If you’re asking yourself how to get your team to be productive, you’re not alone. You’re also not asking the right question. Our teams are exhausted and as leaders our job is first to understand our team members’ experience. Our obsession with our goals ahead of the care for our people is a sign of our own trauma and disconnection from others. To lead effectively in complexity, we need to bring deeper presence, listening and connection to workplaces. In this interview, we can learn how to do that.
A recent New York Times article entitled “Everyone Is Not OK, but Back at Work Anyway” offers a glimpse at the complex challenge of leading when we know that we and those who we lead are not 100% okay. We have individually and collectively endured many losses over the last two years (and beyond). We are in the midst of what Thomas Friedman calls the truly first World War where almost 50% of the population of the world can peer into their smart phones and see hourly updates and pictures of war casualties in Ukraine. As the New York Times article goes on to say: “supervisors are finding that they are called on to help people navigate personal challenges, whether or not they have the training to do so”. So, in my view, the first question leaders need to ask is: “How am I doing?”. Your own emotional landscape affects your team. And then the next question leaders need to ask is: “How is the human in front of me doing, really?”
To better understand the collective trauma we are all faced with but not sure how to handle, I sat down with Thomas Hübl. Hübl is a renowned teacher, and author of Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds. Since 2002, he has led dialogue and restoration processes around collective trauma with more than 100,000 people worldwide.
H. Inam: How would you define collective trauma?
T. Hübl: We can understand collective trauma as a widespread, systemic response to a traumatic and overwhelming situation, which exerts a profound impact on a society or group. Large-scale atrocities such as the Holocaust, wars (including that unfolding in front of us), genocides, as well as the oppression inherent in gender violence, colonialism, and racism, leave deep wounds in the collective. Subsequent generations are born into these wounds of the past, further perpetuating the trauma and extending the after effects. Taken as a whole, collective trauma permeates the context and environment within which we have all been raised; it has conditioned and formed who we are as individuals and societies, even as nations. It shapes what we experience as “normal” but is actually traumatized.
Inam: How does collective trauma show up in the workplace?
Hübl: I believe trauma can be described as a “social syndemic,” in that the symptoms intersect and mirror multiple conditions, impacting virtually every person within a culture. So, they show up in workplaces as systemic relational and communication issues: lack of collaboration, fragmentation, polarization, stress, over reactivity, numbness, distance, and negligence. An economic system that exploits employees and contributes to disparities is rooted in unresolved collective trauma, which continues a vicious cycle that is non-regenerative and destructive by its nature.
Inam: What are workplace behaviors that are part of this trauma but are so “normal”, we don’t even question them?
Hübl: Many workplace dynamics become detrimental and harmful to morale when care is diminished – both self-care and care for others. The predominant acceptance and normalization of traumatic events, described frequently as, “This is how life is,” contributes to poor morale, burnout, and even hostility. So, the power games, negligence and lack of compassion become systemically accepted as part of the workplace culture, which leads people to shut down and disassociate.
Chronic stress results in the “helicopter mind”, leadership rule from the amygdala, spearheading power games, oppressive behaviors that violate workplace policies, such as racism, bullying, and sexual harassment. A signature of trauma among leaders is choosing to lead from a hierarchical-based power structure vs. one that is competency-based. When we see an environment filled with heightened fears and stress that don’t match the seriousness of the problems, that’s a sign that the unresolved issues of the past are overshadowing the present experience.
Inam: What are ways that leaders can recognize trauma in themselves?
Hübl: When we notice repetitive patterns in ourselves, this is a clear indication that trauma might be involved. When we have difficulties with others that we can’t easily resolve, trauma is usually a factor. Hyper-reactivity, becoming easily triggered and continually having a high baseline level of stress are all signs of trauma. While some symptoms are more obvious and lead to reactivity, others such shutting down and feeling distant from ourselves and others, and lack of compassion can be more subtle but just as profound. If leaders are supporting sabotage or fragmentation in the organization by undermining people or indirectly promoting polarization, these are also signs of trauma. We need to become more trauma-informed, and then trauma-integrated, to become more aware of these often hidden symptoms.
