Posted 30 Oct 2020
Trauma-Informed Management – Four Essential Skills For A Longer Term Crisis
As we approach a winter of escalating Coronavirus cases and intermittent, regional lockdowns, managers need to prepare for worsening mental health. In my own business, we’ve noticed a real step change in the last few weeks – people have run out of surge capacity and for those who have a baseline of previous trauma, mental health needs or difficult personal circumstances, some are only barely hanging on. In this post, I’m going to explain the neuropsychology of trauma, what you might notice in a workplace and required skills for managing staff who may be traumatized by personal or systemic violence.
What Is Trauma?
My Board colleague, Whitney Iles who is also a CEO at Project 507, has been researching the neuroscience of trauma and how it affects the brain. She and I discussed how changes to our neurology, particularly when we are young, can affect communication and well-being through the lifespan. Ms Iles advises that firstly we need to define trauma, as the word can be overused:
“A traumatic experience is an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms an individual’s existing coping mechanisms. Throughout life, many of us will experience traumatic events and recover, and because each of us is different, the recovery period may vary, and some may need additional tools or resources to process our experiences. Others may not get access to such support or learn to cope rather than recover. The effect trauma has on our lives, and how we internalize our experience will depend on many factors including if it was relational/developmental, a one-off or frequent event, and how (or if) we were able to process these experiences through safe attachments. For example, a car accident in adulthood experienced by someone who has no childhood trauma and a safe and secure support system around them is different from a young person who gets stabbed, has a history of neglect and is then sent to prison. The latter of the two has experienced multiple and often unrelenting traumatic experiences, what we will refer to as complex trauma.”
From my own field of expertise, many neurodiverse/neurodivergent employees experience trauma, perhaps as a result of exclusion and communication difficulties that placed them in vulnerable situations, or because their sensory experience is overwhelming and they were forced to subject themselves to environments that felt painful or distressing. Neurominorities from communities marginalized by race and poverty, as well as LGBTQ+ identities, are likely to have experienced complex trauma. In short, it is unlikely that your workplace does not include people who have experienced complex trauma, which can affect the way the brain behaves in normal, day to day circumstances. Right now, during the pandemic, many of us are being exposed to trauma as we struggle to deal with restrictions on our lives, our support networks, vulnerability, illness and grief. Increases in isolation, domestic violence and abuse are being reported widely.
Trauma And The Brain
Ms Iles explains some of the changes that trauma causes in the brain:
“The amygdala is part of the limbic system, commonly referred to as our emotional or feeling brain. The amygdala, in evolutionary terms, developed to keep us alive. It can trigger the fight or flight response when we sense trouble; therefore, a person who has spent years dealing with complex trauma may become hypervigilant due to the amygdala becoming more sensitive or hyper-aroused.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the thinking and logical section of the brain; one of its many jobs is the ‘time-keeper’. Complex trauma has such an adverse effect of the prefrontal cortex it can decrease its volume and changing how a person senses the past, present and future. It can also make planning, goal setting and more generalized ‘thinking-through’ processes difficult. And finally, the Broca’s Area is involved in helping us to communicate our thoughts, feelings and sensations. Those who have experienced trauma may find it challenging to articulate their experiences due to injury in this area, which is why some might not be ready or able to talk about their experience or may need a bit of extra therapeutic support.
Stress in the workplace or other external variables, like a global pandemic, may exacerbate some of these symptoms.”
People processing long-term trauma are therefore compromised with additional cognitive load. You might notice overreactions, time-keeping difficulties and inconsistency in explaining power, some days being more precise and articulate than others. How can we address this at work? Clear communication is key to reducing the cognitive load of understanding and processing; this is Something we can train manager and HR staff to do well.
Skill One – Straight Talk
Talk in examples, concrete descriptions and provide sensory-based information, rather than inference and ambiguity. Note the difference between statement A: “I’d like a one page summary of the action points from the meeting by Thursday, with named owners and completion dates, please” versus statement B: “can you pop a brief summary of the meeting over to me please?” Statement A leaves no room for misinterpretation, statement B might lead to too much, too little and the wrong emphases. This is a innocuous example, but over time repeated misunderstandings build up.
Straight talk is always less of a cognitive load, and is essential when debriefing miscommunication, conflicts and outbursts. Post-trauma, people are more likely to feel defensive and this may come across as offensive. Saying “you really overreacted in that meeting” is not going to get the same response as “I noticed in the meeting that your voice was quicker and louder than usual and you left without saying goodbye, I wonder if we could talk about what was happening for you, and the impact that it might have had on others?” You need to train yourself to avoid pre-judging the situation and assuming they meant harm, when they may have felt attacked. Someone in their reptilian brain, who is overwhelmed, triggered and flooded with stress hormones is not going to receive critique with curiosity. Naming what you saw and heard, followed by a question will enable you to debrief safely.
Skill Two – Creating Consistency
In my company we regularly give straight feedback and as leaders we regularly role model receiving it. When it is ‘the norm’ to debrief, you have a structure for handling problems when they arise and they are less frightening. Setting expectations like this from the start means everyone can relax. Teaching straight talk techniques to all managers equips them to be clear, direct and unambiguous with their staff, which means people can focus on the task at hand. I once supported a manager who was struggling with an autistic employee. I asked him what he wanted from the employee. He said “I just want him to play the game!” No one can decode this, particularly those whose stress hormones kick into overdrive whenever there’s a chance they might be in trouble. By learning how to give simple, clear instructions the manager and employee were able to build a relationship that worked.
Skill Three – Maintaining Psychological Safety
There is more psychological safety in transparently inquiring about workplace conflict and resolving it than in never having it at all, or ignoring it. Traumatized employees who observe effective resolution of day-to- day conflict in the team, or experience it for themselves, will feel supported to work at their best. You don’t need to have people disclose to recognize a trauma-led outburst or fearful withdrawal. By running a relationship-focused team, where it’s generally okay to be wrong and apologize, okay to speak up if you want to resolve an issue you can put these boundaries in without breaking confidentiality.
Skill Four – Balancing Needs
I’ve noticed in lockdown the tendency to bounce from one meeting to another, with little break or balance in competing needs. Encourage staff and role model taking time for yourself – overloading leads to outbursts and people recovering from trauma or in trauma might hit the tipping point faster, as indeed do some neurominorities. Sometimes this takes people by surprise and can appear to come with no warning, so how you handle this is key. Those who withdraw will find those who outburst overwhelming and rude. Those who outburst will find those who withdraw unsupportive and insincere. Creating a strategy for prevention, encouraging self-awareness of pre-tipping point warning signals and then the ability to de-brief openly in a team works best. Acknowledge different processing patterns and needs. Brushing things under the carpet and avoiding talking about what happened does not work long term and reduces psychological safety in the team.
I’ve heard employers worry about making too many allowances and the need to protect team members from offence. There is for sure a balance to be had here, but there is also a need to adjust to the current times. When the covid crisis started, my business came together and stated a clear goal, that we would all get through to the other side with all our team members on board. We were thinking financially at the time, but I now realize that we also need to think about this from a mental health perspective. Additional to underlying needs, the pandemic is creating trauma right now, so for the medium and long term this will be a feature of human resources.
Let’s keep our staff on board emotionally as well as physically. We can learn to balance competing needs and communication differences to keep our teams engaged. Let’s be trauma-informed in our management skills so that we can safely navigate anxiety, triggers and fears with grace.
Thank you Whitney Iles for your essential contribution to this article.