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What Is Trauma-Informed Leadership? What Refreshing Leaders Need To Know

Kate Brassington brings the nervous system to life for leaders, and anyone under pressure. She published academic research in 2020, regularly blogs about this emerging field, and is the host of the Refreshing Leadership podcast.

 
Executive Contributor Kate Brassington

Trauma is not what you (probably) think it is. It is not ill-ness, weakness, or broken-ness. You can’t tell by how someone looks, what they have been through. But it doesn’t mean trauma is not there. As a leader, taking a few small steps can make a huge difference. It is a case of opening your humanity, awareness, and compassion. Let me explain. 


Hands holding embracing loving.

First, let me tell you a story


A few years ago, I was in a meeting with my line manager. I was asking for scheduled time off to take my daughter to planned hospital appointments for blood transfusions for her long-term medical condition. 


I was new in the role and before accepting the offer, I had explained the situation. I was expecting a routine chat about when these planned dates were. 


After all, the dates were dictated by the hospital. I'd had four years by then of juggling a high tempo job around it all, and was experienced at managing my time and work. I’d made that clear. 


To my growing horror, the boss began immediately to remonstrate with me for putting dates in the diary. How dare I assume he had agreed them? He had not given permission. He was furious. 


I froze. Went numb. Hot. Cold. Shaky. Fear rolled in waves over me. 


My daughter’s life depended on that blood. Our family finances (and my sanity) depended on me doing meaningful work.


This had gone from routine to sheer nightmare. I was suddenly not in control, but I needed to recover, fast. I fought back tears, drawing breaths, trying to gather my shocked wits. I tried to speak, to explain. He kept cutting through me before abruptly sending me out saying “we will talk about this again another time”.


I walked out, still stunned. Not knowing if the upcoming medical appointment was agreed. My sense of safety and place in the world was shattered.


So, before we continue the story, let me debunk a couple of myths to you about what trauma is, and is not, and what it means to be a trauma-informed (and therefore compassionate) leader.


Trauma is not what you think it is


The media and movies portray trauma as a dark, night-terror filled world where people are isolated and alone. This is usually following a horrific event. 


Leaders need to know that this only represents a tiny fraction of the range of trauma responses that people can be left with. Most times, the isolation, fear, flashbacks, loneliness and confusion are hidden behind a functional mask.


Instead, a trauma-informed leader needs to know that trauma can present itself in many myriads of ways. You aren’t going to be diagnosing it; but you can arm yourself with awareness. 


For example, people from minority groups because of their age, sex, gender (and gender reassignment), sexual orientation, race, marriage / civil partnership, religion, disability, and carers of young or old people, and Neuro-Divergent people, are all at increased risk of being exposed to trauma. 


Trauma exposure can be from a one-off event. It may result in a diagnosis such as PTSD, or anxiety, depression, or no diagnosis at all. 


Trauma can also come from shorter or repeated exposures, such as childhood abuse, racism, misogyny. The effect can build up over time. This can result in a diagnosis such as Complex PTSD, or anxiety, depression, but often is missed by both practitioners and the person themselves as they have become used to it and (especially in the case of exposure during childhood) think that this is “normal”. 


Being trauma-informed is becoming aware that trauma might not be easy to spot in the people around you, but it doesn’t mean it is not there.


Trauma is not what happened to you


It is a common misconception, to talk about trauma by the index event, such as a battlefield or car crash. This is partly because of the medical model which requires medical professionals to follow a diagnostic process that first asks “what happened”. This leads to a focus on the event. 


This works excellently if you need to know for insurance reasons that your broken leg is because you fell down the stairs; it works less well for matters of the mind. That's because the intricacies of the nervous system mean that trauma is perhaps more as Dr Gabor Maté describes it:


“trauma is not what happens to you; it is what happens inside of you as a result" Dr Gabor Maté

Trauma responses are not illnesses or broken-ness


Trauma therefore is not a malaise, dysfunction, illness, or brokenness (which is not to say it isn’t a highly uncomfortable, upsetting, and life-altering experience). It is the nervous system and brain doing what they are designed to do when humans face adversity. In our modern world, our nervous systems are constantly alert, and so the potential for trauma is all around us. Let me explain.


