Tag: Trauma

Founder’s Corner – January 2024

At some point or another we’ve all suffered from trauma. Be it at home or work.

In his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem talks about racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies.

As leaders, facing trauma in the workplace is not an easy thing. And yet the reality is we cannot expect to lead people effectively unless we are prepared to recognize how much of a role trauma plays in our professional lives.

Hi I’m Byron Darden with another installment of Leading with Purpose on Purpose

In our continuing series on Transitions we turn our attention to the Five Fs of Trauma, Fight, Flight Freeze, Flop, Friend

Join me as we explore challenges we face with trauma and the opportunities we have to deal with them. Enjoy!

The Unseen Struggle:  Understanding the Impact of Trauma on Workplace Performance

Leaders, despite their authoritative roles, are not immune to the impact of trauma.  Individuals in leadership positions may face additional challenges due to the expectations and responsibilities associated with their roles.  Trauma responses, such as fight or flight can compromise a leader’s decision-making abilities, interpersonal skills, and overall effectiveness.

Trauma can manifest itself in different ways, including self-perception, reactions, interpersonal communications, mental fatigue, and overall stress management.  

An individual’s ability to handle change and guide their subordinates is affected by the trauma they’ve endured.  As we continue our exploration into the impacts of change, we’ll examine how hidden traumas affect leadership ability and give you some concrete techniques to recognize how the trauma affects you and your performance in the workplace.

The Nature of Trauma

When you think of trauma, you might picture physical injuries. Trauma encompasses so much more. Trauma is the response to a shocking, distressing, or harmful situation.  Defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it is an emotional injury that affects performance and well-being. It could manifest itself in mental, psychological, or spiritual conflict. It’s important to note that trauma is very individualistic – what one considers trauma, another might consider a normal part of life. 

Trauma is most easily described as the aftermath we experience in our bodies, following a heightened state event in our lives, triggering the fight or flight response. It is that moment when we are faced with danger – evolutionarily known as when we are faced with possible inhalation or imminent danger to our lives – when we determine whether to fight that which is threatening our lives or recognize that the only other option is to run for our lives.

Typically our physiological response to these types of threats runs the gamut of experiencing shock, or disbelief. During such times we may find ourselves confused, our body temperature rises, and we begin to sweat. Our heart begins to pound. Our breathing rate increases. 

We typically experience muscle tension during such times. Perhaps you are about to have a challenging conversation with a direct report or even your boss. Or you may be about to deliver a high-stakes presentation and you feel your nerves raging with anxiety. Imagine how this would affect the muscles in your throat, impacting your speech as you speak! Sound familiar?  

The result of your voice cracking or straining when speaking could easily negatively impact your delivery. This is no time to have what scientists refer to as the Amygdala Hijack. Your cognitive function is overridden and your only consideration is to survive. 

Even more so when faced with the trauma of mergers, acquisitions, and layoffs, the uncertainty in the workplace caused by COVID, and racial tension that triggered a deep pain like a bandaid being ripped off a scar dating back to 1619. That was the beginning of a social upheaval that expanded from fight or flight to the five hardwired Fs of trauma: fight, flight, freeze, flop, and fawn. It’s imperative that we recognize the severity of the impact of trauma in the workplace. 

  • Fight: physical fighting, pushing, struggling, and verbal assault.
  • Flight: choosing to put a distance between you and danger, running away, hiding out of sight, or backing away from the situation.
  • Freeze: becoming tense, very still, and silent. Commonly the reaction to rape and sexual violence. Frozen in fear is not consensual, it is an instinctive survival response. The freeze response is an animal’s potential avoidance of fights e.g. ‘play dead’ to minimize the interest of the predator.
  • Flop: much like freezing, the difference is muscle flaccidity. This is an automatic reaction that can reduce the physical pain of what’s happening to you. Your mind shuts down in self-protection mode.
  • Friend: locate a ‘friend’ or bystander for support, by shouting or screaming, ‘befriending’ the dangerous person; placating, negotiating, bribing, or pleading. 

Trauma is not just from what happens in the office. It is also what happens outside the office that employees bring with them to the workplace. It is those issues that come up in everyone’s life that are virtually impossible to avoid allowing the impact to play out wherever we are, in some form or fashion. The workplace is no exception.

