Trauma-Informed Power in Organizations

Highlight compassionate leaders who create safe, trauma-informed environments, rather than those misusing power. Prioritize empathy, feedback, and balanced leadership.
smiling business leader

We live in a society where we have access to information regarding how many of our leaders use their power in different ways. Unfortunately, we hear about the negative or sensational stories. Yet there are many leaders who are caring and compassionate in how they run their organizations, particularly those who are in caregiving fields in human services, health and mental health services.

I have met some great school leaders and teachers as well who genuinely care for their students and their environment. We need to spend more time highlighting those examples and not those who are abusive in how they use power.

The hallmark of trauma-informed care is that we are creating safety. It sounds like a simple concept but when we consider the adversity so many people have faced in their lives, it is quite a complex task. I am impressed as I speak to our staff members who have a narrative in their life that has contributed to many difficult struggles in their family dynamics, their relationships and their overall health and life events. They come to work with their game-face on while processing a great deal of personal angst. Often no one knows the intensity of what they are dealing with at any certain time.

Enter the workplace with all the challenges of leadership, performance and deadlines and it is easy to see how work environments can feel very unsafe. So many of our organizations are in a level of crisis that could be about finances, personnel conflicts, employee retention or performance issues and poor leadership skills. In these difficult moments it is easy to revert to authoritarian styles of leadership so that what feels out of control can become more stable.

However, nothing is further from the truth. In fact, leaders who are asserting power in ways that are controlling often miss the focus they need the most. Safety means there is little or no threat, fear or antics that create an intense environment and brain dysregulation. In difficult moments leaders need to be attuned and aware of the emotions of their staff. Toxic stress only increases the risk of traumatizing staff to the point where they have a hard time concentrating, focusing on work, communicating and/or being authentic about what is going on in the environment.

Insensitivity to their needs can easily traumatize them, trigger them to be in the worst part of their brain state, tempt them to cope in unhealthy ways, and promote an environment where there is negative talk which can set the stage for even more crisis.

It is hard to face complex issues as a leader of an organization. We must be active listeners, encouragers of feedback, inclusive about key decisions, honest about assessing the problems, careful in how we use our power, and measured in what environment and tone we are creating. And all this while monitoring our own regulation so we have balance in our impact.

We must be mindful of the emotions of others, empathetic to the needs around us in practical ways and visionary and hopeful about what possibilities lie before us that can alleviate the stress of our situations. Those using power which is trauma-informed see that staff are our stewardship who have normal human needs and sensitivities. Rather than adding more stress, we are purposed to lead with compassion while creating environments that are resonant, safe and renewing. That kind of power leads to the kind of safety that inspires those we lead.

Gerry Vassar


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