Cut to the chase:
We might consider much of our workforce now ‘traumatised’ on account of the continued and cumulative stress of the pandemic, social injustice and climate crisis.
- This means we need to adjust how we lead and introduce change.
- There are clues in ‘trauma-informed’ practice.
So, what do you know about trauma-informed change?
Not much? No, me neither. I posited back in April 2020, that with COVID-19 posing an actual existential threat to humanity, many if not all of our workforce would view all change as threat regardless of how positive it was. This post is a bit of working out loud, a public conversation starter, a what’s on my mind…
What’s on my mind is the recognition that the continuing stress and uncertainty will result in people in the workplace who are hypervigilant and highly emotionally aroused and demonstrating symptoms of cumulative trauma. I’m thinking trauma-informed change should be the next domain of change leadership especially considering the widespread trauma that has occurred and is occurring with the pandemic.
It’s a topic that is so far unexplored – a google search on Trauma Informed Change does not yield all that much. And its going to take an overlap of practitioners and professionals steeped in psychology, sociology, social work, and mental health with the organisational change community to come up with anything that comes close to “best practice”. Kylie Lewis and I touched on this fleetingly with our post in October 2020 on how to create a more resilient and optimistic workplace. It acknowledged the importance of creating a healing space for employees to process the trauma that is happening outside of the workplace.
We can learn from the mental health field
In Australia you can find an excellent four-stage manual / toolkit from the Mental Health Coordinating Council (MHHC). The previous three stages cover an organisational change audit and the implementation stages. In the Stage 4 manual they address leadership, they share
Important attributes for trauma-informed leadership:
- You will have bucket loads of patience – change can be slow and incremental and there will likely be set-backs
- You will understand that relationships are at the core of human service delivery
- You will have strategies to maintain your passion, so that frustration with the pace of change and barriers experienced doesn’t turn dedication into anger
- You will bring others along with you, create open dialogue and a supportive culture – you can’t lead alone
- You will have worked through your own trauma experiences; recognise when you are re-triggered and seek support. You may need your own space for self-care and wellbeing and recognise that need in others
- You will be open to ideas, take criticism constructively; be open to reviewing your point of view
- You will be flexible and willingly change direction if plans are not working
- You will welcome change and that nothing need be set in stone; inspire and be fearless
- You will celebrate small wins while aiming for bigger ones
- You will maintain boundaries and model self-care and never forget that trauma can generate trauma
Many of the good change leaders reading this post will be nodding along, noting there is not that much different to leading change well today – the exception I think is:
You will have worked through your own trauma experiences; recognise when you are re-triggered and seek support. You may need your own space for self-care and wellbeing and recognise that need in others.
You will maintain boundaries and model self-care and never forget that trauma can generate trauma
We can tend to assume that we must be relentlessly positive in leading change. We can tend to try to hide natural and authentic responses to things like continuing lockdowns – which ironically, makes us less effective leaders of change. Our teams do not relate to us when we are all positive in the face of really crappy times. It’s time to cease that.
Trauma informed organisational change toolkits
Abroad, you will find similar toolkits, manuals, and guides from the National Health Care for the Homeless.
And also, from the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care (ITTIC).
These manuals were produced pre-pandemic and with trauma informed care as the organisational change to be introduced, NOT how to implement change with a traumatised workforce. They are very much worth reading though, especially for leaders of change as it starts to build your literacy in a domain that may not be natural for you. They are excellent resources in understanding trauma.
It may be that as an organisation, these models and frameworks offered are the first step to implementing change with traumatised workforces. Whereas once it was primarily community organisations and health organisations that benefited from trauma informed leadership, it is now EVERY organisation that benefits from trauma-informed leadership.
Let me be very clear, while academic researchers will be studying the impacts of a globally traumatised workforce, it will be some time before there are results we can use to guide us. This is a very unique context – although there will be transferable lessons from communities that have lived through crisis (e.g., bushfire or for instance the business community in New York City after 9/11).
If you see the local thought leader of the day, pivoting on their usual speaking topics, and presenting as an expert of Trauma Informed Change, take pause. It will be people sharing their experiences of leading change in the workplace that are courageous enough to share that will be the ones we can learn from.
What I have learned about trauma informed practice
Here’s some of what I have picked up so far.
Trauma-informed care follows six principles not unlike what good change design should be:
- Trustworthy and transparency,
- Peer support,
- Collaboration and mutuality,
- Empowerment, voice, and choice
- Cultural, Historical and Gender Issues.
It seems to stand that if we follow these principles, in our implementation approaches, we are offering trauma- informed change practice. Trauma informed L&D advocates for smaller chunks of learning, slower scaffolding of concepts. This too applies to how we do training and development in change.
I think the issue for leadership will be NOT only how to adjust your change programs to being able to deploy and land well within a traumatised workforce, but how to not exacerbate the trauma through your change efforts. What we know from the neuroscience research that our brains do not react well to continuing uncertainty, it is seen as a threat to survival and as such the amygdala is hyper-aroused, inducing fight, flight freeze responses. And while we were used to accommodating this in the occasional team member, it is now the whole team who is reacting in this way. Who’s up for slowing down the change in front of you to a pace which the team can cope with?
Serenity, courage and wisdom?
Initially I thought the provocation was for leaders in organisations to be courageous enough to say no to change. The first question should be of teams: How much can this team now bear? And while that is a terribly important question to ask, it is impractical to stop all change. If you have a technical infrastructure that is collapsing through years of underinvestment, you will have no organisation to continue with. Some change has to happen.
So perhaps it’s a flip of the Serenity Prayer?
God/Goddess grant me the serenity to accept the things I must change,
The courage to say no to those changes that I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference between the two.
Where to next?
Ok, so if this post has resonated here’s a couple of things you could do:
- Speak with your HR / People and Culture team to understand what the level of awareness of trauma informed practice and commitment is to building capability in this area
- Lobby your professional associations (e.g., Change Management Institute, ACMP to bring in outside experts in trauma management and START a conversation on what that means for the change profession
- Read the documents linked to in this post.
- Share this post with peers, friends, or colleagues who work in the psychology / social work field to strike up a conversation of understanding.
- Raise this as a topic with your favourite conference, professional meet up.
If you have expertise in this area or have resources that you think should be more widespread, then please, do let me know about them.
Sources & Acknowledgement:
Mental Health Coordinating Council (MHCC) 2019, Trauma-Informed Leadership for Organisational Change: A Framework, TICPOT Stage 4, MHCC, NSW, Australia, Authors: Henderson C and Isobel S. Available: http://www.mhcc.org.au/
Tania King, Manager Allied Health at Eastern Palliative Care Association.