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Trauma-Informed Leadership

| December 14, 2021

by Ben Brinkley

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Ben Brinkley, Director of Teaching and Learning Technology, University of Oregon. He is a current MOR program participant.  Ben may be reached at [email protected].]

Trauma is a more universal part of human experience than we tend to think.  Simply put, trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event… Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.” [9]

Even though trauma is widespread, it’s often private. That makes it easy for us to think it’s rare, and to underestimate trauma’s effects in our organizations.  So, in the long term, it might turn out to be a gift of the pandemic if it can help us create more widespread awareness of trauma’s prevalence and effects.

By now, most everyone at least knows someone who has lost a loved one to Covid. And most of us also know someone who has recently undergone profound stress due to job loss and economic anxiety, or pandemic isolation and uncertainty. That’s a lot to process.  “7 in 10 employees report the pandemic is the most stressful time of their entire professional career.” [1]  That’s a lot of us with a lot to process.

Furthermore, the very visible traumas of the pandemic can serve to remind us that many among our peers and customers may have experienced trauma from other sources well before, or during, this pandemic time. Sources of trauma include childhood abuse and neglect, assault and sexual assault, accidents, incarceration, severe illness, and war. Racism and discrimination, too, “can catalyze serious symptoms of trauma in victims.” [2]

The effects of trauma on individuals in the workplace can include “anxiety, fear, worry or anger; physical or somatic reactions…behavioral reactions such as crying, uncooperativeness, and restlessness; and cognitive reactions including memory impairment and forgetfulness.” [8]

And these are just the effects on individuals. Entire organizations, too, can show the effects of trauma. Organizations that go through shared traumatic experiences can exhibit breakdowns in communication, trust and productivity, and a sense of powerlessness and confusion among staff. [3]

Worse, “[T]he practices that shored [the organization] up for difficult times, and the attributes that made its culture strong, may have transformed or disappeared during the months of sheltering at home.” [1] So whether we see a competent, previously high-performing employee suddenly struggling, or an entire organization suddenly having problems, we should consider looking at things through the lens of trauma.

What can we do?

The shared trauma of the pandemic gives us an unusual opportunity to have a conversation on a topic about which we are usually silent. Our job as leaders is to shape our organizations to be aware of and sensitive to this important commonality of human experience. A trauma-informed workplace recognizes trauma at both individual and organizational levels.

The National Center for Trauma-Informed Care establishes six guiding principles for a trauma informed approach [5]:

  1. Safety. This is the highest priority.  Staff and those who we serve must feel physically safe in their surroundings as well as psychologically safe in their interactions with others.
  2. Trustworthiness and Transparency.  Decisions and operations of the institution have the transparency necessary to enable and maintain trust among both staff and those who we serve.
  3. Peer Support.  How we treat each other directly influences the safety and trust mentioned above, it’s not just leadership, it is all of us.  Create a culture where we build each other up.
  4. Collaboration and Mutuality. Partnering and diminishing power differences at all levels serves to promote safety, trust, and belonging.
  5. Empowerment, Voice and Choice.  Creating the space for individuals to make decisions, be heard, and feel ownership and control both enables building upon strengths as well as finding the answer that is in the room.
  6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues.  Moving beyond stereotypes and biases, offering services inclusive of and responsive to all those served, and leveraging the powerful healing of human and cultural connection.

Leaders can embody trauma-informed practices by supporting emotional and physical safety in their interactions and professional behavior, by empowering and acknowledging staff and working on active listening to staff needs, and by building trust and transparency. More information about these practices is available from Trauma Informed Oregon. [4]

And, because a sense of powerlessness worsens the effects of trauma, leaders can help by “[R]eestablishing predictability and control wherever it’s possible. Recognizing and supporting skills and expertise that strengthen personal ownership, the ability to make daily decisions, and to have choices will aid employees in healing from the trauma they have experienced and regain a sense of confidence and empowerment at work.” [1]

How can I learn more?

Health and human service organizations have led the way with the trauma-informed approaches that are now becoming the subject of great interest in other kinds of businesses. One example is the Sanctuary Model implemented by a number of organizations. The model is “a blueprint for clinical and organizational change which, at its core, promotes safety and recovery from adversity through the active creation of a trauma-informed community. A recognition that trauma is pervasive in the experience of human beings…” [6]

An excellent overview for understanding the long-term effects of trauma in general is Bessel Van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score.

For understanding the effects of trauma in the workplace specifically, I have found a number of helpful resources, quoted above and listed below.

Be well, colleagues, and look out for each other.



[0] The Body Keeps the Score. Bessel Van Der Kolk. 2014.
[1] “The new workplace is trauma-informed” Cosette Taillac.
[2] “Employers: Is Your Workplace Trauma-Informed?” Garen Staglin.
[3] “Protecting Employees from Organizational Trauma”
[4] “Behaviors and Actions of Trauma Informed Leaders,” Trauma Informed Oregon.
[5] “6 Guiding Principles To A Trauma-Informed Approach.” CDC.
[7] Trauma-informed management with specific focus on the neurodiverse/neurodivergent population:–four-essential-skills-for-a-longer-term-crisis
[8] Creating Trauma-Informed Environments. Joan Gillece, Ph.D., SAMHSA National Center for Trauma Informed Care
[9] American Psychological Association – Trauma