Frustrated Person Sitting at a Desk With a Hand on the Face

Valerie Dansereau has more than twenty years of experience in corporate America, so the world of business is very familiar turf. She has written for many different types of business from healthcare to addiction recovery to banking to B2B. For Peaceful Leaders Academy, she focuses on conflict management, de-escalation, and leadership development.

One of the first things that managers tell you at your first job is, “The customer is always right.” This is cold comfort when customers are directing their inappropriate emotional responses at you, though. The more practical piece of wisdom that you get from your coworkers early on is, “When people act that way, it isn’t about you.” In other words, people’s behavior is a result of their own experiences that you probably don’t know about.

Everyone has his or her own struggle in life. When you are a customer service employee interacting with customers, it is easy enough to summon your emotional resources, get through your shift with the awareness that some people are easily triggered by things you can’t predict, and collect your paycheck and your reputation as a superstar in your workplace.

It is not as easy to work on a long-term basis with a group of people, all of whose emotional scars lead to interpersonal conflicts, turning your workplace into a dystopian emotional world. By practicing trauma-informed leadership, though, workplace leaders can play to the emotional strengths of their team and create a work environment characterized by compassion, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

What Do Trauma Informed Leaders Know That the Rest of Us Don’t?

You might get the feeling in certain corners of the Internet that “trauma” is the word of the year in much the way that “selfie” was about a decade ago. People are more willing to talk about their mental health than they were a generation ago, perhaps because they do not want their peers who are going through emotional struggles to feel alone or suffer in silence like their parents did.

Being a trauma-informed leader does not mean constantly talking to your coworkers about your own trauma or about constantly speaking the language of popular psychology at work. It does, however, mean being observant and reflective, listening more than you speak.

Trauma-informed leaders pay close attention to how each person responds to expected tasks and other mundane matters in the workday. It means offering support to coworkers and exploring potential paths to their success, even when they have trouble thinking past their initial responses to a stressful situation.

Trauma-informed leadership is about what you don’t say as much as about what you say. The employees in a work environment appreciate the efforts of trauma-informed leaders, even when no one uses the word “trauma.”

Everyone Is Struggling With Something

Almost everyone you have ever met in a professional setting has experienced challenges that you could not guess by looking at the person. Physical safety may not be something that they take for granted. They might have grown up surrounded by community violence. Members of their families, or maybe even the coworkers themselves, may have struggled with substance abuse or chronic illness.

They might even have experienced recurring periods of homelessness. For them, living in the same apartment for a whole year or taking a shower in the same bathroom on two consecutive days may seem like the pinnacle of self-care, compared to the uncertainty they grew up with. In other words, people who have only met you recently have no idea about the experiences rumbling in your past.

Executive Having a Online Meeting

Traumatic Experiences Have a Widespread Impact in the Workplace

When people experience trauma, it can affect their way of thinking and feeling for years to come. They may exhibit a flight or fight response in situations that other people would not consider especially threatening. They might have poor executive functioning, which could result in them frequently arriving late or missing deadlines. They may respond inappropriately or overreact to mundane conflicts with other employees.

Trauma-informed leadership requires leaders to recognize these signs of trauma and to create a work environment that is conducive to post-traumatic growth.

How Does Trauma Manifest Itself in the Workplace?

You don’t know what other people are going through, but sometimes you can tell that people are going through something, even if you can’t tell what it is. People who have gotten used to living without physical and psychological safety may have difficulty completing expected tasks. They may have trouble fully integrating knowledge and implementing constructive feedback. They are probably unwilling to talk about the traumatic events even if you ask.

Some managers would chalk these behaviors up to a lack of commitment to work. A trauma-informed leader, however, would see these behaviors as symptoms and focus on putting the affected individual in a better frame of mind to work.

Trauma-informed practice means considering the whole person and avoiding re-traumatization. The last thing you want to do is to pile additional stress on an employee who is living in uncertain circumstances by threatening to fire him or her for not making more of an effort than he or she is already making to look like nothing’s wrong.

Being a Trauma Informed Leader in Your Organization

Trauma-informed leadership has a role in almost every industry; you can still practice trauma-informed leadership even if your workplace is not a music therapy clinic or an organic coffee shop with a quirky aesthetic. You can easily apply a trauma-informed approach in a corporate cubicle office environment.

You can start by assuming that everyone is experiencing trauma and that it is in everyone’s interest if you don’t make it worse. Leaders have more control over what goes on within their organizations than they do over what goes on in the outside world. Your smile and your leadership skills cannot change the fact that a family member of your employee is suffering from substance abuse.

You can, however, make work the best part of the employee’s day, even if everything else is going wrong in his or her life. Being a trauma-informed leader does not mean that you have to identify the trauma by name. It also doesn’t mean that managers should be deeply involved in workers’ lives outside of work. The most important thing is for compassion and empathy to dictate the actions of the leadership team.

Getting a Better Response From Employees by Meeting Them Where They Are

Recognizing the signs of trauma and emotional struggles that affect employees’ work performance is just the beginning. You should create a work environment that is conducive to self-care. It starts with setting work schedules that enable workers to take care of their responsibilities outside of work.

It also involves paying enough to enable the people who work for you to support themselves and their families. Issuing a W-2 instead of a 1099 can make your organization a source of stability for the people on its payroll. If other organizations in your industry don’t do this, there is no time like the present to lead by example.

Two People Shaking Hands in Front of Two Other People

Where Can You Learn More About Trauma Informed Leadership?

Sure, you can watch TikTok videos about the psychology of trauma, but there is so much misinformation out there. Trauma doesn’t have a simplistic solution that can be explained in less than 60 seconds. Likewise, you could read peer-reviewed articles, but those aren’t exactly actionable.

Instead, you should take a training course on trauma-informed leadership with Peaceful Leaders Academy. Contact Peaceful Leaders Academy today to get started.

Valerie Dansereau has more than twenty years of experience in corporate America, so the world of business is very familiar turf. She has written for many different types of business from healthcare to addiction recovery to banking to B2B. For Peaceful Leaders Academy, she focuses on conflict management, de-escalation, and leadership development.