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Why Today’s Workplace Needs Trauma-Informed Leadership

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Trauma informed leadership

Thanks to the pandemic, all of us to some extent are suffering the effects of trauma. Our tolerance of new stress is very low, and the idea of taking on yet one more thing sometimes seems overwhelming. The ramifications of this for the workplace are profound – witness the massive job churn wrought by the Great Resignation over the past year and new fears of a recession driving recent layoffs. How should management respond to this “new normal?” Smart organizations are adopting an approach known as trauma-informed leadership.

The experience of trauma can change the way the brain works, affecting the way people learn, interact with others and regulate their emotions. Such changes can manifest in avoidance, inappropriate anger, perfectionism and hypervigilance – all behaviors that have a direct impact on performance in the workplace. Such trauma isn’t particularly rare: It’s been estimated that half of all adults in the U.S. experienced some form of childhood trauma before age 18.

When most people hear the phrase “trauma-informed,” they immediately think about trauma-informed care, a clinical practice of treating patients or supporting school students in ways that create a sense of safety and transparency for those who have experienced trauma in their lives. Trauma-informed leadership provides a similar perspective, creating trauma-informed policies, protocols and practices that support the employees.

Trauma-informed leadership prioritizes the psychological and emotional safety of employees over productivity and results. Behind this approach is the recognition that people are actually more productive and deliver better results when they feel calm, regulated and not “activated.” When the frontal lobe of the brain is activated, people become scared, rushed, disorganized and chaotic. It hurts their productivity.

There’s obviously a balance between the need of the organization to deliver results and the emotional needs of the employees. Nevertheless, it’s important to connect with employees on a human level, to understand that employees bring their outside emotional struggles to work and that they can be triggered or activated in the workplace. Organizations are not staffed by automatons.

Pre-pandemic, it might have been easier to separate people’s home life from their professional life, enforcing a view that when people come to work they need to be professional, focused and productive 100% of the time. With the amount of trauma and chronic stress that’s being activated in all of us over the past two years, employers are deluding themselves if they still expect 100% focus and 100% productivity from everybody in the workforce without accommodation for how brittle employees are feeling emotionally.

It is inevitable that symptoms of trauma will surface in the workplace. Leaders should be mindful of this and be able to identify the signs of trauma and be ready to provide coaching. Leaders don’t necessarily need to dig around about the who/what/where of a team member’s experience of trauma, but they should move beyond the “what is wrong with you” style of managing for results and instead explore ways to create a safer, more emotionally supportive and, ultimately, a more productive environment.

As Executive Director at Encore, I strive to practice trauma-informed leadership. Encore itself is engaging in trauma-informed care with patients, so it’s important in my job as leader of this organization to ensure that I am using trauma-informed methodologies and practices in interacting with the staff on issues both large and small.

The hard-dollar benefits of trauma-informed leadership

In the fields of healthcare and education, it’s long been recognized that trauma-informed leadership is a necessary part of implementing trauma-informed care. When an organization can provide consideration, accommodation and compassion to its frontline workers, those workers are able in turn to provide those same things to the patients and students they work with. Implementing trauma-informed leadership across an entire organization leads to better quality of service and outcomes.

Efforts to implement trauma-informed leadership outside of healthcare and education have shown similar improvements in the ability of an organization to support its mission and deliver results.

A program undertaken by the U.S. military in Special Operations Command-Africa[VP1]  took a novel approach to handling personnel who self-identified with post traumatic stress and TBI and wanted treatment. All service members were promised they would stay in their jobs and keep their clearances, which was contrary to official Department of Defense policy. The program involved a three-day assessment, evaluation, and tailored treatment for every service member.

The program had minimal impact on operations, but it had tremendous benefits for service members, their families and the overall organization. Over a 26-month timeframe, Special Operations Command-Africa saw a decrease in alcohol and drug issues, inappropriate behavior in the workplace, suicidal ideations and family issues. At the same time, trust in the chain of command increased significantly. By openly supporting service members and their families struggling from physical, mental, and spiritual trauma, trauma-informed leadership improved the will to fight and the overall effectiveness of the organization.

