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Why Trauma-Informed Leadership Is Imperative

Updated: Jun 20, 2023


trauma-informed leadership
Trauma limits possibilities and the imagination because it locks the brain into certain assumptions about what is likely to happen. Even if it the trauma is inherited, passed down your blood lineage, or even if it has been experienced by a group you belong to, perhaps professionally or socially—trauma can have this effect. All of that trauma builds up not just inside individuals, but in our neighborhoods, communities, and institutions, inside of our country. —Zach Norris, We Keep Us Safe.

As leaders, we are responsible for the physical and psychological safety of everyone within our organization. And yet, we are living through a period of unprecedented disruption and change. According to Yale Climate Connections, the U.S. experienced 18 billion-dollar disasters in 2022 alone, and 30 percent of Americans cite climate change as a reason to relocate in 2023. Violence is also on the rise with 647 mass shootings in 2022. Sadly, that trend continues in 2023. We are living in the most politically divisive society in modern history. In the backdrop of these extraordinary difficulties, 50 million Americans are suffering with mental illness and only half receive treatment. And 62 percent of American workers have high levels of stress with extreme fatigue. Creating safety in the workplace is becoming increasingly challenging and important.


Everyone has experienced various degrees of trauma in their lives. However, the world is in an uneasy state, and we engage daily with these turbulent experiences directly and indirectly via news and social media channels or a disagreement in the workplace. While we want to know what is happening in our city and around the world, we carry these stories in our minds and bodies and then into our workplaces, communities, and homes.


While we may not be able to control the media headlines, we can create a workplace culture where everyone on our team feels and knows they are welcomed and belong. When we situate this in the context of the adversity that is ever-present, this means we need a trauma-informed approached to creating belonging in the workplace.


A Trauma-Informed Approach to Leadership


“Traumatic incidents and stressors can happen when we least expect them, and they can have a profound impact on individuals, teams, and organizations. We are living through an era of human history that is wrought with adversity, disruption, and change. Many of us living in the United States, and around the world, have experienced the traumatic effects associated with disasters, loss, workplace and community violence, civil unrest, and a global pandemic,” conveys Dr. Betty Iglesias Snyder in a recent webinar.


More than ever before, leadership development is critical to ensure a psychologically and physically safe environment for employees and other stakeholders visiting our places of work. As leaders, our responsibilities have been evolving since March 2020 and must extend beyond just achieving business goals. To focus only on goals and the not the well-being of each employee is organizational neglect.


Creating and sustaining a culture of dignity where everyone thrives should be a top priority, therefore employee wellness should be placed on organizational dashboards also. It means demonstrating compassion, respect, and dignity to everyone, which extends to oneself as a leader.


While employee assistance programs might serve a specific need for team members, unless a company is monitoring these programs, there is no way of knowing whether employees are receiving timely and/or appropriate services to address specific needs. Companies pay for services on employee behalf; therefore, a company liability extends to the failure of outsource services also.


But employees experiencing workplace trauma is another matter. As leaders, our skills portfolio should include understanding trauma in the workplace and how to respond to situations when they arise, such as the following:

  • An employee is upset about not receiving a raise, promotion, or transfer, especially if expecting to receive one. Any of these advancements impact not only the individual, but their family. Their family might include a spouse, children, and parents. It might also include unexpected debt as a result of COVID, and they were counting on a pay increase to help resolve financial issues, which might include losing their home. There is no way for a leader to know these factors from employees who desire to keep their personal lives private. But the employee carries this weight every day.

  • An employee is being harassed/threaten in the workplace but attempting to resolve it alone with no success. They have been trying not to disrupt leadership or other team members and/or work environment, just do their job.

  • An employee just lost a close family member (parent, childhood guardian, cousin, or even a pet) in a tragic, unexpected circumstance. They take time off, but clearly need more time.

  • An employee loves the work they are doing but has expressed to others and/or leadership that their leader’s aggressions, such as ignoring them when trying to participate in meetings, using stereotypes when talking about different cultures, or denying aggressive behavior when brought to the leader’s attention.

  • The community is impacted by a mass shooting or weather-related event that causes widespread physical and emotional injury to the community.


Trust that this is not the first-time employees have had these encounters. An incident can retraumatize people, especially when the inclusive, open workplace on display during an interview does not match what is happening now. Leaders need to be in constant relationship with their staff, so they truly know them and have authentic relationship with them.


According to Gallup’s 2022 “State of the Global Workplace,” stress is at an all-time high. Traumatic stress overwhelms people's ability to cope, leading to exhaustion, burnout, and eventually even deteriorating behavioral and physical health. This, of course, has a direct impact on creativity, performance, psychological safety, productivity, and everyone’s overall ability to thrive personally and professionally.


Trauma-Informed Leadership Skills Development


Workplace Peace Institute Leadership Academy’s Trauma-Informed Leadership online leadership development course will have a direct impact on creativity, performance, psychological safety, productivity, and the ability of leadership and employees to thrive personally and professionally because trauma-informed leaders are able recognize the signs of traumatic stress, communicate effectively and compassionately in times of crisis, and help employees to become more resilient. In addition, trauma-informed leaders intentionally design workplace practices that support people throughout their coping and recovery processes.


Real safety comes from strategic, smart investments — meaning resources directed toward our stability and well-being. — Zack Norris

Workplace Peace Institute’s Trauma-Informed Leadership is a six-hour, self-paced course that enhances a leader’s ability to support their team by:

  • Recognizing the signs of traumatic stress and the impact of individual and collective trauma

  • Communicating compassionately in times of crisis

  • Supporting employees to become more resilient

  • Designing workplace practices to support employees coping and recovery from crisis

As leaders, we need to get to know employees. We need to listen to them and encourage everyone to offer patience and kindness. We need to lead by example. We need to add trauma-informed leadership skills to our portfolio. Because organizational safety is our responsibility.


“Real safety comes from strategic, smart investments — meaning resources directed toward our stability and well-being,” concludes Zack Norris.

 

Workplace Peace Institute is an organization systems design and research firm that is singularly focused on creating workplace cultures where people thrive. Workplace Peace Institute supports small to mid-sized businesses in optimizing employee engagement, maximizing organizational productivity, and improving profitability by infusing human security and dignity as foundational attributes of their business model. Our Leadership Academy supports leaders in honoring basic human needs and dignity needs in the workplace, so they can actualize human potential in the workplace. The online Leadership Academy optimizes competencies in human behavior, communication skills, conflict resolution, and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging to create highly engaged workplaces where basic human needs and dignity are consistently honored. All our courses are offered online and can be customized for in-person workshops and seminars.





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