Trauma Impacts Leadership. Heal it with Emotional Intelligence.

Published March 5, 2020

By Fran Johnston

Over the course of the last 20 years I have supported community leaders and their teams who were working to break the cycles of addiction, poverty, homelessness, or domestic violence in their communities. I have worked with leaders in corporate settings who have endured multiple changes in leadership or significant mergers and organizational changes in a short period of time and were struggling to establish a positive and effective culture. And I have worked with leaders in organizations whose members routinely experience trauma as part of their work, such as first responders, military leaders, healthcare providers, educators or child care workers, who were concerned about the mental health effects and burnout in their employees and the care of their clients and patients. In all of these leadership scenarios, either repeated trauma or extreme stress was a root cause of the issues that these leaders, teams, communities and organizations faced.

We don’t tend to think of the workplace as a place where we need to overtly work with trauma. Trauma belongs in the domain of mental health. It belongs to your therapist, and not your leadership consultant or your executive coach. But here’s the truth: adults spend most of their time at work. We are at work more than we are with our loved ones, in our leisure activities or our civic activities. Workplaces need to become places where we not only grow and develop—they also need to be places where we can heal and repair what has been hurt.

The worlds of education and child-care have recently embraced an understanding of the impact of trauma on learning and development. A 1998 study[1] of 17,000 adults found that 1 in 10 adults had experienced at least one adverse event in childhood (psychological, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, living with family members who were substance users, mentally ill, suicidal or criminally involved) and 25% of adults had experienced 2 or more. And these experiences were highly correlated with increased mental and physical health risk in adulthood. This research prompted a trauma-informed movement to both prevent these adverse events where it was possible and provide support and intervention to children as close to the trauma event as they could—in an effort to mitigate future impact. This approach was as much about ‘stance’ as it was about intervention—it was a crucial shift from looking at a child’s negative behavior and asking ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to instead asking ‘what happened to you?’ It was the necessary acknowledgement that trauma impacts the way we behave, the way we interact in relationships and the way we can learn and grow. And this shift from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’ is the same one we now need in our places of work.

A basic definition of trauma is that it is an experience or event that overwhelms your capacities to depend upon or protect yourself. While much of the trauma that we think about is acute trauma or one-time trauma, like car accidents, a lot of the trauma that we experience is actually repeated trauma. There is a specific set of responses to acute trauma to help us survive and gear us up for fight for flight. But with repeated trauma, our brains and bodies don’t focus on gearing up, instead the focus shifts to protection: how can I shut down my system so I don’t experience this overwhelming state day after day. And this efficiency and repetition of protection becomes our way of living in the world—it becomes our personality. It becomes the way we lead.

But it’s not just our self-regulation and mood that is impacted. It’s also, and perhaps even more, our trust and belief in relationships. Whereas many acute traumas are accidents and disasters, most repeated traumas are relational disasters— the nightmares of people perpetrating violence and terror upon other people— that is what war is, that is what child abuse is, that is what domestic violence is. That is what most psychological traumas are— they are repeated relational traumas[2].  And this is important because leadership is first and foremost a relationship, and relational traumas affect our ability to work with and lead others.

In most of the leadership development work that we do, we help leaders grow and develop using the framework of Daniel Goleman’s four quadrant model of emotional intelligence. A model that helps people understand and strengthen themselves and themselves-in-relation. Let’s look at the model first, and then we can look at how emotional intelligence is impacted by trauma and a few ways to work with this interaction in the workplace.