In the private sector, Google conducted a far-reaching internal study[VP2]  to understand the dynamics of high-performing teams. The research team studied 115 project teams in engineering and 65 pods in sales – spanning a mix of high- and low-performing teams – to test how team composition and team dynamics shaped the effectiveness of a team.

The research showed the number one factor in determining whether a team would be effective or not was a sense of psychological safety. Team members needed to feel safe taking risks around their team members. In other words, it was essential that members trusted that they wouldn’t be embarrassed or punished if they admitted to making a mistake, asked a question or offered a new or different idea.

This gets to the heart of trauma-informed leadership: Employees are most productive when they feel safe.

Trauma-informed leadership and change management

female manager - trauma informed leadership concept

One of the biggest potential wins for trauma-informed leadership is in change management.

Using this lens, resistance to change can be seen as part of a grief and loss process for employees – mourning what was, while taking time to adjust to what will be. Leaders should be mindful of this as changes are rolled out. Giving employees a voice in how and when changes are implemented can help. By listening to staff opinions and feedback and using that input to adjust the roll-out of changes, management will be better able to pace change in a way that keeps staff emotionally and psychologically willing to accept change, with better outcomes across the board.

People need to be able to trust their leadership and organization during times of change; having that sense of trust helps build resilience in both the staff and the organization. Lack of trust can be poison to an organization.

Ultimately, this all revolves around trust, which, as we saw with Google’s Aristotle Project, is absolutely required for psychological safety and full organizational effectiveness. So, what does being a trustworthy organization look like?

Is your organization trauma-informed?

For those interested in learning more about trauma-informed leadership, the work of Dr. Dawn Emerick is well worth investigating. Her talk at TEDxJacksonville, “Developing 1 Million Trauma-Informed Leaders to Lead Today’s Exhausted and Traumatized Workforce,” does a masterful job of laying out the problems with the bullying management style found so often in today’s workplaces and how trauma-informed leadership can help build more resilient and effective organizations.

Dr. Emerick has a simple test for determining if your organization is trauma-informed. How would you answer these questions?

Is your workplace:

  • Emotionally and physically safe?
  • Transparent about major decisions?
  • Collaborative with staff at all levels?
  • Cognizant of the impacts that racial trauma, discrimination and culture have on employees’ experiences of work?

Does your workplace:

  • Have leaders who act in reliable, responsive, engaged, and trustworthy ways?
  • Acknowledge and give space to staff’s trauma?
  • Ensure staff have a voice and a choice within the organization?
  • Trust its employees?

Becoming a trauma-informed leader

With leadership comes great responsibility. What leaders say and do holds a great deal of weight in an organization. The tone and mood of management needs to be taken seriously. Even the smallest of decisions has an impact. Leadership must understand the ripple effect between their conduct and demeanor and the experience of the team members and, ultimately, the clients.

The overall focus for trauma-informed leadership is on Do No Harm to employees. Easily said, but the trick is understanding what employees consider harmful, because each individual employee will have their own past experience with trauma and will have a different perspective on what they consider harmful. This requires building a culture where people feel safe to communicate openly and transparently. It also requires management to be willing to listen, to make people feel they are being heard, to be sensitive to the things that aren’t being said by employees who are struggling.

Such relationship building happens over time, and it is not a one and done thing. Do what you say you’re going to do. Walk the talk. Communicate. Transparently.

Ultimately, this is about building resilience in both the organization and its people. We need to stop pushing people towards burnout, and that means giving people the mental and emotional space to be human.

Being a trauma-informed leader is not my natural inclination. I’m totally results-oriented, focused on driving business results. But I’ve also learned that using a trauma-informed leadership style is the best way for me to achieve those results. It still sometimes requires a conscious effort for me, and I engage in ongoing training and education to support using a trauma-informed lens and cultivating this style of leadership. But the results are worth it, and the trauma-informed culture we have created at Encore and the accountability we owe one another helps reinforce it for me and the rest of our management team.

Resources for Additional Training and Reading

For those interested in learning more about trauma-informed leadership, I recommend the following resources.





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