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Trauma-informed leadership: why it's so much more than using "TW"

Mar 11, 2024

You read that right; you're not a trauma-informed leader if all you do is write "TW or Trigger Warning" before saying something difficult.

We used to think trauma mostly impacted people in conflict zones or other majorly traumatic events (aka PTSD). Decades later, with more research and advances in neuroscience, the definition has shifted immensely. 

Now, we define trauma as "too much too fast," "too much for too long," or even simply anything that impacts "one's ability to be in the here and now." It's no longer limited to a single incident; it can be ongoing exposure or several separate experiences.   

So, what does this have to do with the workplace? Well, we are human beings who bring our lived and learned experiences, including trauma, to work. 

How to start being a more trauma-informed leader:

1. Forget about the story
You don't need to know someone's story or experience with trauma; it's none of your business. Instead, shift your own awareness and understanding of how trauma shows up in the workplace, your community, and your nervous system. Read books, listen to podcasts, and do the research - learning about trauma is an on-going practice. 

2. Be mindful of psychological safety
With someone is impacted by trauma, they may become hypervigilant and have limited access to relative safety (their system signals "danger" even in the absence of threat). This can show up as someone withdrawing or shutting down. Promote a culture of trust, open dialogue and real inclusion.  

3. Stop glorifying burnout
Trauma can leave people stuck in the "on" button - always pushing and doing more which can be rewarded and glorified in the workplace. But sometimes, this can be a self-protection response, and when someone is perpetually living in a sympathetic state, this can lead to chronic stress and burnout. 

4. Practice empathy with accountability
When going into difficult conversations around performance management or terminations, practice empathy about an employee's lived experience and recognize there's often more than meets the eye. Yes, you can still hold people accountable for behaviour, but you can do it in a way that seeks to understand the complexities of the underlying cause. Oh, and make sure you're in a grounded state when you do. 

What's one way you can start practicing trauma-informed leadership in your workplace? 

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