The Importance of Trauma Awareness in the Workplace
Trauma affects every single person throughout their lives. Yet, trauma is still stigmatized. Most people associate trauma with the Big T trauma. These experiences are terrible, horrendous, and severely damaging. They are like 9-11, war, and physical and sexual abuse. I have had so many conversations with leaders who posit that trauma has nothing to do with them. The reality is quite the opposite.
Even if we have never experienced Big T trauma, we have all experienced small T trauma. Small T trauma could include microaggressions towards minorities and financial instability. It could also include shame, loneliness, accidents, and emotional neglect.
Dr. Gabor Maté is a physician, renowned speaker, and bestselling author. He is an expert on addiction, trauma, stress, and childhood development. He says trauma means "wound" in Greek. Trauma is not what happens to you; it's what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you. “It is not the blow on the head, but the concussion I get.” Lots of research supports this idea. The same event will have different traumatic responses in different people.
I coach top CEOs and leaders. Over and over agin, I learn that running a business is about solving people's issues. When it comes to people, leaders are often not aware enough of the one phenomenon that affects all of us - trauma. Past and present trauma are not a prediction of what we could become. However, they shape our current brain and nervous system, influencing our behaviors. I am a big proponent of learning about psychology, neuroscience, and the nervous system. I use that knowledge to help in coaching sessions. I am always about coaching the whole human and the whole system.
Many of us spend most of our waking hours working. The workplace is a common place where trauma responses can occur in everyone. Leaders can make clear decisions and build strong teams. They can do this by understanding their own reactions. They also need to understand others' reactions. At heart, the humanity in you and me is the core of implementing OKR frameworks and performance review cycles.
It is not our responsibility to heal others' trauma in the workplace. However, it can be helpful to understand our own reactions in stressful times. It can also be helpful to understand our teammates' reactions. It is also not okay to let trauma be the excuse for bad behavior.
The Thinking Brain and Survival Brain
In Dr. Elizabeth A. Stanley’s book Widen the Window, she talks about how there is a Thinking Brain and a Survival Brain.
According to her definition, The Thinking Brain is the part of our brain that’s evolutionarily newest. It’s our deliberate decision-making, our reasoning. It’s a very conscious thinking process. We know the Thinking Brain is active whenever we hear that running commentary in our head narrating. All things verbal in our head—that’s our Thinking Brain being active.
The Survival Brain is evolutionarily older. We share different functions of the Survival Brain with other mammals, reptiles, and fish. It’s the limbic system, the brainstem, the cerebellum. This is a very automatic, preconscious process. It's designed to help us appraise threats. It also helps us approach safety or opportunities, and stay away from danger. The Survival Brain works through our stress arousal and our emotions. It’s not verbal. We know the Survival Brain is active by the effects in our body. Our heart rate might increase, we may feel butterflies in our stomach, or we may feel a wave of anger. Those are ways the Survival Brain lets us know what’s going on there.
The Survival Brain has two important functions for stress and trauma. They call one of them neuroception. That’s the unconscious threat appraisal process happening all the time to check, “Is this a threat?” If the answer is yes, it turns on stress. If not, then we’re most capable of cooperating with other people. The other function that’s important from the Survival Brain is recovery. The Survival Brain turns stress on. It also controls whether we turn stress off and recover after stress or trauma.
In Widen the Window, the core concept is the window of tolerance. This is the amount of stress we can tolerate. When we’re inside our window, our Thinking Brain and our Survival Brain can work together cooperatively as allies. This way, we can access and take advantage of the information from our thoughts, our body sensations, and our emotions. And we can use all those things to make the most effective choice at the moment for what we need to do.
Understanding Our Own Windows
I define one of leadership’s core traits as taking total accountability for our own emotional awareness. To borrow Dr. Elizabeth Stanley's concept, it is also important to be aware of our own windows of tolerance. We should design our work to maximize our time within that window. It is also helpful for us to learn to widen our window over time.
Case study: CEO giving feedback outside of her window of tolerance
Please note that we changed personal and company information to preserve confidentiality.
My client Sarah is the CEO of a 50-person company. She is also a mom of a toddler. She has been working 60-hour weeks for the past month. When I saw her on Zoom, I could tell her usual bubbly self was nowhere to be found. She felt tired. She lacked interest in the small talk she usually insisted on with enthusiasm.
She told me the biggest thing on her mind was the poor performance from her new Head of Sales Aaron. When she asked Aaron why they were not delivering on target, Aaron was quick to blame the marketing team. He took no responsibility for his team. Aaron also publicly challenged her opinion in the leadership meeting. When she asked for more frequent updates, Aaron agreed but failed to act on the feedback. Aaron frustrated her and she said things she later regretted. Aaron responded with more defensiveness and the two have been avoiding each other for a week.
She came to the session wanting to find a path forward. We worked on writing down clearly all the things she wanted to tell Aaron. We also documented the expectations for his communication style. We also documented what she would do if he didn’t follow through again.
