Every performance management strategy hinges on having a psychologically safe environment where employer and employee alike are receptive to feedback, so how do you create one? We sat down with Smokey Bones’ former Chief People and Culture Officer, Rachael Kelly to learn how trauma-informed leadership helped create theirs.

What set you down this path of human-centric, trauma-informed leadership?

Human-centric, trauma-informed leadership was our response to the pandemic, as we were forced to make really tough business decisions in order to survive. These weren’t decisions like debating someone’s bonus – it was about survival when revenues were so immediately and significantly impacted by the pandemic and corresponding shutdowns. We knew what that meant for the people on our team, their lives, and responsibilities. The impact of that kind of business environment is felt
immediately by teams on the frontline, especially in a population that was already working paycheck to paycheck. The rug was pulled from underneath them. There is no buffer to figuring out how you’re going to pay your bills; you don’t get a month to figure that out. All that financial pressure was compounded by other pandemic realities, like dealing with irate customers, scared employees, families at home, and literal life and death situations.

As someone who lives with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), I understood the impact this situation was having on the psyche of people, and immediately thought about how we could help people walk through this kind of pain. I pushed this idea that we’d use what resources we did have to address daily needs and build a sense of community, social connections, and the team resiliency needed to navigate through. Knowing that you are not in it alone and that you have support – just knowing that – can make all the difference in the world for someone, especially in those moments when lizard brain takes over.

We were in this together. We also highlighted the fact that we’re all different, coming at this from our own unique vantage points, but that those differences were a source of strength. Through collaboration, we could work more effectively than we could as individuals. This led us to develop and adopt our Humanifesto, in which one line reads: “None of us have all the answers, but together, we all do.” Inherently, we all contribute value with the sum being greater than the parts.

Group 466 (4)

How did you prepare leaders for human-centric leadership, and align them around these goals?

A large part of preparing leadership was simply getting leaders more comfortable with the idea of talking about emotions in the workplace - which is not easy. That is really scary and uncomfortable for some people.

We shame emotion in this country, we judge emotion and expect people to suppress how they feel in fear of the forbidden ‘being controlled by your emotions’.

Changing the paradigm to think about human beings in our organizations as dynamic and complex people whose energy can be intensified, harnessed, and unleashed to achieve extraordinary business results in the face of massive challenges - when cared for in the right way - is a very different way of management thinking. Normalizing the conversation and creating a safe space for leaders to learn was really the first step.

I also found it important to balance that conversation with the scientific perspective to be effective. We educated our leaders on the regions and functions of the brain, how we neurologically process events, what happens to humans’ brains when they’re traumatized, and how that affects the way they behave and show up at work. Once the team began to buy into the idea that human suffering and the trauma of our teams was something to recognize and address, we were able to follow up with science-backed practical techniques such as mindfulness and grounding practices like breathing exercises, butterfly hugs, communicating and actively managing stress levels, and all the wrap-around benefits and services we provided.

We role-modeled what human-centric leadership looked like. We talked about it constantly in meetings with our directors and managers, always with that nod towards the science of it all to keep it grounded. Individual leader coaching sessions were also a powerful tool for delivering that information, as it provided leaders their own safe spaces to open up about their own struggles and perspectives, which in turn helped them empathize with everyone else on their team. It’s not an easy process, and believe me, there were absolutely disagreements in approaches. But ultimately our approach worked, and we saw the results.

Furthermore, we were prioritizing safety as a core value during the pandemic, which meant we were able to connect those goals to this concept of people feeling safe emotionally at work. We made it clear that to lead through a trauma-informed lens, leaders needed to provide and safeguard safe spaces where people’s struggles were respected. We’re all human beings stumbling our way through life, and we all experience trauma in different ways based on our own histories and experiences. I will never know what it’s like to be you, but our philosophy was that I don’t need to fully understand either, because I know what it’s like to be human.


Group 466 (5)

What did this embrace of trauma informed, human-centric leadership do for the organization?

Culturally, it helped us achieve “radical transparency”, which I believe is essential for cultivating trust in our volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) world. You have to recognize that you don’t have all the answers, and communicate that to your teams, but equally be transparent about what you do know and what the plan is. Because people will know if you’re dishonest – they’ll see right through you and know that you’re just as lost, and if you try to hide away and say nothing, you’re just going to create a tremendous amount of anxiety.

That’s even worse. Be real and be honest about what’s going on, why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made, and most importantly, what your fundamental true north is. As Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Not only should you be constantly speaking openly with the team, but be sure that’s manifesting as dialogue. It was scary for leaders to embrace that approach as opposed to just disseminating information. But the team quickly saw how actually engaging with people back and forth on town halls, in group chats, or through one-on-ones really empowered people. Plans could change in a matter of hours, but if you brought your team along with you the whole way, they’re better prepared to pivot. You can more easily trust them to make the right performance decision in the moment, especially if you’ve cultivated a culture that says, “it’s OK to make the wrong decision sometimes; we’ve got your back and we’re going to figure this all out together.”

By focusing on the universal realities of being human, and approaching resiliency and wellbeing through this trauma-informed lens, we were able to break out of traditional organizational hierarchies and processes. Individuals were empowered to give us feedback, and vice versa. We learned to come together to co-create our strategies and programs, pushing us out of survival mode and into thriving as a collective. What we really did was create a culture of psychological safety, predicated on going together, failing together if needed, and using that as a catalyst to fail forward.

It led to human resiliency in action, it got us practicing agility, and the impact was huge. We became a learning organization that recognized the age of command-control had passed. The truth is you cannot control people, so why are you even trying? The much more impactful play is to create an open, safe, transparent place where they’re empowered to unleash their full potential, and you can tap into that energy, and everyone wins.

Group 466 (6)



Rachael Kelly
Rachael Kelly was previously the Chief People and Culture Officer for Smokey Bones. In her role with Smokey Bones, Kelly was responsible for end-to -end human capital management, facilitating an employee engaged culture, and servi ng as a trusted member of the executive team who guided the organization to achieve its strategic goals.

Kelly’s unique vision and approach helped see Smokey Bones through the pandemic as their teams experienced extreme compensation and environmental pressures, launched multiple virtual brands, and executed a bootstrap recovery of the business. Under her leadership, Smokey Bones rebuilt its culture inside-out, creating a human-centric leadership model that got them certified as a Great Place To Work for two consecutive years and helped spearhead an economic turnaround. Alongside expanded benefits, mentoring, and career path access to all frontline employees, during her tenure, they led their industry in staffing, employee retention and brand performance.

A career human resources and operations professional, Kelly was recently named Woman of the Year by the National Diversity Council, along with other accolades including being named Most Influential Restaurant Industry Executive by Nation’s Restaurant News and a Top 50 Human Resources Professional by Oncon Icon Awards. Kelly has also founded HiveStrong, an organization dedicated to supporting abuse survivors through their journey to empowerment. Outside of work, Kelly enjoys raising her two special needs boys, aged five and eight.

HS (16)