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ATD Blog

Organizational Developers: Becoming Trauma Informed Will Elevate How You Operate

Wednesday, August 23, 2023
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Organizational developers play a pivotal role in improving the effectiveness and performance of their organizations. However, to truly maximize their impact, they must transition from a state of trauma ignorance to becoming trauma informed. Understanding trauma and its effects empowers these developers to create environments that foster employee well-being, engagement, and value creation. In this article, we delve into the concept of trauma, its effects on employees, and how trauma-informed organizational developers can drive positive change in their organizations.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma goes beyond a distressing event or series of events; it involves the “mental wounding” or neural adaptations resulting from such experiences. This unique perspective explains why individuals can respond differently to seemingly similar distressing events. Trauma shapes our neural wiring and influences our responses to various situations, affecting our functionality in both distressing and non-distressing contexts.

What Are the Effects of Trauma on Employees?

When individuals experience distressing events, their nervous system adapts to protect them in those specific circumstances. While this neural adaptation is crucial for survival during traumatic events, it can hinder functionality in everyday situations.

For example, one executive that I worked with is a former emergency medical technician (EMT) and Army veteran who is a Purple Heart recipient. Through these experiences, his body had become wired and deeply sensitive to avoiding risk, problems, and failure. While such wiring makes sense in life-or-death situations, rarely (if ever) did he encounter life-or-death situations in his corporate job. But his aversion to risk, problems, and failure led to two issues in his leadership. First, he struggled to make the changes necessary to adapt to the organization’s changing circumstances. Second, he operated as a firefighter who micromanaged minor needs perceived as urgent, instead of a strategic leader focused on what was truly important.

The reality is that the more trauma one experiences, the more their body becomes wired for self-protection. And, self-protection, while justifiable, works against the characteristics for high-level performance, including trust, authenticity, vulnerability, vision, determination, agility, and organizational purpose (among others).

What Percentage of Employees Are Affected by Trauma?

Contrary to common belief, many adults have experienced trauma that negatively affects their internal wiring. Researchers estimate that at least 70 percent of adults have been affected to some degree. This indicates that a considerable portion of the workforce may exhibit self-protective tendencies from traumatic experiences, influencing their performance and potential within the organization.

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My research on mindsets confirms this. I have developed a mindset assessment that helps leaders and employees assess their mindsets’ quality across four different mindsets (fixed and growth, closed and open, prevention and promotion, inward and outward). The fixed, closed, prevention, and inward mindsets are associated with self-protective wiring, while the growth, open, promotion, and outward mindsets are associated with value-creating wiring. Across the more than 40,000 people who have taken my mindset assessment, only 2.5 percent are in the top quartile for all four mindsets. Most of us have self-protective tendencies.

Of course, the trauma that your employees have experienced can be a result of experiences they had before you employed them, during their workplace tenure, or both.

What Do Organizational Developers Do Differently When They Are Trauma Informed?

Trauma-informed organizational developers understand why trauma-impacted leaders and employees are self-protective, and they also understand that the level of self-protection one has puts a ceiling on their ability to engage and effectively contribute to the organization and its many stakeholders (such as customers, teammates, partners, and community).

Thus, trauma-informed organizational developers become intensely focused on creating the conditions in the organizations that allow their leaders and employees to be less self-protective and more value-creating. These conditions include the following:

Psychological Safety
Organizational developers seek to remove fear in the organization. They create environments where people feel like they can speak up and take risks without fear of negative reciprocation. They help leaders and employees develop a wide window of tolerance for things like failure, problems, and mistakes. While the organization wants to minimize failure, problems, and mistakes, leaders must understand that these are necessary aspects of doing business, especially if they seek to grow, be cutting-edge, or innovate.

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Purpose-Centered Culture
Most organizations are not purpose-centered, they are results-centered. When an organization is results-centered, it prioritizes the outputs (for instance, revenue, profit, growth, and share price). Such emphasis generally leads to a narrow window of tolerance for things like failure, problems, and mistakes. The best organizations are purpose-centered. When an organization is purpose-centered, it focuses more on the inputs that affect long-term performance (for instance, trust, engagement, and psychological safety). Also, when there is a clear, inspirational, and stakeholder-centric purpose, employees will be socially encouraged to take their eyes off themselves (self-protection) and put it on something bigger than themselves (value creation).

Healing-Centered Development
When organizational developers are trauma ignorant, they approach leader and employee development from a perspective of, “How can we fix them?” They take developmental approaches that are generally quick and surface-level fixes designed to help leaders and employees do X (emotional intelligence) better. But, they neglect that they may not be doing X (emotional intelligence) well because they have self-protective wiring that cannot be fixed at the surface level.

But, when organizational developers are trauma informed, they approach leader and employee development from a holistic perspective that asks a different question: “How can we help them heal?” They recognize that if they want their development efforts to lead to true elevating changes (low to high emotional intelligence), they must help their leaders and employees rewire their internal programming, which involves providing support for healing from past trauma. Sometimes this healing effort can be done within an organizational setting. Still, sometimes the organizations must provide support for leaders and employees to get support from therapists or other specialists outside of the organization that are trained to treat trauma.

Conclusion

Becoming trauma informed is a transformative journey for organizational developers. Understanding trauma and its effects can foster environments that encourage psychological safety, purpose-centeredness, and healing-centered development. Embracing these principles elevates organizational performance and creates a more resilient and thriving workplace. As organizational developers and leaders strive to become trauma-informed, they pave the way for a more empathetic and value-driven future.

For more strategies and guidelines on how being trauma informed can elevate your employee experience, please join me in Las Vegas October 11-13, 2023 for the ATD OrgDev Conference.

About the Author

Ryan Gottfredson, PhD is a leadership development author, researcher, and consultant. He helps organizations vertically develop their leaders primarily through a focus on mindsets. Gottfredson is the Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling author of Success Mindsets: The Key to Unlocking Greater Success in Your Life, Work, & Leadership and The Elevated Leader: Leveling Up Your Leadership Through Vertical Development.

He is the founder and owner of his consulting company, Ryan Gottfredson LLC, where he specializes in elevating leaders and executive teams in a manner that elevates the organization and its culture. He has worked with top leadership teams at CVS Health (top 130 leaders), Deutsche Telekom (500+ of their top 2,000 leaders), Experian, and others. He has also partnered with dozens of organizations (for example, Federal Reserve Bank, Nationwide Insurance, and Cook Medical) to develop thousands of midlevel managers and high-level leaders.

Gottfredson is also a leadership professor at the College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. He holds a PhD in organizational behavior and human resources from Indiana University, and a BA from Brigham Young University. As a respected authority and researcher on topics related to leadership, management, and organizational behavior, Gottfredson has published more than 20 articles across a variety of journals including Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Business Horizons, Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, and Journal of Leadership Studies. His research has been cited more than 4,000 times since 2018.

1 Comment
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Excellent article, thank you for offering you insight and research in this important area. Over 20 years of facilitating learning, adjusting my approach with learners/clients is always a top of mind activity. This reinforces an approach that starts with my mindset about the people entrusted to me as learners.
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