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Sounding the Alarm for Trauma-Informed Leadership

Cultivating Resilience through COVID-19

In part 1 of this series, I explained why it is important to name the COVID-19 pandemic as a force of trauma in our communities. I sounded the alarm for all leaders across all sectors to employ trauma-informed leadership strategies.

For the sake of this article, I am going to also refer to “trauma-informed leadership” as “resilient leadership.” When we approach leading with a sensitivity to and empathy for our team’s individual and collective experiences, we are building resilience on many levels.

As I share more about resilient leadership, I’m going to focus primarily on internal operations during COVID-19. This is imperfect because you cannot “be trauma-informed” only in the way you respond to this one crisis. Resilient leadership requires institutional shifts and deconstruction of traditional ways of operating. It cannot be isolated to this one experience. However, here we are in the midst of a pandemic and we need to urgently dive in and start somewhere.

I’m going to rely on the six principles of SAMHSA’s framework for a trauma-informed approach and talk about how we can embrace and adapt them to lead resiliently in any field or industry. You do not have to have a clinical or therapeutic background to practice trauma-informed leadership.

Safety

Your organization needs to feel safe: physically, psychologically and emotionally.

Regarding physical safety, recommendations for best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic are to get people working from home, if possible. Hopefully, you have found a way to do that. If you are still working on it, here are some tips for prioritizing workplace equity within a remote model. If your employees are not able to work from home, hopefully you are focusing on physical through implementing physical distancing requirements.

Your organizational culture cannot be deemed as “safe” without tending to emotional safety. Ellen Boeder, LPC says, “When our body and mind experience safety, our social engagement system enables us to collaborate, listen, empathize, and connect, as well as be creative, innovative, and bold in our thinking and ideas.”

To foster emotional safety during this time, be vulnerable. Let your team know that this is hard for you, too. Acknowledge their fear-and yours. Let them know that they can share about their fear; that you will make space for these conversations. With kids at home and employees in crisis, you may need to be realistic and relax productivity expectations in order to create safe space for people to show up as their whole self.

You can’t expect your employees to “check their personal lives at the (virtual) door.” If an employee is having a bad day, don’t jump to conclusions about their abilities. You can maintain performance expectations while also allowing your employees (and yourself) to be human.

Trustworthiness and Transparency

Your organization has likely had to shift gears quickly with the coronavirus outbreak. You have probably created (or are creating) new work models, policies, and ways to deliver services. In times of intense change, it is critical to communicate to the point that it feels excessive.  When people are experiencing adversity, it is helpful for them to receive messages multiple times in and in multiple ways. Don’t assume they absorbed it the first time. What you may worry will be annoying is actually a compassionate communication strategy. Communicate in different ways. Share by email and schedule times to talk through decisions.

If you are in the process of making a decision, let them know that; don’t wait until it’s done. If you’ve ever been in a hospital waiting to hear news about a sick loved one, you know how helpful it is to have frequent and consistent information, no matter how small.

Peer Support

Peer support is a passion of mine-so much so that I facilitate peer communities as a service. As humans, we need each other. Thanks to recent advancements in neuroscience, we now know way more about the social brain. Our brains are literally wired – starting when we are in utero – to connect with one another. And even more amazing than that, our brains actually experience reward during social interaction, and sensations resembling physical pain when we are rejected or isolated.

While peer support doesn’t replace mental health treatment, it is a powerful tool to promote connectedness and wellbeing. Consider starting a virtual peer community within your organization (and for your clients!). The time together can focus on whatever the group wants – stress reduction, book club, tips for wellbeing during isolation, sharing hidden talents, whatever. Story-telling and building connection through shared experiences promote healing and resilience.

Collaboration and Mutuality

Approach your trauma-informed initiatives with the expectation and promise that everyone on your team-from the cleaning staff to the accountant and from the marketing intern to executive leadership team-are working together. Becoming trauma-informed is not a directive; it is an invitation. Power and hierarchy should not be applied.   

Pose questions to your team about how your organization can better focus on wellbeing, resilience and connection. Then step back and listen. When people contribute, thank them. Continue asking questions. Individuals across your organization likely have brilliant ideas about how your culture could feel safer and more connected. Let non-traditional positions lead efforts and conversations. And make sure you celebrate your resilience together.

Empowerment, Voice and Choice

This is where we break down and dispose of the “us” and “them” and replace it with “we: all of us.” I’ll write about saviorism in the nonprofit and philanthropy world another time, so for now, let’s talk about hierarchy and power within your organization. Most businesses operate within traditional hierarchical models. And despite many nonprofits existing to promote justice and equality, we historically are a very “top-down” culture. Ideas and directives come from the top-from the people with the least proximity to the people the organization serves (I’m looking at you executives, boards, and foundations).

Resilient leadership during the time of COVID-19 means first recognizing that you are all in this together-in this world, community, organization, and crisis. And though you are experiencing the same pandemic, acknowledge that you may be experiencing it very differently.

As you adjust to the “new normal,” invite your employees to share in the design of your systems, as well as their goals. Find out from them how they can be most effective and productive as their work and personal lives have been flipped on their heads. Give them as many choices as you can within your means. Is it possible to let a traditional 9-5 employee work from 7-11 and 1-4 instead, so they can tend to their family’s needs at home? Can you throw out the typical meeting schedule and let your employees collectively design a schedule that best accommodates their new circumstances? Empowerment also means equipping your team with the tools and resources they need, and ensuring that accommodations are made equitably.

Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

If I’m being honest, I think it’s cheap to pull out these topics of equity and identity and put them last, in their own siloed category. It is impossible to achieve the above tenets of safety, transparency, peer support, mutuality and empowerment without approaching each of them with an equity lens.

So my first suggestion for you is: don’t do that. Don’t approach this pandemic by creating a special program for “diverse populations” or “cultural competency,” assign a Person of Color to run it, and then check a box and move on.

Recognize that, while COVID-19 does not discriminate, the protections against it do. The most vulnerable and underserved communities have the least access to information, resources and care. Direct your resources accordingly and take steps to authentically grow your organization’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Take heart, kindred leaders. Resilient leadership starts with you wholeheartedly valuing and caring for your staff’s wellbeing. You wouldn’t still be reading this if that were not the case. In the final part of this 3-part series, I’ll share a guide of tangible steps you can take towards resilient leadership. Take small steps alongside your team. Do it together. Even from a physical distance.

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