It is the loss of a parent or spouse that we must face. The issues that come up with our children that haunt us in the office. When the school calls letting you know that little Johnny is acting up in class. Or little Suzy had her first period and got laughed at or bullied by classmates. It’s the failed relationship that we endure. Or the job we are in that we hate and cannot seem to find a way out. 

These moments define your leadership and impact your reactions to the conflicting priorities of the job. This can trigger the mindset of ‘business as usual’, get over it, and get it done. Or weigh the possibility that a team member is reacting to past trauma at the moment and needs an empathetic leader.

The Unseen Impact of Trauma

When your team does encounter conflicting priorities between personal issues and business deadlines, consider what could be going on that contributes to job performance. There are many ways in which we are triggered by a comment from someone. Or a disagreeable body gesture from another. There are infinitely greater stressors we face that need to be met, so take a step back to consider how fast-paced life is now more than ever before. 

The reality is that the fight or flight response is there to protect us. Without it, we would not have evolved as the human species we are today. From our time as cavemen, we would not have survived and evolved into our current existence without that amygdala protecting us from the threat of everyday life we have today. We would be extinct already and replaced in the ecosystem.

No one wants to experience an amygdala hijack. Do they? Why would you want to experience all that comes with it unless you might be a thrill seeker? I admit, I love roller coasters and a similar feeling is had when experiencing the rush of adrenaline that goes along with such rides. Yet, when it comes to my day-to-day, seeking thrills is not my first focus. Relaxation and calm are what I desire most.

The contemporary lives we lead now are no match for what our ancestors, cavemen faced with animals ready to pounce on them at a moment’s notice. Yet, we still react to that prehistoric, roughly almond-shaped mass of gray matter at the base of our brainstem, that alerts us of lurking danger. The difference is that danger now comes in the form of someone losing their temper with us, causing us to respond aggressively. 

The coworker insists on talking to you when you are trying to concentrate, which triggers you to shout back at them. Consider your reaction when someone on the subway bumps you yet again when your fuse is already short, the weather is hot, you’re tired and frustrated and you’ve had enough! Then you lash out. Or the way a person is looking at you or something about them reminds you of the time you were molested or attacked. A flood of memories overtakes you and your reaction may seem foreign to others who do not share your reference to a violent act in your past.

These are some of the ways we experience that moment when our cognitive function is overridden and we react in such a way that could be avoided. Suppose we had another way to stop or reverse the fight or flight response and choose a different path.

Recognizing the impact of trauma in the workplace is crucial for fostering a supportive and inclusive professional environment. Employees’ mental and emotional well-being directly affects their productivity, engagement, and overall job satisfaction. Ignoring the effects of trauma can lead to or compound difficulties in the workplace.

Leadership positions come with added responsibilities and stressors. Trauma can have a profound impact on leaders, affecting their ability to make decisions, manage teams, and maintain a positive organizational culture. Leaders who experience trauma may also face challenges in balancing personal well-being with professional obligations.

Some of these areas affected by trauma include:

  • Decision-making – Leaders are expected to make timely and effective decisions, and trauma may hinder this ability, resulting in missed opportunities.
  • Team dynamics – Leaders may struggle to provide the necessary support and guidance to their teams.
  • Organizational culture – Leaders are the face of the organization and their behavior guides the culture of the organization.  They may portray an image with unintentional consequences.

An individual who is striving for a leadership position may lack confidence or even unwittingly sabotage their chances at a role and become baffled by their own behavior.  A coach, therapist, and self-exploration provide valuable insights.

Recognize Trauma

Extreme consequences can occur from pent-up trauma, including workplace violence. Often more subtle events occur. Here are some examples of how trauma can manifest itself in the workplace:

  • Decreased Productivity – individuals may experience difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and completing tasks.
  • Increased Absenteeism – individuals may take more personal days.
  • Presenteeism – physically present individuals in the workplace may be emotionally disengaged from their tasks.
  • Communication Difficulties – Individuals may become irritable and have difficulty interacting with colleagues and supervisors. This can lead to conflicts or problems with authority.
  • Decision-making Impacts – Individuals may experience lapses in judgment or difficulty in problem-solving.
  • Increased Sensitivity – Individuals may react inappropriately to stressors in the workplace.
  • Perfectionism or Overachievement – To gain control of their situation, individuals may feel the need to be perfect.

