Trauma-Informed Organizational Behavior
By Ludmila N. Praslova, Professor and Director, Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Vanguard University of Southern California.
Societal stressors of the health, economic, and social crises tax our ability to cope in every area of our lives. Uncertainty, stress and fatigue can impact the way we treat each other at work - anger, blame, and other negative emotions can show up in irate e-mails, poor collaboration, information hoarding, and reduced quality of work.
It is tempting to look for someone to blame when things are not going well. It is even more tempting to tear someone down when the pandemic has changed our world, the economy is shaky, and our anxieties are high. The blows are real. The stress and the trauma are real.
Organizations will be more likely to thrive in the post-pandemic world if they learn from the model of trauma-informed organizations and trauma-informed leadership used in helping professions, expand it, and universally adapt it to our organizational contexts.
Key principles of the trauma-informed approach are safety, transparency, peer support, collaboration, empowerment, and understanding of cultural, gender, and other diversity factors. These principles are easily transferable to any workplace and align well with existing models for improving team communication and developing emotional intelligence.
1. Safety – in the context of working together, it also means supporting the psychological safety of all involved by checking incivility, blame, outbursts, and other behaviors that may lead to the escalation of tension. This does NOT mean suppressing how we feel – it means communicating it in a more productive - non-violent way. The switch to non-violent communication is credited as one of the changes that helped transform the culture of Microsoft from brutal to positive. The four components of non-violent communication are:
Observing and describing what is happening – without judgment.
Stating how you feel while avoiding the “victim verbs” (“I am confused” or “I don’t know what to do” vs. “insulted”). This is extremely hard if not impossible for those with alexithymia and related conditions, but there is a cheat sheet that could help. For those who do not struggle with identifying their emotions, remembering that emotional awareness is harder for some than for others is also a part of practicing diversity awareness.
Explaining how your needs are connected to your feeling.
Requesting a concrete action.
For example, if someone is expressing their frustration without asking for specific help, we could say "To be able to help, I need to know what the problem is; otherwise, I just feel anxious. Please let me know specifically what you are requesting."
Positive communication skills fit within the larger framework of emotionally intelligent behavior that can be developed in individuals, in particular in leaders, as well as in teams.
On the organizational level, we can ensure that our cultures call for both civility and voice. The constructive climate is most conducive to collaboration and psychological safety.
2) Trustworthiness & transparency. The sense of the unknown is stressful and sometimes unavoidable (e.g., when will COVID go away?). However, we can avoid the intentional secrecy and caginess in our interpersonal interactions and organizational processes. Decision-makers and managers who can't communicate outcomes can communicate processes. And perhaps experiment with transparency as a rule – it will likely make organizational life much healthier.
3) Peer support. “We all need each other” might be a worn-out saying, but it does not make it less true, in the workplace, or in any life situation. Team members committed to understanding and supporting each other are more engaged and productive.
4) Collaboration & mutuality. There are no victors in destruction, and victim posturing is ultimately unhelpful. It is more productive to try to take the first step toward mutuality – and if someone else does, to respond in kind.
5) Empowerment & choice. Agency and control are our core needs, and being cornered precludes true collaboration. Allowing others to make decisions makes most interactions much more effective.
6) Diversity Awareness (in the original, "cultural, historical & gender issues"). Historical and lived injustices and discrimination create an exaggerated stress response. So do certain health and mental health conditions. We could all benefit from giving others – and being given – a benefit of a doubt and from checking our cultural and other assumptions?
Trauma-informed collaboration and communication are not easy to implement, but the alternative is the exponential increase in suffering as we continue hurting each other because of our hurt feelings - and ultimately, chaos. Kindness works better. Organizations do not have to succumb to side-effects of stress and anger; we can develop both individual and organizational resilience.
An earlier version of this article was published on Ludmila Praslova’s LinkedIn profile on July 23, 2020.