Chief People & Culture Officer, Schoox
Jennifer Belk White, SPHR, SHRM-SCT, CHT
Human Resources Director, Lumina Foods
To understand trauma-informed leadership, first, let’s align on a definition of trauma. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
One of the most important aspects of this definition is the phrase “that is experienced by an individual.” Each of us will perceive experiences differently, through the lenses of our backgrounds and prior life experience. Our discussions on this topic with hospitality trainers has fostered some rich conversation. Here are our observations and thoughts on some key questions we’ve been asked about trauma-informed leadership:
How has the mindset changed for employees in 2023 relative to the topic of trauma in the workplace?
Jennifer: When I started in hospitality 40 years ago (that can’t be right!), from day one, I was told to leave the baggage at the door. Don’t bring any issues to work; instead, you always have to be “on,” smiling, presenting your best self. Don’t get me wrong – the hospitality heart is still essential, and guest service is still fundamental to what we do. However, today’s team members recognize and expect that they will be respected for who and what they are, and they don’t want to hide their true selves. Nor should they have to.
Matthew: As we were developing the content, it provided numerous opportunities for me to reflect on my own career journey, and I found so much has changed over the years. I can recall my first entry into the hospitality industry years ago. I found it to be so fresh and exciting to hear the words that sounded like such a departure from other industries. However, I did find that the “check your baggage at the door” mindset was still pervasive. In 2023, employees are telling us this is no longer acceptable. We cannot separate ourselves from our humanity, and asking us to do so in the workplace is simply setting everyone up for failure.
“We cannot separate ourselves from our humanity, and asking us to do so in the workplace is simply setting everyone up for failure.”
What do you think about the shift that’s taken place for Leaders?
Matthew: As leaders, the shift is even more gigantic. We have been held accountable for evolving at the speed of our workforce and the world around us, not at the speed of the corporate engine. We are being tasked with deprogramming ourselves from years of the generational cascading of concepts and mindsets. We’re expected to find new ways to support the workforce in practices that are rooted first in empathy, vulnerability, and compassion, instead of process and procedure.
Jennifer: Leaders have to adapt to the changing needs of our workforce. We have to look closely at ourselves to understand the baggage that we carry and ensure that we aren’t leading in ways that no longer work simply because that’s what we’re used to, or because that’s the way we were taught. We also have to understand that virtually everyone has experienced some form of trauma and that by recognizing and supporting our team members, rather than asking them to hide or feel shame for who they are or how they respond to their experiences, we ultimately strengthen the team and the organization, as well as ourselves.
What are some examples of interactions that may occur in the workplace which could trigger a trauma response?
Jennifer: I read recently of a young server who was harassed by an older male guest. She felt, in her words, “powerless and dehumanized,” but also worried that she was overreacting. That is not an uncommon response to trauma; since others’ reactions may be different, people who have a strong reaction may feel that they are over-dramatizing the situation.
Matthew: What’s big to one person may be small to another. In our daily practices in a restaurant, so many things could potentially trigger a trauma response. Some examples could include a guest who is frustrated with the pace of service or an incorrect dish being delivered to the table who responds with a sharp tone and unpleasant words; a manager telling a team member to “just deal with it;” a team member using physical force with another team member.
What are some behaviors that you might see in an employee that can be evident of trauma response on display?
Matthew: Trauma responses often include self-preservation behaviors. These are different for each person, but it could look like hypervigilance, trying to gain control of any part of a situation, anger or defensiveness, or even a complete retreat and shutdown.
Jennifer: You also might see individuals who are focused on their external environment, coming from a place of need for self-defense and the establishment of strong survival skills. These can lead to people being quick to anger or defensiveness, quick to make assumptions about co-workers or guests, and a lack of awareness of their impact on others.
How do we get comfortable as leaders addressing trauma in the workplace when we’re not therapists or experts in trauma response? We want to make things better and not worse.
Jennifer: Coming from a place of empathy and humility is a great start. We really have to ensure that we’re walking the walk, not just talking the talk, to create a truly psychologically safe environment. I think the most important thing for me was recognizing that not everyone thinks like I do, not everyone responds to experiences the same way I would, and I can’t make assumptions about the “right” response, since what is right for me may not be right for others.
