Last year my workplace made a commitment to become trauma-informed. We’re transforming the way we serve the community by leading operational change that focuses on Compassion, Appreciation, Resilience and Empowerment (C.A.R.E.). Helping to lead this charge, I joined our Trauma-Informed Leadership Team (TILT), and I’m learning and implementing trauma-informed care principles and practices every day. Through this experience I’ve discovered six important reasons why all leaders should follow a similar approach.
What is trauma-informed leadership?
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.” He affirms that “when emotional responses are triggered in the workplace, each person responds according to the extent of their emotional scars, traumas and emotional strengths.”
The 4 R’s of trauma-informed practice
All leaders should strive to be trauma-informed, especially in today’s climate. If you’re not sure where to start, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (SAMHSA) has developed a model to describe trauma-informed care (TIP 57) within programs and organizations that all agencies can apply, using this rubric:
- Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand potential paths for recovery
- Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff and others involved with the system
- Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures and practices
- Actively resist re-traumatization
6 Reasons why
If you are called to serve others in a leadership capacity, then you must commit to become a trauma-informed leader. Here are six reasons why:
Reason # 1: We are all affected by trauma.
The collective trauma of this year alone — pandemics, war, racial trauma, political unrest and polarization, mass shootings and community violence — require today’s leaders to be trauma-informed. Leaders who are are self-aware. They know that their own experiences impact how they lead. They also understand that all people have biases and triggers.
Reason # 2: Trauma occurs at the individual and organizational levels.
Those who practice trauma-informed leadership understand that trauma survivors may react in their workplaces. In the article “Five Ways to Practice Trauma-Informed Leadership,” the authors say that “people who have experienced recurring, complex trauma, may be more easily triggered to have a flight-or-fight response. This may manifest as poor executive functioning, evidenced by trouble thinking through processes, making plans, or communicating needs, experiences, and feelings.” It also may manifest as tardiness and absenteeism or emotional outbursts at work.
Trauma-informed leaders approach situations from a different lens. They ask, “What happened to you?” and not “What is wrong with you?” These leaders are vital to implementing organizationwide knowledge, policies and practices that benefit all employees.
Reason # 3: Trauma-informed leadership consists of skills that are applicable to any industry or institution.
This approach does not only apply to helping professionals or behavioral health care settings. All organizations that serve communities can and should be trauma-informed institutions. But working with trauma survivors is no small feat, and there are protective factors that can help individuals and organizations mitigate the impact of working with survivors of trauma. Some examples include providing trauma-informed training, supervision, and promoting a sense of team spirit and inclusion. The Missouri Model of Trauma-Informed Care breaks it down into four phases of adoption: awareness, sensitivity, response and informed.
Reason # 4: Trauma-informed leaders make self-care a priority.
If you can’t care for yourself, how can you effectively care for others? Research on trauma-informed leadership and post-traumatic growth among nurses identified four specific needs of leaders. For instance, they need to consider self-care as fundamental to managing and supporting others. Researchers explained that “trauma-informed leaders understand that to support others, they must prioritize their own self-care, which requires commitment and practice.” Because these leaders are well-informed about the risk factors of trauma and toxic stress, they make it a priority to model good self-care in their workplace — setting a precedent for others.
Reason # 5: Trauma-informed leaders know how to lead with empathy.
Traumatic experiences are negative and life-altering. Because trauma-informed leaders normalize survivors’ reactions, they often exhibit compassion for others. They have a grasp on how trauma affects people differently, and so they are more prepared to address employment challenges that may manifest in an employee who is a trauma survivor. These leaders show empathy by being non-judgmental, verbalizing expectations, acknowledging vulnerability, admitting errors and apologizing, encouraging curiosity and learning, and focusing on others’ wellbeing.
Reason # 6: Trauma-informed leaders know that empowerment is key to avoiding re-traumatization.
For many people who’ve experienced trauma, a central theme of their experience is lacking control over what happened to them. A major aspect of healing is learning how to trust oneself, others and the world again. Therefore, a management approach that relies on micromanagement to control and motivate employees will only breed mistrust and cause more harm.
Trauma-informed leaders, instead, give employees control again by empowering them to make informed decisions. They promote safe work spaces so that marginalized voices can be heard. They take frequent pulse checks of the work environment and foster atmospheres where everyone feels safe, seen and heard.
By casting a spotlight on the realities and nuances of trauma, trauma-informed leaders become Trauma Champions. They also become essential change agents in their workplaces. If you want learn how you can bring trauma-informed approaches to your organization, here are some additional resources:
- “A Trauma-Informed Approach to Workforce” by National Fund for Workforce Solutions
- “TIP 57: Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services” by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA)
- The Trauma Stewardship Institute by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
- “What is Psychological Safety at Work?” by the Center for Creative Leadership
Shakima Tozay is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and subject matter expert (SME) on counseling and advocacy programs in her current role. Her government career spans 15 years, starting in the Navy. Kima completed her Masters in Social Work degree from the University of Washington and has held positions with the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) and the Army. Kima is passionate about Diversity and Inclusion workplace issues. She earned a certificate from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business in Leveraging Diversity and Inclusion for Organizational Success. She also holds certifications in Executive Leadership and Women in Leadership Programs. You can connect with Kima on LinkedIn.
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