Are You a Trauma-Responsive Leader? Why Trauma-Informed Leaders Make a Happy and Healthy Workplace

By bringing more trauma awareness and building a culture of patience, compassion, forgiveness and empathy, we can create the understanding that leads to happier, healthier and more productive people and places of business.

learn more about Elayna Fernandez

By Elayna Fernandez

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We don't often hear the words "trauma" and "leader" in the same sentence. In fact, the term "trauma" often carries stigma and shame in society and is taboo in most workplace environments.

Many leaders want to pretend that trauma doesn't exist in the workplace; however, trauma is real, and it affects people in every organization.

According to the National Council of Behavioral Health, 70% of adults in the United States have experienced some traumatic event at least once.

I often define myself as a multiple-trauma survivor. I have been through major Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and tragedies that most people would consider traumatic, such as near-death experiences, abuse and violent acts. In my experience, stories in this category are not welcome in a professional setting, and painful memories, in general, are discouraged in office spaces everywhere.

People have been conditioned to downplay, deny and dismiss what they've been through to the extent that they might not even recognize their own trauma.

Trauma is not about the nature of the experience or event; it's about its impact. Renowned physician Dr. Gabor Maté says that "trauma is not what happens to you, it's what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you."

Besides, many studies show that most of us carry generational trauma we may be unaware of.

All of us struggle with grief, anger and fear, which usually go unprocessed, unhealed, and unaddressed because it's deemed inappropriate and negative to bring them up. We are shamed or invalidated when we do.

Related: Trauma-Informed Workplaces Are the New Normal

Trauma-informed and trauma-responsive leadership

A truly caring leader becomes a Student of Pain. This means they study trauma and become familiar with what trauma signs, responses, and triggers look like.

They become aware of the events or circumstances that have affected their team members in harmful or threatening ways, as well as the implications and lasting effects of these experiences in their day-to-day life. And to do this effectively, they acknowledge and address their own trauma first.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that:

A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed as one that:

1) Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;

2) Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;

3) Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and

4) Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.

A trauma-responsive culture both understands the prevalence, impact and manifestation of trauma and appropriately addresses it in the organization.

Trauma-responsive leaders strive to create an organizational culture that is sensitive to ACEs, historical trauma, race-based trauma, intergenerational trauma, and post-traumatic stress (PTS) present in the workplace.

Related: The Hidden Trauma of Overachievement

What leaders can do

Being a leader does not mean being responsible for treating trauma; it does mean creating a culture that accommodates team members experiencing trauma, reexperiencing trauma, or with trauma backgrounds.

Trauma-responsive leadership requires treating team members as a person, not a position. It means demonstrating a relentless commitment to implement strategies to reduce toxic stress. For example, a trauma-responsive leader will constantly and consistently reevaluate workload and expectations, review language used internally and externally, and redefine PTO policies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies six guiding principles to navigate trauma successfully:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency
  3. Peer support
  4. Collaboration and mutuality
  5. Empowerment, voice, and choice
  6. Cultural, historical and gender issues.

A great leader fosters caring awareness, attitudes and attention for all.

I propose a framework for validating communication that helps create trauma-responsive spaces that help facilitate recovery and foster mental and emotional wellness.

While this framework was inspired by my experience as a single mom parenting teens and focused on my work as a Mission Partner for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, it applies to leadership.

It's a very memorable system because you're more than likely already familiar with it. It's the head-shoulders-knees-and-toes-eyes-and-ears-and-mouth-and-nose system — like the nursery rhyme.

Related: 3 Simple Steps to Keep You From Drowning in Collective Trauma

The anatomy of validating communication

Let's go through each part of the body to define the type of communication that will create trauma-informed and trauma-responsive conditions at work.

Head: Be Patient. The prefrontal cortex — the brain's thinking center — has decreased function and activation, and the amygdala — the emotional center of the brain - is hyperactive. Trauma affects people's ability to think, behave, manage emotions, and relate constructively to others.

Shoulders: Be compassionate. We have a lot of weight on our shoulders. We're all overwhelmed with responsibilities, peer pressure and societal pressure.

Knees: Be forgiving. Our knee-jerk reactions are not a reflection of how we feel about each other — they are triggered responses that can be rewired.

Toes: Be empathetic. Imagine what it's like in each others' shoes, and validate each other's emotions. We all feel invisible, inadequate and insecure at times.

The "head, shoulders, knees, and toes" perspective is the foundation of validation. The "eyes and ears and mouth and nose" teach us how to practice validating communication:

  • Make an effort to see each other's point of view
  • Listen without interruption
  • Speak kindly
  • Notice bids for connection that just might be right under your nose.

According to renowned psychologist Dr. John Gottman, a "bid for connection" is an attempt to get attention, affirmation or affection.

Related: Could Entrepreneurship Be a Trauma Response? 5 Ways Our Emotional Past Manifests in Leadership

Creating a trauma-responsive environment

This science-based approach is easy to understand and easy to remember. It does take intentional effort to embed it into the company culture.

As a leader, it's essential to model trauma-sensitive, equitable and culturally competent interactions. It's also critical to address added stressors that affect marginalized communities, such as implicit bias, racism and systemic oppression.

By bringing more trauma awareness and building a culture of patience, compassion, forgiveness and empathy, we can create the understanding that leads to happier, healthier and more productive people and places of business.

Elayna Fernandez

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Storyteller | Strategist | Student of Pain

Known globally as the Positive MOM, Elayna Fernández is a bestselling author, internationally acclaimed storyteller, and award-winning mom entrepreneur. Her blog, books, and programs inspire millions of moms worldwide to break cycles, find peace, and feel whole.

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