Trauma Informed Leadership
Trauma informed organizations value safe, trusting and respectful relationships not only between staff and their clients but also between staff and their supervisors. These organizations understand that many of their employees have suffered painful experiences that impact how they relate to others in current and future interactions. Painful experiences from the past that continue to have a negative impact on someone’s life is a trauma “trigger.” A “trigger” is more than just a memory. It is a memory that causes people to behave in ways they have little control. When a person is triggered, they feel and react as though the current situation will have the same outcome as the past painful event and attempt to restore a feeling of safety. Trauma informed agencies promote a culture of leadership that rather than focus on changing the employee’s negative behaviors, attempts to reduce the actions and interactions that can be a trauma trigger.
Reducing trauma triggers can be challenging for leaders because of the inherent power differential that exists in the supervisor/supervisee relationship. No matter how much a leader attempts to be kind, caring and empowering, employees can be triggered simply because of the authority the supervisory position holds.
In relationships characterized by a power differential, the person with less power could automatically, without the supervisor doing or saying anything, feel unsafe and vulnerable triggering a fight, flight or freeze reaction. In a trauma informed agency, the supervisor will be sensitive to this reaction and will develop specific skills for reducing the triggers to these trauma reminders.
The trauma informed skill that is most effective for reducing trauma triggers is called “attunement.” Attunement is a kinesthetic and emotional sensing of others. It allows supervisors to sense the underlying emotions behind an employee’s behavior. When an employee is triggered, they will react from an activated nervous system in a way that can seem either combative (fight), avoidant and non-compliant (flight) or passive (freeze). These trauma responses from employees can be triggering for leaders. However, a trauma informed leader rather than allow their own nervous system to be activated and react with either fight, flight or freeze behaviors, will use self-awareness to remain calm and create a physically and emotionally safe environment for the employee and themselves.
Trauma informed leaders recognize they have their own triggers that they must be aware of and manage. They also understand that their position holds more power than those they supervise. Therefore, they must have the integrity to assume responsibility for a higher level of self-awareness that allows them to avoid being triggered and unknowingly disempower others out of their need for self-preservation. This level of self-awareness will allow the leader to remain calm and objective which will enable them to use the trauma informed skill attunement with colleagues, employees and clients.
Triggers remind people of a time when they were not safe either physically or emotionally. So, when people are triggered, they often feel threatened in some way. Employees can be triggered when they feel unappreciated, misunderstood, not heard, criticized, controlled, loss of autonomy, measured, evaluated, etc. Supervisors can feel threatened when something causes them to feel insecure about themselves, their decisions or capabilities. Situations that may be a trigger for supervisors are when staff express concerns, disagree with ideas or decisions, request changes or ask for more support, express their differing opinion, perform poorly, withdraw, etc.
These events can cause both employee and supervisor to feel inadequate and criticized. However, it is the responsibility of the leader who has more power in the relationship to not misuse that power to return a sense of safety for themselves. This will only leave the employee feeling disempowered and unsafe destroying the trauma informed culture.
In a trauma informed agency rather than engaging in fight, flight or freeze reactions, leaders are trained in attunement. Instead of reacting from an activated nervous system, a trauma informed leader will take a deep breath and calm their nervous system so they can remain in a logical frame of mind and seek to empathize with the emotion driving the employee’s questions, concerns or other behaviors.
Attunement involves avoiding the fight, flight or freeze response and offering reassurances and an empowering, collaborative problem-solving process. For instance, when an employee harshly challenges a decision made by leadership, the supervisor instead of stating, “I’m sorry you don’t like this decision, but I have a responsibility for the bottom line of this company and I am just trying to do my job,” could state:
• “Interesting, I think you have good idea, could you help me better understand your perspective.”
• “I didn’t think of that; please tell me more.”
• “I’m sorry this is so frustrating for you, help me understand your perspective and let’s see what solutions we can find together.”
• “I hear you and those are great ideas, can I have some time to think about them and then we can talk more about this in a couple of days?”
Attunement allows the leader to notice that the employee is not acting out of stubbornness, arrogance or a desire to just be difficult. They are acting out of a place of pain that was triggered by the behavior of the leader. The leader’s behavior accentuated the power differential and reminded the employee that they have less power and must protect themself. When leaders cause employees to feel safe emotionally as well as physically, trust will grow nurturing an environment in which defensiveness does not exist. Employees can feel secure enough to be honest, reflective and accepting of feedback in order to grow, develop and ultimate recognize their full potential.