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Why Diverse Teams Are More Likely To Have Hidden Trauma And 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

The more widely diverse your workplace is, the more likely you are to have people in the organisation who are from marginalised groups. Research has shown that people in marginalised groups or communities are more likely to have been exposed to traumatic events and experiences than those who are not (Muldoon et.al, 2019). In plain language; if you have a diverse team, it is more likely that trauma is present. This article makes the case for trauma-informed leadership whether you lead a small family or a global corporation. It is for everyone.


Round red and white sugnage

A trauma-informed leader is aware that trauma is all around them. It is mostly unacknowledged, unseen, or silent. But that doesn’t mean it is not there. Being trauma-informed as a leader means not only do you understand that trauma is all around.


you, but that you don’t expect it to look a certain way. You are alert to reducing risk of re-traumatisation, and you will be an attentive listener who hears and enhances the voices of others rather than speaking “for” them. The result is likely to be a more cohesive and inclusive working environment that maximises group resilience. For a primer on what it is to be a refreshingly trauma-informed leader, read my earlier Brainz. article here.

 

The good news is that becoming trauma-informed is simple, and the practices are great for everyone. It is not treating everyone with kid gloves. It is compassion, not empathy. Let me explain.

 

The dark side of empathy

Let’s start with how humans react to differences. According to researcher Rutger Bregman in his book HumanKind: A Hopeful History, a theory of human evolution suggests that we evolved to be empathic and feel the pain of others to help us connect and bond more quickly within our own tribe. This gets cued up by even the tiniest and most subtle of signals of energy, body language, looks, mannerisms. This was important back in hunter-gatherer days when tribes had to instinctively know who “their” people were. This is thought to be one of the traits that marked out the evolution of the modern human. To this day, humans universally can strongly identify with people who they perceive to be like themselves. In short, it is thought that it is an evolution that hard-wired humans to be so quick to identify “us” and “them” [to catch a quick podcast I did for a lot more information and examples of all this, click here]

 

The flip side of this superpower of identity and empathy is that it can make us wary of people who we don’t perceive to be “like us”. Ask yourself how easy it is for you to make space for all types of people, have time for their differences, and yet still push progress forward. It is undoubtedly easier when you have a shared understanding, right? But what if their background shows you how different they are from you? Their background, culture, and beliefs. What if you feel you can’t really understand them? It takes a lot more effort, and you are not alone. Empathy (says Rutger Bregman) for our “in group” comes at a price, because we actually feel less of it for those we don’t identify with so strongly. 

 

That’s right. Empathy (says Rutger Bregman) is behind our hate and distrust of those we don’t identify with, as well as our love and connection with those we do. It is a powerful human trait, with a powerful dark side.

 

Social researcher Brené Brown noted that emotions, especially those arising from empathy, are powerful and complex. I often recommend her book Atlas of The Heart as a reader-friendly handbook on human emotion. For a fascinating visual primer on how empathy works, watch this great Sketchnote by Doug Neil

 

Embracing difference

In my work as a Coaching Psychologist, my clients bring this to life. Over again, they describe being marginalised because of their differences. Leaders and team members need to know that our human superpower of being able to subconsciously distinguish differences, and so marking some people out as not belonging, happens a lot to people due to the stigmas of mental health, mental illness, neurodivergence, and trauma. (I’m talking of Neurodivergents as people whose thought patterns, learning, and/or thinking styles differ from those people who are considered neurotypical. Click here to read a great article by Lisa Jo Rudy at Very Well Health to expand your awareness around this, or this one by Alexis Lynch for Brainz magazine on why it is about differences, not deficits. This becomes quite the cocktail when you mix people from marginalised groups (including many Neurodivergents), plus higher levels of trauma exposure, plus associated negative impact on mental health. Suddenly, it can feel very hard to belong. No matter how well-written a Diversity & Inclusion policy is. 

 

Trauma is especially tricky as it can make someone more reactive to perceived threats and dangers. Depending on how trauma was laid down in their memory, even supposedly safe places such as offices and organisations can feel threatened when past trauma resurfaces. I’ll come back to this in a couple of paragraphs below. For now, we just need to notice that trauma can cause people to react suddenly or strangely to things. Subconsciously, you’ll know they are different from you. 

