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Talent Development Leader

What Is Trauma-Responsive EQ—and Why Does It Matter in TD?

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Everyone brings their life history, including overwhelming and traumatic events, to the workplace. Trauma also visits when something terrible happens—like a pandemic, political conflict, personal crisis, major change in the workplace, death, or natural disaster.
For instance, think about the tension and emotions created by news reports of something awful. Or what about when someone’s loved one dies, and they find out about it at work? What’s the fallout when an employee witnesses an accident or act of violence in the workplace? These overwhelming events don’t just disrupt our personal lives, they can interfere with work performance and learning.

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How trauma shows up in the workplace

Absenteeism, presentism, healthcare costs, lost productivity, and measurable differences in morale are some of the ways trauma shows up at work. The estimated costs of trauma in the workplace are in the trillions of dollars. The WHO states that globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety, costing US $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.

Employee benefits usage, attendance, and patterns of performance are indicators of the impact of trauma such as abuse, neglect, adverse childhood experiences, natural disasters, medical crises, exposure to combat, financial instability and homelessness, accidents of various sorts, and any other event that overwhelms a person.

Some common patterns in interpersonal relationships, both among peers and between direct reports and their managers, denote exposure to such traumatic events. Although exposure to trauma does not always result in a diagnosable mental disorder or require mental health interventions, there is often a discernable impact in the workplace. Here are three common patterns we see among workers:

Over or underachieving: The worker who does the bare minimum or is overproductive. Overproductivity—or overachieving—may be a consequence of the need to prove worthiness. Figuring out how to “pass” by pleasing others to avoid the fear of failure is part of the pattern, and figuring out how to fail to prove an internal belief may be, too.

Underachievers may not deliver an adequate amount of output when workload and time available are aligned, perhaps because underachieving is part of the pattern of self-sabotage. Difficulty learning is common. Feelings of worthlessness, being unacceptable, being a failure, and wondering about one’s place in the world are common consequences of childhood trauma and overwhelming experiences in adulthood.
Excessive compliance or defiance: We all know that team member who seems to be a doormat. They may have learned that seeming invisible or going along with anything is the safest position to adopt. They use this approach to reduce the risk of being laughed at, made fun of, or seen as wrong.

And what about the co-worker who strikes down every idea? This sort of all-or-nothing, polarized thinking may be part of a pattern resulting from adversity or trauma. The absence of well-developed social skills may be due to a preoccupation with survival instead of growth.

Attendance issues: Attendance failures can be a result of a variety of issues—from the need for reliable, available transportation, to chronic health conditions, to procrastination, to depression and anxiety, to terror of being around others.

Enter TR-EQ

It’s well established that high emotional intelligence (EQ) is beneficial, because a higher EQ correlates with better work experiences, better relationships, and higher life satisfaction. What’s more, a recent survey of 3,000 clinicians revealed that their work is easier when clients arrive with higher levels of emotional intelligence.

More importantly, there are several common skills and characteristics among leaders with a trauma-responsive (TR) mindset and leaders with emotional intelligence. These shared skills include self-awareness and self-regulation, social awareness, empathy, and decision making. Boosting EQ in managers and individual contributors can shore up work responsibilities and experiences where these shared skills are necessary but may be underdeveloped due to trauma.

This intersection of trauma and emotional intelligence creates something called trauma responsive emotional intelligence (TR-EQ), an approach and set of skills that the talent development function can employ to create a healthier workplace. An organization needs both TR and EQ, because emotional intelligence alone fails to factor in a person’s exposure to life- or sanity-threatening experiences (traumatic events). Meanwhile, TR by itself is limited because it focuses on clinical and pathological processes and thinking. This pairing of skills and mindset, however, considers someone’s behaviors, causes, and meaning holistically.