Matthew: We have to remember that we’re all humans first and foremost. We all want to “get it right” all of the time, but it’s more important to try than to get it right every single time. To get more comfortable with that which makes us uncomfortable, we must practice. Start by taking small steps that are aligned with your natural instincts. Not everyone will have the same natural abilities, but we can gain confidence and comfort by starting with those elements which feel natural.
The breakout session on Trauma-informed Leadership presented by Matthew Brown and Jennifer Belk White at CHART 103 Seattle received high praise from attendees. Participant Nadine Willems-Antersijn said this about her experience:
“This session gave me the space to reflect on what leadership is really about, how to reshape the mindset: you must first understand the past if you want to help with the present and future. The care for people that suffered some sort of trauma, needs to be genuine and not a box that you check off.”
What are the biggest barriers to getting started on the journey to a trauma-informed leadership model or culture?
Matthew: Many companies get stuck trying to figure out where to start – start small and simple. Reconnect with your humanity and leverage your strengths to create a safe space for employees to have meaningful conversations (or create space for them to process when needed). Consider the benefit and impact of being able to give a team member some time to decompress and reset if they get rattled on a shift, or if they arrive for work in a distressed state.
Jennifer: We have to be open to changing our perspectives and not doing things the way we’ve always done. Reframing our response to change from “what’s wrong with them?” to “what might they have experienced that is creating this response?” can allow us to shift gears in the moment and not react in a way that causes more harm. I saw something on the National Council for Mental Wellbeing’s website (thenationalcouncil.org) that said “it’s not what’s wrong with you but what’s strong with you.” I love that!
What does a trauma-informed leader look like?
Jennifer: Avoiding assumptions is one of the hallmarks of a trauma-informed leader. If a team member is “not themselves” today, they seem disengaged or aren’t really connecting with guests, jumping to an assumption that they “have a bad attitude” or that they “don’t want to be here” does no one any good. Trauma-informed leaders give attention to creating a truly safe environment, not only physically but psychologically, so that team members know they can show up as their authentic selves and be okay. Another important aspect of being a trauma-informed leader is engaging in self-care, so that we can show up as the best versions of ourselves.
Matthew: Leading with authenticity, not being afraid to show vulnerability as a leader and a commitment to one’s own self-care are three additional hallmarks of a trauma-informed leader. When a leader displays authenticity and vulnerability, it creates an environment of implied permission and trust for employees to do the same. The leader will always set the tone for the employees, whether in action or words, and employees will know immediately whether the intention and environment are genuinely guided by positive intent or a contrived experience that isn’t pure. When the leader can step forward and demonstrate what it means to be authentic and vulnerable, employees will take chances at doing the same. When the leader is overt in their commitment to self-care, it also helps employees feel more confident in doing the same. When we do these things together, we create an environment that is conducive to supporting our employees through trauma response.
How can we as leaders ensure that we are engaging in appropriate self-care?
A great place to start is the eight dimensions of wellness, developed by SAMHSA as a positive, holistic tool to optimize an individual’s overall wellness. The eight dimensions are: emotional, physical, spiritual, social, intellectual, occupational, environmental, and financial. We’ve included a personal assessment in the resources section in which you can self-evaluate on each of these dimensions and develop a plan to strengthen areas in which you have identified a need.
Trauma-informed leadership is critical to the success of businesses. According to SAMHSA, a trauma-informed approach is based around the six principles of safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment and choice, and cultural, historical, and gender issues.
- Safety: throughout the organization, employees and leaders feel physically and psychologically safe.
- Trustworthiness and Transparency: decisions are made with transparency and with the goal of building and maintaining trust.
- Peer Support: individuals with shared experiences are integrated into the organization and viewed as integral to service delivery.
- Collaboration and Mutuality: power differences—between guests and employees, as well as between employees and leaders—are leveled to support shared decision-making.
- Empowerment and Choice: guests’ and employees’ strengths are recognized, built on, and validated. This includes a belief in resilience and the ability to heal from trauma.
- Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues: biases, stereotypes, and historical trauma are recognized and addressed.