Today, I’d like to discuss trauma informed leaders and how they can help build resilience in the workplace and in their people.
This topic hits close to home for me. I was humbled and honored to go to Uvalde, Texas recently. There’s a company there that wants to invest in their leaders and managers.
Uvalde is a very tight knit, very interconnected community. Everyone in that community had experienced tremendous trauma due to the school shooting last May. Some employees lost children in the shooting, and one was a spouse to one of the teachers lost. And as I worked with these leaders and managers, one of the common signs and words that they shared was shock.
While Uvalde is a tragic and extreme example, it is not unique. As a professional coach and also as a licensed professional counselor in employee assistance programs, I’ve worked with many trauma informed leaders and companies.
Most of us are informed. We’ve heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially as it pertains to military personnel and frontline responders like police officers, emergency room workers and firefighters. Many of these people who put their lives on the line have seen death, have experienced the loss of loved ones, have experienced situations that most of us as civilians can’t even fathom or even imagine. However, trauma is not unique to them.
One topic important to workplace discussions today we call a ‘trauma informed leader.’ These are leaders who understand that when trauma happens, it is felt throughout their places of work. They understand that it impacts their employees’ brains, the culture, the engagement, the productivity, and even the bottom line of their workplace.
One of the amazing things I’ve come across as I’ve studied and researched trauma informed leaders, is that post-traumatic stress disorder can lead to hopelessness. It can lead to suicide. Many feel a sense of survivor’s guilt even if they have not experienced the trauma firsthand. The human brain is a complex organ. It can create memories, flashbacks, intense anxiety, and even panic.
Trauma can happen at all scales, from something intensely personal like divorce or a serious health diagnosis to something on a national or global level like 9-11 or the current pandemic. But regardless of that scale, the psychological effects are universal, and a trauma informed leader recognizes the signs.
Martin Seligman, often credited as the father of positive psychology research, observed that not only do survivors have post-traumatic stress, but they also experience post-traumatic growth. In a word, resilience.
We all know someone who has experienced trauma but has exhibited the ability to bounce back and be stronger. They have found a way to not only survive, but even to thrive and to help other people.
There is research into the many factors that help with that kind of resilience. Lots of research. But what I want to share with you today is four words, that cut to the essence of what enhances that resilience. It just so happens that they all begin with the letter ‘P.’
Here are the Four P’s.
(To get a full description of how I defined these four P’s and trauma in general, watch the video here.)
I’m not saying that being resilient means you have no scars. There will be wounds. There will be scars. So, the first P is Perspective. As a Trauma informed leader, it’s important to gain perspective on the trauma. It is likely an emotional time, but you must utilize your brain to look at the problem.
One of the first questions we must ask ourselves is, “What, in this traumatic situation, isn’t a problem?” Really examine the effect of what’s happening. What is still good? What is happening, even in the light of trauma, that you’re still thankful for?
One trauma informed leader I’ve worked with pointed to a situation where an explosion took the life of one of their co-workers. They noted that the trauma brought the whole company closer. People bonded and engaged and cared for one another, like never before. On a practical level, legal and workplace processes and efficiency improved.
People can say, “I still have my mind. I still have my spirit. I still have my soul. I still have my heart.” Others often need outside help to remind them of this perspective. This is often something a coach can help with.
Another aspect of the resilience that a trauma informed leader exhibits is Purpose, the core of who you are and why you are on this planet. How can your strengths give purpose to you and others?
Finding your why, as Simon Sinek talks about, and finding your purpose is important. It gives you meaning, motivation, and the strength to carry on in light of trauma.
A trauma that I went through in my life is when I was let go from my nonprofit organization. It was a traumatic breakup for me. It sent me reeling. I had to really work on defining my sense of purpose.
Eventually, I’ve come to recognize this event as the blessing it was. It helped me discover that I wasn’t utilizing the full potential of my talents and strengths. I became an entrepreneur, ran my own business, and loved so many other aspects of that: more freedom to travel, to set my schedule, to help other people how I wanted to help them, and fully live my life and purpose.
Here’s a quick exercise, take your top five CliftonStrengths and write out what I call an identity statement, or a leadership brand statement. [link to leadership brand statement blog] This will give you a clear idea of your purpose and the value you can give the world.
When you talk about trauma, people are at the core. We are human beings. We put our pants on the same way, every one of us. It’s amazing. In all my experience helping people with various traumatic events, I’ve see how easy it is for us to isolate. It is so easy to finger point and to begin to blame and to shame others.
Ultimately, we need each other. We need to fill in the gaps between. We need to embrace our diversity, our different values, our different strengths, our various experiences and traumas.
Where one is strong, another person is weak. And where one is weak, another person is strong. Learning how to be interdependent rather than independent. or dependent is a great pathway.
There’s a continuum of growth. As babies and small children we are dependent on adults for everything. Then, as we grow, we become more independent. We drive. We go out on our own.
Finally, there’s interdependence. We learn we can’t do it all on our own. We lean on each other. We empower each other.
It’s what I love most about masterminds and group coaching programs. People to learn about best practices, to become vulnerable, and to be more authentic in giving and sharing with one another.
A trauma informed leader is someone who shares in that trauma with their people. They raise their hand, and they say, “Let’s bring an expert in. Let’s create an employee assistance program to help our people.”
The brain is an amazing thing. Much of our brain has pathways of neurons that are like superhighways of information and responses to the world around us. Traditional thinking has always held that there’s only a limited amount of change that can happen along these superhighways.
However, with more scientific research coming out, we are starting to learn that the brain can adapt to change. It can rewire and create new highways and superhighways. This rewiring is known as neuroplasticity.
This is true of brain injuries as well. The brain responds to trauma and finds a way to make us closer to our previous whole selves.
As far as trauma informed leaders are concerned, plasticity is also an important reaction to the stress, fear, and disruption of traumatic events. It’s more than just being open to learning and allowing the brain to rewire. It’s also looking at life and the workplace with a more experimental mindset. It’s saying, “I’m going to see what would happen if…”
A trauma informed leader must be at a healthy enough stable enough place to begin to coach and to look towards the future, but they must help convey a sense of reality in the here and the now.
The world we live in has become more traumatic. Look at the news. Many of these traumas center around where we work. That means we have to be trauma informed leaders with emotional intelligence and trauma intelligence. But we also have to look at the world with an eye of looking towards the growth, an eye looking towards the resilience, bouncing back, being adaptable, being strong in our core. That is what’s going to help us to thrive as a people, not only in the workplace, but as a world.
To hear more about the Four P’s including multiple examples, watch the video here.
Ask Brent to come to your organization to help train Trauma Informed Leaders and build resilience. For other workplace training topics & executive coaching download his workplace brochure.
Photo by Nicola Barts.