When you recognize these traits, in yourself or others, practice empathy.  Awareness is the first step and a willingness to change is the next.  

There are many ways you can develop your ability to face trauma in healthy ways. You might try meditation, yoga, walks out in nature, silent retreats, running, and regular physical exercise. Aromatherapy is another healthy way to help develop your less stressful response to stress. Massage therapy can be very helpful, particularly after sitting in front of a computer for hours or spending time cramped in a plane to visit clients.

Conscious Leadership

Conscious leadership emphasizes self-awareness, authenticity, and a deep understanding of the impact of one’s actions on others and the organization.  Leaders can become more conscious of their impact by considering these behaviors.

Move Away FromMove Toward
Emotional ReactivityEmotional Intelligence Responses
Acting on ImpulseMindfulness
Hiding Behind a FacadeAuthenticity
Self-LeadershipServant Leadership
Gray AreasEthical Decision Making
Task-oriented LeadershipPurpose Driven Leadership
ComplacencyContinuous Learning
Internal FocusSocial and Environmental Responsibility
IndividualismCollaboration and Inclusivity

After awareness comes action. Conscious leadership involves recognizing when employees need extra support and providing resources for them to release stress.  

Here is a mindfulness activity to help you begin training the mind to strengthen your resolve in how you respond to traumatic situations.

  • Find a comfortable chair or cushion to sit on that you might lay on the ground
  • Should you be in a chair, have your feet flat on the floor, and hands in your lap hold an erect yet not stiff posture
  • Once you get settled, close your eyes and begin paying close attention to the breath
  • Say to yourself, ‘Breathe in, I feel my body. Breathe out, I feel my body
  • Begin with your feet performing a body scan sensing each part of your body as you move your focus to the crown of the head
  • Say to yourself, ‘Breathe in, I calm my body. Breathe out, I calm my body
  • Should you start thinking, acknowledge the thinking, and like a helium balloon, let go of the string and the thought, allowing it to float away, returning your attention to the breath
  • No need to judge yourself for thinking. That is what the mind does. 

Lessons From Life

I was reading the book Working With Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goldman and read an account of a senior leader who was rather cross with the staff he led. 

There was so much commotion in the room with the leader ranting about some issue they were having when one of the team members calmly shared a different perspective. It took a great deal of courage for this individual to speak up. When they did, the senior leader seemed to speak over the staff member and that person continued in a calm and focused manner to state their case. Eventually, the senior leader acquiesced and allowed the individual to share their perspective. 

When I read the account I recalled what I had learned in meditation and wondered whether or not this person had meditation as a practice in their lives that allowed them to manage the volatile situation at hand. 

Similarly, I was teaching a group of junior consultants in a firm about developing their personal presence when a senior leader walked into the room and admonished one of their underlings for taking time away from work to attend such a class. 

The leader inquired about the topic of the class and the junior consultant responded about deepening their learning about presence. The senior leader scoffed, “I can teach you that in just a few minutes, and then you can get back to work.” The senior leader then closed the door and left.

I found that to be a disruptive and counterproductive act in front of the group considering their goals, particularly for me as a coach and for the junior consultant to whom the comment was made. I was also quite shocked that someone, particularly a senior leader at the firm, would do such a thing. I remember asking who that was and then excused myself from the class and followed the senior leader to their office. I calmly expressed my displeasure with what they just did and shared my concern that while possibly humorous to them, it was destructive to what I was there to accomplish for the sake of the organization. The senior leader was clearly caught off guard and apologized. 

When I returned to the class, they asked what had happened and I told them. You could have heard a pin drop in the room for the remainder of the training. The lesson learned is that there is a way to stand your ground when you are calm and collected rather than allow an amygdala hijack to render you ineffective in handling challenging situations.

I began my meditative practice at the age of thirteen when I began practicing my compulsory school figures as an ice skater. I did not know it at the time, though I believe my coaches knew what they were doing when practice time began with Hawaiian music that inspired my body to move in smooth and deliberately focused ways that allowed me to master the art of figure skating. That training prepared me well for an incident that took place many years later when I was living in Boston.