Emotional intelligence starts with self-awareness— the ability to know what you are thinking and feeling while it is happening, in real time— as well as other aspects of self, such as values, motivation, purpose, and temperament. Once you know what you are thinking and feeling you are in a position to use that information on self-management, the second quadrant. With self-management you use your emotions and energy to be in emotional and energetic state that allows you to perform at your best. Sometimes this means ratcheting up your energy or mood using positive emotions. Sometimes this means controlling your emotions using mindfulness, breathing or self-talk. The third quadrant of emotional intelligence is social awareness— the ability to know what someone else might be thinking and feeling and behave in such a way that feels congruent and supportive — what we commonly call empathy. And empathy and understanding aren’t just interpersonal. You can take this understanding to a larger level of system and have community or organizational awareness. The last quadrant is actually a combination of the first three. It is called relationship management, and it is made up of the competencies that everyone in any organization or community recognizes as necessary to getting work done: teamwork, conflict management, influence, inspirational leadership, coaching and mentoring. They are the leadership behaviors that require all three quadrants of  self-awareness, self-management and social awareness to lead effectively.

We know that leaders with high emotional intelligence create positive work climates and get better results[3]. Emotional intelligence is what is needed to create psychologically safe, high performing team environments, manage complex problems and create learning organizations that foster creativity and innovation. And trauma has profound and lasting effects on emotional intelligence.

Trauma impacts self-awareness because under repeated extreme stress we tend to shut down our senses and take in as little information as possible. Essentially, we go numb. In the same way we would take the battery out of a fire alarm that just won’t shut off, we make all that outside ‘noise’ go away, but as a result we are cut off from our emotions and we have less ability to focus and pay attention. As a leader, I might not be able to listen to my direct reports the way I need to, or I might find myself feeling disconnected from my work or my team. Trauma makes it harder to manage emotions because we have a much narrower ‘window of tolerance.’[4] Our window of tolerance is the place where we can comfortably manage stressors and trauma tends to have us react to even minor stressors by shutting down or flying off the handle. Trauma makes us protect ourselves rigidly and this lack of flexibility makes it harder to manage and roll with day to day stressors.

Since trauma affects our self-awareness, it also affects our social awareness. If I can’t feel what I am thinking and feeling, it is much harder for me to empathically feel what you are thinking and feeling. I am apt to misread or minimize your emotions or project my experience on to yours. And since extreme stress makes me narrow the data I absorb, in essence wearing ‘stress blinders,’ I am likely to ignore information coming from others or the system. And lastly, we can look at the competencies of relationship management and see that if self-awareness, self-management and social awareness are compromised, then any of the relationship management capacities would be more difficult. For example, trauma can impact my capacity for conflict management, because if my self-awareness is low I may not be aware that my mood or my values are getting in the way of my ability to listen or seek out a conversation. If trauma has affected my self-management, I may not have the ability to tolerate a difficult conversation or tolerate the discomfort that conflict can bring, and I might avoid it. And lastly, if trauma has impacted my ability to have social awareness or empathy, I might not be taking into account how and why the issue is important to you—and miss an important opportunity to work through the conflict.

The good news is that by strengthening and working with emotional intelligence, you not only improve your leadership—you can also work with trauma in a slow, manageable and effective way. 

Four things you can do to strengthen your leadership and heal trauma with emotional intelligence:

  1. Take time each morning to breathe and check in with yourself. See if you can name your emotion, even if that emotion is ‘numb’ or a lack of emotion. Keep a journal or a notebook to track your emotion and your thoughts.
  2. Observe what helps you shift your emotion and your energetic state. Does walking help? Listening to music? Being in nature? Being with others? Experiment with different ways to slow down and get energized.
  3. Practice listening to others and guessing what they are feeling. Then check in with them. See how accurate you were.
  4. Explore your values and purpose—what inspires you? Write these down and keep them where you can see them, so you are supported in your work of leading and healing.

Gretchen Schmelzer is a Teleos Associate and the author of Journey through Trauma: Avery (2018).

[1] Felitti, V., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14, 245-248

[2] Schmelzer, G. (2018). Journey through trauma. NY: Avery.

[3] Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review.

[4] Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Solomon, M. F., & Siegel, D. F. (Ed.). (2003). Healing trauma: Attachment, mind, body, and brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

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