Trauma-Informed Leadership – How to make your team feel safe and supported (without a ton of extra work)

As we head towards closing out 2023 in a few short months it is no secret that the workplace doesn’t quite look or feel the same as it did not so long ago. One of the things we are noticing is a deep uncertainty and continuing fear. An uncertainty and fear that we all sense is a bit different than it was before and leaders are starting to ask a genuine and astute question: what are we going to do about it? How can we better support our employees, teams, and colleagues when we are seeing high levels of stress and burnout, mental health needs rising, and interpersonal struggles at work.

Enter, trauma-informed leadership.

What?! I can feel the air suck out of the room a little bit with the T-word (Trauma) showing up right out of the gate. I’d like to assure you that learning about this topic is not only supportive to you and the people you work with, but its main goal is to cause no more harm. Instead, this set of ideas and practices creates space and support across environments to promote functionality on teams, creativity among co-workers, and more safety, capacity and comfort at work.

Take one big deep breath, let your shoulders melt down away from your ears – we’ve got this.

For the definition of trauma, we turn to the person who first made it most understandable for us. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk explains it like this: “Basically, trauma is something that happens to you that makes you so upset that it overwhelms you. And there is nothing you can do to stave off the inevitable. You basically collapse in a state of confusion, maybe rage, because you are unable to function in the face of this particular threat. But the trauma is not the event that happens, the trauma is how you respond to it.”

Read that last sentence again and let it profoundly change the way you think.

The trauma is NOT the event – it is the ongoing bodily and mental response to the event that constitutes the ongoing symptoms, challenges, and barriers we see in humans who have been through a completely overwhelming experience that was out of their control.

What Van Der Kolk also offered us was a way to create internal and aligned external spaces to move beyond the traumatized state where humans can get stuck. Although much of the original research was done amongst Vietnam war veterans it has become more widely acknowledged that while trauma can absolutely come from catastrophic situations, it can also manifest from chronic low-grade stresses in a modern society.

Trauma can come from a lot of places and spaces. Sandra L. Bloom in her work on trauma-informed leadership attests that there are not many humans left in our communities that are not traumatized – we have all experienced it somehow, somewhere. It can often happen in childhood with the known causes like abuse and neglect. Trauma can also occur though systemic racism, bullying at work, toxic relationships, war, surgery, or a car crash, to name a few. The tricky thing about trauma and the traumatic response is that what you experience as traumatic – I may not, depending on things like history, personality, culture, neurodiversity or emotional sensitivity.

Trauma looks like a lot of different things for a lot of different people: mental or physical. The extensive work by Dr. Gabor Mate has shown the world that physical symptoms of trauma are often manifest from psychological wounds.

This means trauma may look like chronic sickness, pain or auto immune challenges. It may appear as headaches, gut issues, or exhaustion. The work of Stephen Porges has shown us that although symptoms will always manifest uniquely, the way in which humans process trauma through the nervous system (spoiler alert: stay tuned for an in-depth post on the nervous system, coming next week!) is similar based on evolutionary predictability.

This means we may see people participating a variety of damaging coping skills and defense mechanisms captured in the terms; flight, fight, freeze or fawn.

Now, I’m letting you in on a big secret here: most people don’t even recognize these states in themselves.

Trauma-informed leadership holds to the ideal that there’s a good chance people at work have been traumatized by something, somewhere. In a post-covid world, I don’t think I need to work very hard to convince you of that. It further holds that people want to feel comfortable and safe at work, and they need that comfort and safety to be their best selves and reach their highest potential. Too many of us have been a part of toxic workplaces, power-heavy dynamics, and uncertainty that have left us collapsed behind our computers struggling though the day with coffee and our phones.

Trauma-informed leadership asks us to slow down and get curious about what anchors us into connection at work. Trauma-informed leadership asks for practices that ground into self- and co-regulation (read more about that here) and offer ongoing cues of safety to the people we are leading.

Check in with your body for a moment. Is any of this resonating with you on a physical scale? Can you feel a “yes” in your body when you read this and want to learn more? That’s common reaction to this information. We have spent most our lives wondering why a certain thing “triggers” us, or why we feel stuck in patterns of behaviour we feel we aren’t even choosing. Maybe you see this in our family members, co-workers, and community members. Trauma-informed leadership is for all of us, really.

Over the next few weeks my writing in this space will focus on HOW we integrate trauma-informed practises into our leadership styles. It’s not hard, it starts with self awareness and then we focus on integrating support systems into the work environment that allow space for the mind/body connection, and consciousness of the nervous system, and how humans need connection to feel safe and empowered.

Being a trauma-informed leader means doing your own work, maintaining real self-care (read more about self-care vs. survival care here), and accessing peer support to keep skills and practices current and inspired. At The Expert Talk, we are here to support all those processes and offer tangible strategies along the way.

Take a deep breath, all the way down to the bottom of your lungs and let your shoulders roll back a few times. Work doesn’t have to be a space where trauma of any sort is perpetuated – instead it can be a place where bodies and minds are doing their best and brightest because we are aware. What a beautiful thing.