Case in point: TR-EQ can transform how a leader might view an employee’s problem behavior. Rather than seeing evidence of mental illness, a leader might instead recognize an outdated perception. For example, if a female team member gets upset, is it labeled the same way as when a man gets upset? Is it labeled the same way when a person of another race or ethnicity displays the same behavior? What about when a colleague can’t seem to make a decision? Is it viewed simply as a failure in their project management skills, or could the indecision be related to fear about something from their past that’s causing them to stall in the present? The difference is in what meaning is placed on the behavior, and a shift in meaning can reduce stigma and make room for change and growth.

How TD can support TR-EQ

The talent development function’s ability to champion TR-EQ and make it a focal point can help reduce the impact of overwhelming, traumatic experiences in the workplace.

This requires de-pathologizing the impact of traumatic experiences and resisting the tendency to equate trauma with mental illness. TD culture needs to weed out support for story-saying that focuses on crime, victimization, assault, labeling people with diagnoses or slang, and focus instead on the idea of “universal exposure with unique response.”

This approach changes how we recognize and use power in relationships to control and manage others. For example, instead of positioning tears from workers as weak and negative, consider that they may be an unconscious effort to show a person who is in power that they are harmless—which means they are driven by fear. Managers then need not react to either fix or stop the tears, leaving the responsibility with the worker. Managers may need training to learn how to consider behavior in a new way, considering the neurobiology of trauma and how it shows up in the workplace.

Further, TD needs to strengthen organizational perceptions of the role learning plays in an individual’s healing and growth. To bolster learning’s role, TD professionals can focus their efforts on developmental skills that help workers master decision making, problem solving, emotional literacy, communication, relationship skills, and coping with stress.

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TD professionals can start by using SAMHSA’s six guiding principles when developing solutions through a trauma-responsive lens:

1. Offering safety (emotional as well as physical): Safety in the workplace includes planning for reactions to eruptions of violence as well as reinforcing civil relationships and extinguishing bullying and gaslighting, both of which may illustrate a person’s feelings of worthlessness and lack of knowledge of the behavior style required at work.

2. Being trustworthy and transparent: Staff often struggle when they feel change is in the air but no one is talking about it. It’s important to be open about potential changes and clear about what can and cannot be discussed with them.

3. Using peer support: Peer support is most evident in mentoring and coaching programs, but don’t forget about the potential impact of team projects, employee resource groups, online discussion groups, and so on.

4. Increasing collaboration and mutuality: Collaboration and mutuality are often demonstrated by sharing learning responsibilities with clear parameters about standards and flexibility. They flourish in environments that disenfranchise hoarding knowledge for power.

5. Focusing on empowerment, voice, and choice: Self-directed staff may need additional skills to help them perform more effectively. Leaders need to increase flexibility and communication that supports what is called “radical candor” without rudeness while going from “power-over” to more “power-with.”

6. Considering cultural, historical, and gender issues: It’s crucial to consider these issues as they relate to performance and context. Recognizing the impact of cultural, historical, and gender-based trauma on staff (and leader) performance means tending to differences in style and meaning-making.

Finally, TD can actively engage everyone from the C-suite and across the organization in meaningful TR-EQ learning. For TR-EQ to make the workplace healthier, leaders must review and likely adjust policies and processes.

When organizations become trauma responsive, they recognize the pervasiveness of overwhelming events and respond with adjustments that reduce the impact of that trauma with present-focused, strength-based skills. What’s more, when TD professionals incorporate this knowledge into their professional processes, everyone wins. The impact of negative news cycles, natural disasters, pandemics, war, and other events from the past and in the present that traumatize us is lessened, even if by only a bit.

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Elizabeth Power, MEd, CEO of EPower & Associates, is a sought-after speaker, facilitator, and consultant. EPower & Associates is the parent organization for The Trauma Informed Academy®.

Power develops cross-cultural adaptations of models of care for the mental health community as well as helping other countries, like Japan, develop their own models. The Trauma Informed Academy® recently released her new model, the Trauma Responsive System, which focuses on mastering 9 elements closely aligned with applied emotional intelligence.

She was recently published as third author of an article in Family Medicine about the outcomes of the NIMH research project assessing the effectiveness of the use of the core principles of Risking Connection® by Primary Care Providers in their clinical settings.

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