Medical case

How to Lead Someone Who’s Been Through a Lot

Welcome to the era of trauma-based leadership. Are you ready to help your people heal?

By Robyn L Garrett

Many people struggle with the word trauma. Even if they’ve been through an extreme situation, they often won’t internally recognize exactly how traumatic it’s been. This is one of the many ways our brains insulate us from the unthinkable: by literally refusing to think about it.

However, like several other evolutionary responses, this isn’t exactly helpful. Anyone who’s been near a 12-step program knows it’s essential to admit when you have a problem. The truth is we’ve all experienced trauma at times in our lives, especially recently. Given the massive mutually experienced trauma of 2020, it’s time to start practicing trauma-informed leadership.

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Understanding Trauma-Informed Care

In medicine, the concept of trauma-informed care is still relatively new. It’s a set of principles designed to create a more compassionate, safe, empowering, and healing space for patients that have endured some form of trauma. It’s a fundamental shift toward taking someone else’s point of view and seeing their behavior through the lens of possible trauma.

These concepts are widely used in social work and mental health, and they’re increasingly being taught in education and law enforcement systems. So why aren’t we talking about them in the corporate world? Trauma-informed leadership is a new way to approach your responsibilities. It’s a move away from shaming toward complete, unbridled compassion.

It means that when someone is late, doesn’t perform well, or does something else you perceive as wrong, you don’t think to yourself, “What’s the matter with you?” Instead, you ask, “What happened to you?”

We’re All Carrying Trauma

The first step in practicing trauma-informed leadership is realizing trauma is much more prevalent than you think. Studies show 61 percent of adults experienced some form of potentially traumatizing childhood experience, while 1 in 5 adults lives with some form of mental illness. Approximately 20 percent of women have been the victims of sexual assault.

One of the reasons the #MeToo movement has been so powerful is that trauma often happens secretly. It’s part of the systemic oppression that prevents change and shifts blame onto the victims of trauma. But the numbers don’t lie. Trauma happens to everyone.

The types of trauma above are all extremely severe. But there are many other traumatizing experiences plaguing us. What about all of the people who have lost a loved one to COVID-19? What about the constant stress we’re experiencing? What about our feelings of griefover the loss of our most treasured traditions, routines, and pleasures? What about the intergenerational trauma and ongoing trauma from racism that BIPOC are carrying after centuries of ongoing abuse and oppression?

No one is okay. Our brains aren’t wired for this. So it’s essential that we adopt a trauma-informed mindset. 

The Trauma-Informed Approach

Let’s say one of your team members has been more reclusive and unfriendly in the past few weeks. If you’re not using a trauma-informed approach, you could assume several things: they’re checked out, bitter, or simply not a very nice person. But using trauma-informed principles can help you reframe your thinking here.

Instead of focusing on just what you see (and what it makes you feel), ask yourself whether you know what that person is really going through. Remember: We’re all products of our experiences. The new behavior is likely to be caused by something. No matter what, telling them to snap out of it probably won’t make the situation better for anyone. Nor will passive aggression, anger, or shaming. But compassion might.

While our workplaces have become more friendly and open, many people aren’t comfortable broadcasting their trauma. You’re going to have to be vulnerable and potentially open yourself up to some awkward conversations. Yes, you’re bound to make some missteps.

No one can expect you to know everything they’re going through, and people process their trauma extremely differently, so you may not be able to recognize the signs. You may decide to take a chance and reach out to someone who isn’t ready. It may backfire. But imagine how powerful it is to know that someone really cares about you in this way.

So how do you start? Withholding judgment is useful, but asking the right questions can also be a powerful tool. Here are some adaptations of questions used in other fields that may work for you:

  • Would you like to share how things are going in your life right now?
  • Is there anything in your past or present that’s making your life difficult right now?
  • What could I do to make work more comfortable for you?
  • I want to make sure I am giving you the right support. Is there anything I should know that you may not want to share with the larger group?
  • I care about you and your success. Could you think about a few things you need from me and share them with me when you feel comfortable?

Asking these questions in a private, open-minded way gives both parties a chance to level-set. It may take a few tries, so it’s worth revisiting from time to time, especially if you’re noticing some kind of change or struggle. One of the most core concepts of trauma-informed thinking is assuming problems aren’t caused by the person—they’re the result of circumstances surrounding the person. 

This may not be natural for you, but it’s your job as a leader to lift others up. With many more unknown challenges still ahead, practicing trauma-informed leadership can be a healing approach that helps everyone be at their best. 

Robyn L Garrett is chief customer officer at AIIR Consulting, a leadership development firm that leverages data science, advanced business psychology, and innovative technology to deliver proven results. You can find her on LinkedIn or Instagram at @youcantfightthefuture.