Inam: What are ways leaders can work with this?
Hübl: First of all, we need to begin with the awareness that we all carry trauma within ourselves. Second, we want to avoid framing trauma as bad, as something we shouldn’t have, but to understand it as an integral part of being human. The trauma response, the mechanism within our nervous system that kicks in when we run into intense, overwhelming situations, has served us well in the past. The trauma response is our body’s intelligent process that saved us from even more damage. Even though the circumstances took place in the past, our bodies are still integrating it so that we may harvest the post-traumatic learning. We need presence and relationship to heal trauma. We need to heighten our awareness when symptoms of trauma arise so that we can deepen our understanding of the underlying trauma itself. We need meaningful relationships in our lives that help us to share and to skillfully go deeper into the trauma to transform it into vitality, creativity, and relationality. Trauma is postponed experience – one that could not be fully healed or experienced. Integrating trauma means to bring the past into the present.
Inam: How can leaders recognize trauma in others?
Hübl: We are all interdependent, and therefore share many of the collective traumas and chronic stresses inherent in our societies. Opening to the possibility that colleagues, supervisors, and staff may be impacted by collective events allows leaders to bring more awareness, empathy, and compassion to the workplace. Extreme behavior such as aggression and other symptoms such as disassociation, burnout, or depression may be signs. When there are widespread conflicts, fragmentation and othering, even gossip, it becomes evident that the relational health is broken and the trust that issues can be resolved together is reduced.
Inam: What are ways that leaders can help others dealing with trauma?
Hübl: Of course, for acute behavioral issues or extreme trauma experiences and disorders such as PTSD, it’s important to follow workplace policies and to recommend professional therapeutic support. In speaking with someone who is demonstrating some of the symptoms I mentioned earlier, there are three actions: become present, listen, and attune, all of which contribute to becoming a trauma-informed leader. When people are stressed and activated, they need to turn to a leader who can slow down, empathize, and listen attentively to their needs and concerns. Adding more information or stress is just overloading the processor more.
Slowing down, listening and feeling the distressed employee or colleague leads to co-regulation, calming the nervous system and reducing the possibility of escalation. Being able to receive people with generosity is key since trauma always comes with a feeling of scarcity. There’s a sense of “not enough”. Giving and receiving are healthy ways of working through trauma symptoms and it’s always best not to take any of these behaviors personally. Starting team meetings with just a brief personal check-in is an effective way to show that leaders care, bringing the spirit of authenticity and care into the workplace. Empathy and receptivity allows people to share their feelings, which creates trust and deepens relations.
In addition to regular check-ins where people can open up to share an update or a personal experience, it’s ideal to nurture a workplace culture that includes open space for integration – of the past, of conflict, of anything unresolved in the organization’s history or present. Organizational integration translates to organizational learning. Trauma healing brings a tremendous amount of learning to individuals, organizations, and nations. We need to harvest this learning to successfully meet our current challenges. Doing so improves individual satisfaction and health, organizational and collective well-being, and productivity.
Inam: What are leadership practices that are essential for leading a burned out workforce?
Hübl: There are many personal qualities that naturally extend to one’s role as a leader. For one, being deeply relational and attuned to oneself and others. It’s important, as we discussed earlier, to examine, one’s own trauma history and ongoing symptoms. Listening skills and offering a sense of mindful, embodied presence to others are both strong leadership capacities. Also critical, in my opinion, is being authentic and to ‘walk my talk’. Leaders also need to model relational health, demonstrating to everyone that this is the foundational requirement to build a sustainable and flourishing workplace. We spend so much time at work and we want it to be a warm, healthy, and purpose-driven environment where we support each other’s highest development. When the principles of “being, becoming and belonging” are in balance, we are inherently happy and able to face the challenges that help us learn, grow wiser, and ultimately, lead our organizations to actualize these precise values we hope to nurture.
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.