survive and thrive in the future.
The Importance of Trauma-Informed Leadership
Trauma-informed leadership is crucial for adaptive and innovative company cultures for two key reasons. First, trauma-informed leaders are aware of their own protective patterns, take ownership of them, and work to transform them. This gives employees permission to also be vulnerable to “works-in-progress” and demonstrates to everyone that the organization has a human-centric, psychologically safe, and responsible working environment. Secondly, trauma-informed leaders can help diagnose the underlying causes of repeated team dysfunctions and help unblock the trauma-driven protective patterns that are leading to distrust, aggression, complacency, conflict, and lack of motivation and adaptability.
By developing trauma-informed leadership, leaders can unlock the positive energy and untapped potency of their employees, including:
- Better health and well-being. This reduces hours lost to sickness, stress, and attrition while increasing the organization’s ability to attract and retain the most creative and motivated talent.
- Caring and reciprocal relationships. These cultivate a sense of belonging, support, and trust, which are all crucial for overcoming challenges and anxieties around innovation and business transformation.
- High-performing and resilient teams. Such teams deliver sustained high performance without burnout as they are better able to understand the signs of overwhelm and take preventative action. Resilient teams also deal with competing demands, conflicts, and intense challenges in effective and appropriate ways.
Challenges of Implementing Trauma-Informed Leadership
In our experience, large organizations are becoming interested in trauma-informed workplaces and developing trauma-informed leaders. Yet moving from interest to implementation is by no means easy. Some key challenges we have found in implementing trauma-informed leadership:
- Trauma is a profoundly challenging topic for anyone to discuss, particularly in workplaces that have for decades been focused on “businesslike” behavior. Trauma can bring up uncomfortable emotions in facilitators and participants in the workplace. Trauma-informed leadership and team development need to give people permission to be fully human without it descending into group therapy. They also must hold safe yet brave spaces where difficult emotions and memories can be processed, either in the workshop or through follow-up professional support outside the workplace.
- There is a world of difference between companies that cognitively understand what trauma is and how it shows up at work and those who make it a priority to integrate embodied practices and transformational tools that support people to grow and lead to the desired change leaders want to see in their companies. We need embodied and trauma-informed practitioners and coaches who can provide leaders with tools, practices, theories, and safe experiences that engage the psychology and biology of people. There must be a commitment from leadership to put these into practice throughout the organization.
- Senior leaders have historically been trained, expected, and paid to be right and in control. To be trauma-informed, they must learn to demonstrate vulnerability, tenderness, curiosity, and openness. They must be comfortable with not knowing the answer and with discussing “messy” and often unsettling feelings and memories.
- Organizations can make the mistake of thinking trauma-informed leadership should only be developed with senior managers. Instead, all managers and leaders, from up-and-coming talent to board directors, should be encouraged to cultivate these skills.
- There can be a generational divide between Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. Generally, younger generations tend to be more familiar with everyday personal development practices and, therefore, more comfortable with well-being interventions like yoga, breath work, and mindfulness.
How to Become a trauma-informed leader
We need to shift a couple of beliefs about what this means. Becoming a trauma-informed leader isn’t a linear process with an end. It is not a course where you listen to an expert for a day and earn a certificate at the end. People tend to resist the idea that our “operating systems” are non-linear, dynamic and will always need tending to because it takes time, patience, forgiveness, and a lot of compassion for ourselves and others, ticking off accomplishments and moving on to the next thing.
Instead, becoming a trauma-informed leader is a non-linear transformational process. We either choose to engage in it every day or not. It doesn’t start and stop at work, either. It becomes a completely different way of perceiving, thinking, acting, feeling, relating, and communicating in every moment of our lives. As a result, relationships with our friends and families, as well as colleagues, begin to change, along with what we value and prioritize.
Creating a Trauma-Informed Environment — Best Practices
Integration is key to the effectiveness of embodied practices and tools. There is no point in having an expert come in and talk about trauma-informed leadership if the company culture doesn’t create time and space to implement these practices and incentivize potential outcomes where workers are valued as human beings first.
It’s vital that the whole organization, not just the C-suite and senior leaders, become trauma-informed to create cohesion, a common language and practices, and policies that support a safe and inclusive environment. An environment in which people feel supported, appreciated, valued, and safe to ask questions and express themselves fully is crucial. Trauma-informed leaders cultivate this kind of space by asking questions such as:
- How can I best support you right now?
- Are you available to receive feedback right now? If not, when works for you?
- Do you feel safe to fully communicate and share your questions and ideas?
Additionally, leaders ask themselves questions such as:
- How can we create an environment that nurtures overall health & well-being?
- Do we have a work culture that feels psychologically safe for everyone?
- Does everyone feel equally valued as a human being first here?
- How can we cultivate more trusting relationships in our company?
The Future of Trauma-Informed Leadership
In the future, we will have more scientific knowledge of how the nervous system works, how trauma and adverse experiences affect us, and how we can heal, transform, and develop from the inside out as transformational leaders. My vision is that our education systems fully integrate the knowledge, practices, and tools to pave the way for profound systemic change in the future of work. This can lead to a future where the individuals running our companies never experience burnout, depression, overwhelm, or suffer from chronic anxiety; where businesses are purpose-led; and where all of the business models, policies, procedures, and incentives are transformed by heart-led leaders.
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About the Author: Alison McAulay is a former Team USA elite gymnast, professional dancer, and choreographer in Los Angeles and San Francisco; she has a BA in Performing Arts and advanced training in trauma-informed therapies, including Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, ACT, Attachment Theory, and Kundalini Yoga. With this wealth of knowledge and experience transforming hearts and minds, she has spent many years working with her Switch On Leadership co-founder to unfold the Self-to-System™ leadership method. She is a groundbreaking leadership development theorist and practitioner, executive coach, and trauma-based therapist. Her mission is to re-humanize businesses — and their teams and cultures — by expanding the consciousness, compassion, creativity, and capabilities of senior leaders and the team members they lead. McAulay is the co-founder and Chief Learning Officer of the boutique leadership consultancy Switch On Leadership. In this role, she is a coach and advisor to CEOs and teams at organizations like Syngenta, Zalando, Citizen, and LEGO. To work with Alison McAulay, visit SwitchOnLeadership.com.
By Alison McAulay