I arrive home in the middle of the day. Dressed in khakis, a blue button-down shirt, with penny loafers on my feet. A very New England look at the time. There is a torn screen door on the front of my home. Another on the back door. I plan to remove the screens. Time to take them both in for repair. It’s a bit warm, so I take off my shirt leaving me with just an undershirt to stay cool without changing entirely before moving on to the repair shop. 

I complete the effort of taking off the screen at the front of the property, the door propped open to allow the breeze to move easily through the house. I move to the back door, repeating the removal there as well, sweat beginning to run down my back. Suddenly a police officer appears in my backyard, hand on his gun, questioning a report he received from a neighbor that someone was taking screens off the doors of my house. I confirmed that was exactly what I was doing. He asks who I am in relation to the property. “This is my house and I am taking screens off the doors. Would you like to see my identification to confirm? It is sitting on the kitchen counter. Is it alright that I go and get it? Or do you wish to accompany me to do so?” A bit shaken, the police officer begins to relax and expresses his trust that I am safe to move out of his sight. 

Frankly, I was surprised by his response. Having grown up with an attorney for a father and having traveled with him a few times to get depositions from incarcerated defendants that he represented, I knew the lay of the land in managing law enforcement. I remained calm and respectful of his authority, having grown up to carry a slight fear of police when it comes to being a man of color. This is no time for an amygdala hijack!

I return with my identification to show the police officer that I indeed reside at this residence. He is satisfied that all is well when I calmly and matter-of-factly ask which neighbor was kind enough to look out for the safety of our neighbors. I want to express my gratitude that they are looking out for those of us on our block.

Typically an officer should never reveal such information. Yet, I was able to disarm him by remaining cool and calm and by not being reactive to the situation that suggested I was being accused of breaking and entering my own home. He willingly tells me the address. Another surprise! 

Lesson learned, when stimulated to the level of an Amygdala Hijack, one profits greatly from remembering that we are not being chased by prehistoric predators. We are reacting to a pre-historic part of our bodies that remains to protect us. We need this protection, even in cases when our lives are not being threatened. Though it may feel as though that is exactly what is happening.

Creating a Trauma-Aware Workplace

According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, 6 in 10 men and 5 in 10 women will experience some sort of trauma in their lives.  Moreover, most of us will experience a trauma that could lead to PTSD.  

Of those who experience trauma, 70-90 percent of individuals will not do the work to move past their trauma.  Less than 30% of individuals will take the steps to manage their adversity and 5% of individuals truly take the time to heal from their traumas and harness their true potential.  I truly believe it’s that 5% that become leaders that others look up to.  Those leaders are tough, yet vulnerable.  They possess a presence that encourages others to listen and follow.  They provide hope for a fruitful future.

Most importantly, these 5% recognize the need for trauma-aware workplaces.  Here are some ways to create a trauma-informed workplace:

  • Provide opportunities to learn about trauma and how to act around each other.
  • Create a workplace culture that prioritizes safety, trust, and open communication.
  • Practice empathy and compassion – learn what to say and do when confronted with someone experiencing the effects of trauma.
  • Provide and promote resources such as counseling, employee assistance programs, or mental health support.
  • Be flexible and accommodating for team members who need support.
  • Promote self-care in the workplace and a work/life balance.
  • Address or minimize triggers in the workplace.
  • Assess what is working and adapt policies to address weak points.

Unearth and Move Forward

“There will be obstacles. There will be doubters. There will be mistakes. But with hard work, there are no limits.”  –Michael Phelps

You’ve probably heard stories of leaders who faced adversity either in childhood or during the course of serving their company. They come from tough childhoods, drop out of college, or face bankruptcy. They didn’t let that stop them. They persevered and became leaders in their industry.  Some examples, are Colonel Sanders, Oprah Winfrey, JK Rowling, Michael Jordan, and so many more.

At Triple Axel, we focus on overcoming obstacles and helping you become the next great leader. A big part of that is providing tools to move past what is holding you back, and that includes healing trauma.

Scheduling a coaching session can unearth a level of awareness that will put you on the path to success. Book a session with Byron today and start your journey past fight or flight to conscious leadership.