In a vast study published in 2016, the World Health Organisation estimated that 70% of the world adult population has been exposed to at least one traumatic event (Benjet et al., 2016)1, yet of these only around 8% have a diagnosis of PTSD (Tedeschi & Moore, 2016)2, or other mental injury condition. 


To me this study was a radical wake-up call. The coaching industry, and indeed the world of employment, needs to open its eyes and realise that it is more likely than not, the negative impact of trauma could be present in as many as 7/10 of us. They are in our coaching rooms, workforce, offices, communities, schools, and in our families.


I always say the icky thing about trauma is, unlike the preconception that it is limited to environmental disasters, wars, accidents, and physical violence, most commonly it is something done to us by other humans. Where there are victims, there are perpetrators, and this can be very uncomfortable to explore in communities, groups, teams. David Treleaven explains the prevalence of Trauma in his book Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness, and last year I did a short podcast to draw out some of the applications from this to leadership you can listen here.


The effects can also be passed on second hand (Vicarious Trauma) such as in the nature of someone’s work as a first responder or therapist. And it can be passed down through generations (Trans-Generational Trauma). Being raised by traumatised caregivers can cause Developmental Trauma in young children’s brain development. So it really is a lot more complicated and widespread than event exposures. (I talk about it more in my research paper that was first published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 20203.)


As you can see, trauma is potentially everywhere. 


Being a trauma-informed leader is easier than you think


Being trauma-informed means being on the look-out to spot signs in everyday life (not diagnosing or calling it out, but being quietly aware). 


When you’re dealing with someone's job dissatisfaction, burnout, absenteeism, presenteeism, loss of confidence or poor work performance, or even general unhappiness, pause and ask yourself. 


  • Could this be down to a trauma of some kind?

  • Is this person from a minority or under-represented group? 

  • Have they children, elderly parents, or a past work life you don’t know much about? 


You aren’t diagnosing. But you can open your eyes and mind and be a refreshing leader.


Are you listening to the right people? Watch out who is doing the “informing”


The biggest alert I have is for people to watch out who is doing the informing people who have experienced trauma are often a very “spoken for” group such as with disabilities, in minority racial or ethnic groups, marginalised through gender or sexual orientation, with mental injuries, illnesses, diagnoses and doctors prescribing labels, Neuro-Divergent, and more. It all comes with a huge stigma. 


To be trauma-informed is to switch on your listening and allow the person who has experienced it to inform you. Can you get curious? Can you listen? 


In a later article I’ll talk some more about what it might take, within you, to be this person. Spoiler alert; you might need to deal with some of your own baggage! For now, check out this great article on Creating Inner Harmony, by Swami Parameshwar Das.


The difference that can make the difference


I wish, back in that meeting with my boss, I’d known then what I know now. In fact, I was horribly vulnerable, still working through my own traumas that had happened at her birth, and ongoingly through her illness. I’d just supported my mum through to her end of life not three months before. 


I was absolutely fit and ready for work (indeed work is always a support structure for me). But this treatment was extra-ordinary in some many ways (even in my years in the Army I had not been treated with so little respect or consideration, and that, my friends, is saying something). It settled into a pivotal moment that pushed me onto the path I am on now.


If he’d been trauma-informed, he might have understood some basics of when trauma may be present in a room. He’d have held awareness on two levels:


  • Himself - how come he got so furious so fast, how come he was feeling so threatened, what had triggered his own automatic reactions of his nervous system, how to regulate himself and lead us both out of it;

  • Me - that the mere facts of me being ¹ a woman; ² a parent-carer of a chronically-ill child; ³ recently bereaved, would have alerted him to the idea that I may be walking into that room already vulnerable.