When we were getting ready to role-play the conversation, I noticed Sarah was far from motivated. She didn't want to have this conversation. So I changed the topic, “Tell me Sarah, how have you been really?”
Sarah went on to vent to me about how exhausted she’s been. She’s dropping more balls and feels like a terrible mother. All that makes it difficult for her to think. In this example, the Survival Brain has taken over. Her thinking brain is experiencing degradation.
I acknowledged and reflected on the difficult situation that she’s in. I pointed out that her life is taking away so much energy from her. This makes it difficult for her to mobilize the energy. She needs it to have a productive conversation with Aaron. I explained that having a difficult conversation with Aaron would need more energy than she had. It made sense that she felt resistant to it.
In the end, we discussed rearranging her work schedule. We wanted to create a whole weekend unplugged from work for a much-needed break. Then, we worked on delegating and cutting things from her plate so she would be working fewer hours.
At the end of the session, we were able to give Sarah immediate and systematic action items. The immediate actions are what she was looking for a path and plan forward with Aaron. We worked on allowing her to widen her window. This way, she would have better feedback conversations to begin with.
With Sarah, it was key for us to get clear on what her behaviors inside and outside of the window looked like. She shared with me that she felt empowered to know herself this way. This allows her to pay better attention to how she is feeling. She can then optimize her performance according to her window.
In coaching, it is not my job to treat exactly what past and present trauma caused Sarah’s window to narrow. But it is important that we both understand the concepts. We can help her move forward with her feedback session by widening her window.
Working With Others’ Windows
As a manager, you will certainly have a moment where you’d like to give your direct report feedback. If the feedback is serious, most managers I come across will have some level of nervousness. There are a lot of things we can do to ensure the feedback lands well. Trust building is often critical to increase the strength of the relationship. This allows harsher truths to exist, while giving both parties the benefit of the doubt. It’s also important to give this feedback synchronously. After the feedback receiver grants permission.
In the same case study between Sarah and Aaron, we also notice that Aaron is reacting outside of his window. He demonstrates aggressiveness and conflict. If we had more background on Aaron, we would know that before joining Sarah’s company, Aaron was a cofounder. Later, his other cofounders ousted him. Aaron confided in Sarah about how demoralizing that experience was. Sarah presumed that he never really let his guard down. I guess Sarah's feedback felt like a threat to Aaron. He responded with some level of fight. Aaron’s Survival Brain was in full override of his Thinking Brain.
With Sarah, we also discussed why she guessed Aaron would behave that way. After connecting the dots between Aaron’s defensiveness and his last job, Sarah let out a sigh. She said she's still frustrated. But understanding Aaron helps her take his behaviors less personally.
Sarah had always been passionate about being a great manager. I asked her if she would be interested in learning some coaching skills. They would make her future conversations with Aaron easier. She agreed.
Here are the three things that we discussed:
1. Breaking the 3rd wall
When one party starts describing their feelings and impressions of the other person, instead of addressing the conversation's content.
For example, if Aaron is starting to get agitated, Sarah could say, "Hey Aaron, it seems like the temperature is getting higher." I may have said something to upset you." Am I getting that right?” This may help the other person reground and come back to the conversation.
2. Taking a break
When things are going in a spiraling direction, it is always ok to suggest a break. This can be an actual break in the conversation or a change of topic.
3. Reflective listening
Reflective listening is one of the best things to prevent a defensive response. Coaches and therapists are taught to do this constantly in a session. It builds trust and keeps them connected to the other person. An example looks like:
Aaron: “I think the marketing team is giving us bad leads.”
Sarah could say, "Aaron, I think I’m hearing you say you feel like the marketing team set your team up for failure.”
As coaches and leaders, knowing about workplace trauma helps us in the following ways:
- We understand that when people are engaging outside of their windows, the Thinking Brain is degraded. So, we are unlikely to get the best outcome.
- We can learn to understand the truth behind “I am the only person who can trigger myself”. Trauma is an internal experience. We can take more accountability for our own growth. We can also take it less personally when others react badly.
- We can learn skills to manage our own windows. We can play out interactions with others, keeping their windows in mind.
When I first started working out of college, I would get triggered by every single thing at work. I would stare at my manager’s message and over-analyze every single word. I would have a mental breakdown after making a mistake at work. Work gave me highs when I achieved, and was a minefield otherwise. My window was very narrow.
When I first started coaching, stopping with a client or having a bad intro call could make me spiral for days. Now, it doesn’t really register as negative in my mind and body. I can shake it off right after the event. It fills me with joy and gratitude to see this increased level of emotional freedom.
Through years of therapy, coaching, mindfulness, and spirituality practices, I have developed a very different relationship with my past and my nervous system. On my ongoing journey to open my heart to the world, it feels like I now have a tougher skin. This allows me to fail more and live more.
I am a firm believer that our internal world is the key to our external life. Learning about my trauma has been painful and confronting. But working through it has freed up more possibilities than I could ever imagine.