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Trauma

Trauma-Informed Leadership

The art and science of safety and connection in the workplace.

Key points

  • Trauma-informed leadership enhances psychological safety so employees can thrive and function as part of an effective team.
  • For a leader to succeed, they must be concerned with the well-being of those they lead.
  • Leadership success is also about how well the leader can get people to work together.

Co-authored with Ronald E. Pizzo and Bill Howatt

Achievement, connection, thriving, growing, and engagement are all words associated with effective workplace teams. These are the qualities a leader is expected to instill in the teams she leads.

Leaders, however, are facing significant challenges in today’s workplace. We are living in a world filled with people in crisis. From COVID to the “Great Resignation” to “quiet quitting,” workers suffer from high burnout and exhaustion levels. For a leader to succeed, she must be concerned with the well-being of those she leads.

gornostay/Shutterstock
Working Together: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Source: gornostay/Shutterstock

When people are not working well together, it is the leader’s job to “fix” that problem. This is usually interpreted as identifying the broken team member(s) and "fixing" them so that they will act differently.

People, however, are not like machines or car engines where you can replace broken parts or add some oil to “fix” them. Often it is not easy to pinpoint who needs “fixing,” especially when people disagree on who is “broken.” Trauma-informed leaders lead with respect and appreciate that the people they lead are not broken.

So how is a leader supposed to "fix" the problem? A “threats approach” (aka behave or else) will not create a cooperative and collaborative working environment for people who are not getting along. The micro-managing (command and control) approach makes things worse–this is a surefire way for a leader to be labeled a bully. Reasoning and persuading are the gentler lower rungs on the path to command and control. What is a leader to do if these traditional approaches won’t work?

The answer can be found in a trauma-informed approach to leadership. Such an approach does not try to “fix” people. Trauma-informed practices are based on the basic human need for connection–people are hard-wired to connect and feel calm and stable when safe connections are available. It provides an entirely different kind of “fix,” in which the environment becomes safer and more stable, allowing people to flourish, to be more productive, creative, innovative, and cooperative.

A trauma-informed leader:

  1. Encourages team members to look through the lens of shared purpose. Reframing and refocusing on what is important for the team to succeed. Effective leaders start with the end in mind.
  2. Shows recognition for each team member's important contribution to achieving that shared purpose.
  3. Embraces individual autonomy coupled with accountability.
  4. Treats those with whom she works with respect. Trauma-informed leaders recognize that people who don’t want to be made to feel stupid or embarrassed.
  5. It focuses on changing the behaviour (i.e., what a person does to achieve the shared purpose) and not the person. It hardly ever works to tell someone to stop feeling upset or worried. Telling someone to calm down can make them feel more anxious. It is easier to, for example, ask them to turn left instead of right. People have far greater control over their actions than what they think and feel.
  6. Finally, the trauma-informed leader operates from the perspective of compassion, starting with herself first. Compassion starts at home by recognizing what she controls and does not. She does not control other people.

A trauma-informed approach hands over the responsibility of "fixing" a team to the team members guided by the leader. The people who work together have the ultimate responsibility of getting back on track. A trauma-informed team leader models, encourages, and supports with compassion and empathy.

This is how trauma-informed leaders bring psychological safety into the workplace. As Google discovered in its ground-breaking study called the Aristotle project, you cannot have a great and effective team without psychological safety.

Ronald E. Pizzo is a labour and employment lawyer, certified facilitator, mediator, and coach. His work includes human rights law, workplace harassment investigations, and occupational health and safety law.

Bill Howatt is the founder and CEO of Howatt HR. He has 30 years of experience in workplace mental health and understands how employees and employers can work together to reduce mental harm and promote mental health in the workplace.

References

https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/

Edmondon, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Wiley.

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