 

So being surrounded by people you can relate to will seem at surface level to work out well. But when you can’t relate… that gets awkward. Yet the evidence is overwhelmingly strong that organisations thrive better when they employ a diverse range of people AND when those people can bring their whole selves to work. 

 

So are we stuck between evolution warning us of differences all around us, and modern workplaces increasing our exposure to it? And what has this got to do with being a trauma-informed leader?

 

When a diverse team can increase the chances of workplace dis-stress

Bringing your whole self to work is pretty straightforward when you are amongst the mainstream – neuro-typical, able-bodied, cis-gender, heterosexual, white, male, western… and so on. But we know this creates a mono-mind and mono-culture that shuts down openness to new ideas. Sophia Casey, MCC, explains in detail the rewards of greater creativity, adaptability, and cohesion are just some ways that organisations benefit from greater inclusion in her article on Inclusive Leadership here. Yet it is important to know that while it makes sense to invite more diversity into our organsiations and teams, it can actually place people from marginalised groups at greater risk, especially if they remain in the minority, unless we actively open up our awareness. So, before you build a beautifully diverse team, let me take you one step deeper into the world of trauma-informed awareness. 

 

Reframing trauma

Trauma is not what you (probably) think it is. Stemming from the medical diagnostic models of cause and effect, when we think of trauma we are more likely to think of the event or “what happened”. However, as traumatologist and psychiatrist Dr. Gabor Mate explains, trauma is not what happens to you, “but what happens inside of you as a result”. This is especially exacerbated if we are left isolated and alone to deal with the experience(s). Put simply, trauma is not the experience you go through (earthquake, war zone, disaster, assault) but the reaction inside of you that pushes you beyond your limits of overwhelm in body mind and spirit (for more on this check out this podcast I did early last year, and an earlier article I wrote for Brainz here).

 

Nurturing trauma-informed leadership

The awareness that what may be innocuous for me can be traumatic for you, accentuates the importance of tailored leadership approaches. Aided by a trauma-informed lens, leaders can construct environments conducive to healing, growth, and holistic well-being. This demands a lot of compassion and self-compassion from the leader, not to mention an openness to dealing with your own emotional baggage (whether that includes trauma responses or not), so when team members are dealing with their own issues, the ripple effect is healing and progress. (To learn more about what this might take, see the second article I published on Brainz.) 

 

Embracing the whole self

You can’t embrace whole-person leadership if you are hiding a lot of yourself. And to bring your whole self is a big ask. Yet the potential wins are enormous. By stepping into Self Leadership, you can lead and guide all the different Parts of yourself not just through healing, but onwards to making a difference in the world. This starts right next to you with the people you engage with every day at home, at work, and in your communities.

 

Part of my role as a coaching psychologist is to help people bravely navigate their inner selves. Sometimes, it turns out therapy would be the next right step, and I’m trained in how to help people work this out. Here is a great article by Rozanna Wyatt that busts three great therapy myths

 

How can you make things better (yes, you)?

I’m guessing a lot of what this article says, you already knew. At least I hope so. What I’m challenging you to do today is ask yourself some big questions: how well do you know the people around you? What about those you find yourself somehow shying away from? Have you noticed any snap decisions or judgments you made about someone recently (don’t be shy; it's the empathy in humans that makes us naturally judgy!). And with all this running automatically in the background of your mind, pause for a moment and ask yourself, “Am I behaving and thinking like the real me?”. If not, take a few seconds to adjust.

 

Be aware of the ripple effect

Also, armed with your knowledge and awareness that difference itself at work might actually be subconsciously setting people’s awareness at higher levels and causing tensions, what can you do right now to create a nurturing environment in your team or workplace? What is missing that would make a difference? What are the obstacles in the way to resolving this? How can you make things better (yes, you)? 

 

And if the answer is that you and your colleagues are already on this page, but it's the level above you that needs to get updated, then reach out for help. Get in touch with me, pronto.

 

You are the leader you are waiting for

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 article, we need more trauma-informed leaders to make a better world together!

 

 

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! 

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