This does not mean he needed kid gloves on supporting someone who is vulnerable (and I’ll tell you some give-away signs) is not about being soft. It is about being compassionate. It matters, because trauma is all around us, even in the workplace (here is a great article on Addressing Trauma In The Workplace, by Zane Landin).


Compassion is a whole world of standing in someone else's' shoes and seeing through their eyes. It is not sympathy (poor you), or empathy (oh how painful this experience is I share with you). It is gritty, real, vulnerable in its own way (oh my, that sounds so tough! What might help?). Understanding the interface between empathy and compassion takes us right back to evolution, and understanding where empathy and compassion fit into our modern brain for a short, steep dive into it all, catch this podcast episode I recorded in the new year.


Back to the day my world came crumbling down


If my boss, that day, had been able to pause and be curious, we could have had a totally different start to our work together. OK, maybe we would never have become buddies, but we’d have had a working environment of respect and shared understanding. And that would have made all the difference. 


Thankfully our daughter is doing amazingly well now, having had a successful bone-marrow transplant at age 7 (her little sister, then age 4, was her super-hero sibling donor). 


And me, what have I learnt from that day? That a reaction in a person is often more about them than you. Compassion starts when we can stand in someone else’s shoes… so his hyper-reaction would have told me he was not ok. 


Compassion takes vulnerability on both sides. So if I had that moment all over again now, I’d pause, and start by inviting him to wear my shoes for a moment, to see through my eyes. I’d start like I have with you. 


I’d say, lets get a cuppa, and let me tell you a story…


Over to you, refreshing leaders


Remember, when we talk about Refreshing Leaders, we're not just talking about those in traditional leadership positions. 


We're talking about leaders in all areas of life – in our communities, in our families, in groups. 


What defines a refreshing leader is something deeper, something that transcends titles and roles. It's about embodying qualities that bring about positive change while inspiring others to do the same. 


And it starts with you. 


Watch this space Coming soon


I hang out on LinkedIn and Twitter / X, and host my podcast Refreshing Leadership, and my blog, on my website. You can contact me via the website to talk about coaching one-with-one for yourself or your team member, or to enquire about me speaking at your event in person or online. 


I’m working towards starting a Doctorate on trauma-informed leadership coaching next year. If your organisation would be interested in exploring partnering on this, get in touch! 


Through this year I’ll be publishing a series of articles with Brainz covering many aspects of Refreshing Leadership. Bookmark my profile on Brainz so you can read each article as they drop.


Please share this with people you think might value it – we need to spread the word about a trauma-informed world!


 

Kate Brassington, Coaching Psychologist and Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach

Kate Brassington is a Coaching Psychologist and Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach. Listed as one of the Top 10 professional coaches in Luxembourg by The For Better Institute, she coaches people all over the world from her attic zoom room. She helps leaders learn to withstand high pressure environments, while sustainably producing great results. Her mission is to ease suffering and get the fun back! 

 

Endnotes:


  1. Benjet, C., Bromet, E., Karam, E. G., Kessler, R. C., McLaughlin, K. A., Ruscio, A. M., Shahly, V., Stein, D. J., Petukhova, M., Hill, E., Alonso, J., Atwoli, L., Bunting, B., Bruffaerts, R., Caldas-de-Almeida, J. M., de Girolamo, G., Florescu, S., Gureje, O., Huang, Y., … Koenen, K. C. (2016). The epidemiology of traumatic event exposure worldwide: results from the World Mental Health Survey Consortium. Psychological Medicine, 46(2), 327–343. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291715001981

  2. Tedeschi, R. G., & Moore, B. A. (2016). The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook: Vol. Kahn, B. (B. Khan, Ed.; 1st ed.). New Harbinger Publications.

  3. Brassington, K., & Lomas, T. (2021). Can resilience training improve well-being for people in high-risk occupations? A systematic review through a multidimensional lens. Journal of Positive Psychology, 16(5), 573–592. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2020.1752783

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