Just when we think that there is a light at the end of the long, long tunnel of health, economic, political and social crises… more terrible news hit us, intensifying group-level and individual-level stress.
And prolonged, compounded stress can tax our ability to cope and lead to behaviors that only make the situation worse.
Uncertainty and fatigue can impact the way we treat each other at work - anger, blame, and other negative emotions can show up in irate e-mails, poor collaboration, information hoarding, and reduced quality of work.
It is tempting to look for someone to blame when things are not going well. It is even more tempting to tear someone down when the pandemic has changed our world, the economy is shaky, and our anxieties are high. The blows are real. The stress and the trauma are real.
Understanding trauma is what we all need right now, along with some key skills for dealing with trauma and the resulting grief, anger, and fear. These skills have long been taught to those in helping and first-respondent professions, from fire departments to emergency rooms, and now human resources professionals, managers, and all co-workers could benefit from better understating of a trauma-informed approach.
Organizations will be more likely to thrive in the post-pandemic world if they learn from the models of trauma-informed organizations and trauma-informed leadership used in helping professions, expand trauma-informed approach across contexts, and universally adapt trauma-informed mindset and behavior.
According to CDC, the key principles of the trauma-informed approach are safety, transparency, peer support, collaboration, empowerment, and understanding of cultural, gender, and other diversity factors. These principles are easily transferable to any workplace and align well with existing models for improving team communication and developing emotional intelligence.
1. Safety – in the context of working together, it also means supporting the psychological safety of all involved by checking incivility, blame, outbursts, and other behaviors that may lead to the escalation of tension. This does NOT mean suppressing how we feel – it means communicating it in a more productive - non-violent way.
The switch to non-violent communication (NVC) created by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg (1) as a “language of compassion” is credited as one of the changes that helped transform the culture of Microsoft from brutal to positive. The four components of non-violent communication are:
- Observing and describing what is happening – without judgment. “I noticed that you did not speak at the meeting” vs. “you are ignoring us.”
- Stating how you feel while avoiding the “victim verbs” (“I am confused” or “I don’t know what to do” vs. “insulted”). This is extremely hard for some people, such as those with alexithymia and related conditions, but prepared answers, including “I have a hard time putting what I feel into words,” could help. For those who do not struggle with identifying their emotions, remembering that emotional awareness is harder for some than for others is also a part of practicing diversity awareness.
- Explaining how your needs are connected to your feeling, e.g., “I am confused and need some space to process.”
- Requesting a concrete action.
For example, if someone is expressing their frustration without asking for specific help, we could say "To be able to help, I need to know what the problem is; otherwise, I just feel anxious. Please let me know specifically what you are requesting."
Positive communication skills fit within the larger framework of emotionally intelligent behavior that can be developed in individuals, in particular in leaders, as well as in teams.
On the organizational level, we can ensure that our cultures call for both civility and voice. The constructive organizational climate is most conducive to collaboration and psychological safety (2).
2) Trustworthiness & transparency. The sense of the unknown is stressful and sometimes unavoidable (e.g., when will COVID go away?). However, we can avoid the intentional secrecy and caginess in our interpersonal interactions and organizational processes. Decision-makers and managers who can't communicate outcomes can communicate processes. And perhaps experiment with transparency as a rule – it will likely make organizational life much healthier.
3) Peer support. “We all need each other” might be a worn-out saying, but it does not make it less true, in the workplace, or in any life situation. Team members committed to understanding and supporting each other are more engaged and productive.
4) Collaboration & mutuality. There are no victors in destruction, and victim posturing is ultimately unhelpful. It is more productive to try to take the first step toward mutuality – and if someone else does, to respond in kind.
5) Empowerment & choice. Agency and control are our core needs, and being cornered precludes true collaboration. Allowing others to make decisions makes most interactions much more effective.
6) Diversity Awareness (in the original, "cultural, historical & gender issues"). Historical and lived injustices and discrimination create an amplified stress response. So do certain physical and mental health conditions - visible or not. We could all benefit from giving others – and being given – a benefit of a doubt and from checking our cultural and other assumptions.
Trauma-informed collaboration and communication are not easy to implement, but the alternative is the exponential increase in suffering as we continue hurting each other because of our hurt feelings - and ultimately, chaos. Kindness works better. Organizations do not have to succumb to side-effects of stress and anger; we can develop both individual and organizational resilience through a trauma-informed approach.
(1) Rosenberg, M. B. (2012). Living nonviolent communication: Practical tools to connect and communicate skillfully in every situation. Louisville, CO: Sounds True Publishing.
(2) Praslova, L.N. (2019). Civility and voice: From “civility wars” to constructive engagement. Industrial and Organizational Psychology 12, 381–384.
An earlier version of this article was published on Ludmila Praslova’s LinkedIn profile on July 23, 2020.