3 effective strategies to practice trauma-informed leadership

In order to leverage the massive shifts taking place in leadership, one must define and develop a deeper sense and awareness of the role trauma is playing in our individual and collective footprints as we walk into a new post-pandemic culture. For many of us, the trauma that once filled a distant and somewhat standoffish role in our everyday lives has become a front-and-center power player in many interactions.

According to David Tweedy, a Clinical Psychologist and Healthcare Executive, “Trauma-informed Leadership is a way of understating or appreciating there is an emotional world of experiences rumbling around beneath the surface.” The past three years have brought leaders face-to-face with the need to examine their approach to trauma at the individual and organizational levels, and developing new tools and mindsets to address the shift has become paramount.

Trauma-informed leadership recognizes and respects the emotional scars, stories, and shifts that people may struggle with and responds with an authentic level of empathy and compassion. As many leaders navigate the uncharted waters of empowering the future of work, many employees are returning to work having experienced:

  • levels of high stress
  • injuries and hospitalizations
  • loss of loved one(s)
  • shifts in personal relationships
  • consistent changes in work expectations
  • unrest, violence, and witnessed events
  • increase in anxiety and/or depression

So how do we, as leaders, position ourselves to respond to the rapidly changing dynamics of a trauma-filled work environment and still work to move our teams and organizations forward?

Here are three strategies leaders in today’s workforce can employ to lead through tough times:

1. Treat people as human beings, not human doings

We were created to be, and sometimes as busy humans on the path to success, we often focus more on what we do rather than who we are. As a trauma-informed leader, work to ensure that most of your interactions with team members, employees, and colleagues are centered around understanding versus performing. For example, one effective practice is to establish meeting norms that allow individuals to share interesting facts about their lives, hobbies, background, etc. This practice allows colleagues to focus more on commonalities in our humanity versus simply the work titles and roles that can work to further separate us.

2. Commit to creating a psychologically safe workplace culture

Creating a psychologically safe workplace culture starts with defining exactly what that looks like, feels like, and sounds like for everyone involved. Trauma-informed leaders develop clear communication around culture in order to ensure that there is clarity for recently onboarded and veteran employees as well as for external stakeholders that impact culture.

What are the conditions necessary for team members to bring up new ideas, introduce their needs, or operate in conflict without the fear of retaliation? How might those interactions play out with those in entry-level versus mid-level management roles, and what is the best way to have those conversations with upper-level or executive leadership? Developing transparency around psychological safety leads to increased vulnerability and fewer opportunities for an employee to experience retraumatization.

3. Focus on responding versus reacting

Today’s leaders wrestle daily with an onslaught of split-second decisions, interactions, problems, and challenges leaving very little room for the luxury of long-range decision-making. By focusing more on responding versus reacting, leaders will create space for those impacted by trauma to feel more comfortable approaching and engaging them.

Two of the most effective ways for trauma-informed leaders to operate from a posture of responding is to first take time to pause when receiving and reflecting on information and, secondly, to seek clarification through questioning. By pausing, leaders give themselves time to process and clarify information rather than allowing emotions to dictate the response. Asking clarifying questions helps leaders make fewer assumptions and gain understanding before responding.