Trauma informed leaders are important
The Sector > Workforce > Leadership > In times of trouble, trauma informed leaders are more important than ever

In times of trouble, trauma informed leaders are more important than ever

by Freya Lucas

May 30, 2023

Many early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals have found themselves struggling to “get back into work mode” following an unexpected or traumatic event. 


Given the collective trauma of a global pandemic, against the backdrop of some significant natural disasters, and a workforce shortage which is having an increasingly stronger impact on the ECEC sector, it’s no surprise that leaders are being called on, more than ever before, to practice trauma informed leadership. 


What is trauma-informed leadership?


Essentially trauma informed leadership recognises and honours the emotional scars that people may struggle with, regardless of their origin. 


When practiced thoughtfully, trauma informed leadership can help the leader have empathy and compassion for their employees, both powerful emotions themselves for a leader to have.


Trauma-informed leadership enables those in positions of power to lead in a compassionate inclusive manner, that ultimately empowers those being led to grow through a traumatic event. It emphasises nurturing leadership that builds trust and empowers the resilience of a team, and the organisation more broadly, Women and Leadership Australia have said


When leaders adopt a trauma informed approach and leadership strategies, staff retention is likely to be improved, along with health and wellbeing outcomes. 


Five key principles of trauma informed leadership


There are five key principles of trauma-informed leadership, which help to create environments of psychological safety for employees:


  • Safety
  • Choice
  • Collaboration
  • Trustworthiness
  • Empowerment


At heart, when leaders are trauma informed, employees have three core beliefs: 


Acknowledgement (“I will be heard”) An important aspect of a trauma-informed approach, author Katharine Manning says, is the willingness to listen to and acknowledge the pain of those experiencing trauma. 


“Sharing a story of trauma can be healing, mentally and even physically. It isn’t enough merely to allow people to share their experiences, though; they need to feel genuinely heard as well. 


“An acknowledgement can be as simple as a manager saying to an employee whose spouse is dying, ‘Thanks for letting me know. I’m sorry for all you’re going through,’ or an office-wide communication that addresses a community trauma. The key is that an acknowledgment neither denies the experience of those suffering (‘It will all work out for the best’) nor distracts from it (‘Let me tell you how I persevered through something similar’). When we fail to acknowledge the pain that someone is experiencing, we can veer into toxic positivity or even gaslighting.”


Support (“I can get the help I need”)  There are often tangible forms of support that people need in times of trauma and distress, like mental health resources, referrals to medical information, and assistance with funeral and other expenses, Ms Manning continued. 


Such support can make an incredible difference in a person’s healing and demonstrate that the organisation is there for its employees when they need it.


It’s also important when working with those in crisis that leaders can communicate frequently and clearly. Therefore, another type of support that the organisation can provide is frequent and reliable communication. This communication can take any form, from a text alert system to a Slack channel dedicated to informing employees about the crisis at hand to a daily email from the CEO. Whatever you use, it’s important that the communication be consistent and dependable.


Trust (“I will be treated fairly”) People typically feel more confident and comfortable when they understand the rules and parameters of their environments. If the policies and values an organisation has in place are in name only, it creates a sense of unease at best and moral injury at worst. 


As such, Ms Manning says, trauma informed organisations should have policies and procedures that are genuinely supportive of employees in need, and ensure that those policies are widely known and followed. 


It is particularly important that leaders are vocal in their commitment to the organisation’s values and unwavering in upholding them. When bad behavior is not addressed, it can become contagious; very quickly, the organisation’s values erode and toxicity takes over. For people to feel safe raising issues, they must understand the rules and trust that those rules will be applied fairly and transparently.


What does trauma-informed leadership look like?


In times of disruption, leaders need to switch from ‘business as usual’ leadership and adopt a more collaborative and encouraging style of leadership, to foster positive connections and culture. Using trauma-informed leadership principles will enable the organisation to heal, learn, adapt and excel, even in the face of adversity.


To be a trauma-informed leader, a leader should:


  • Practice the five trauma-informed leadership principles above. 


  • Foster a supportive environment for the team. This can include actively listening, taking action on people’s concerns and actively including individuals in work and social activities.


  • Ensure psychological and physical safety. Enable this by fostering a ‘no bullying’ culture, not just among the team and the organisation, but also in suppliers, agencies and contractors that you choose to work with. Listening to and believing employees when they come to you to report incidents or express their concerns is also important.


  • Use adaptive leadership skills. This can be achieved by thinking outside the box when presented with an issue, being flexible and helping members of your team to embrace uncertainty.


  • Try to understand individuals in your organisation holistically. This is an easy one; making an effort to gently enquire about the weekends, evenings and any hobbies and activities of individuals in your organisation will give you a holistic view of them, both as they are in the work, and beyond. Not only will this increase your rapport and social capital, but it will also allow you to better understand their actions and response to different situations.


  • Offer support. Having an ‘open door’ policy will encourage your team to come to you if they ever need support. Make sure you have an in-depth understanding of the support that the organisation itself can offer, and also other community groups or services that might be able to help.


For more information on trauma informed leadership, please see here. The two main reference sources for this piece are How to be a Trauma Informed Leader and We need Trauma Informed workplaces. 

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