The Power of Trauma-Informed Leadership

Connex Staff |

The following is a companion article to the most recent episode of Connex’s ongoing Executive Insights Series, which is produced in partnership with the “Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future” podcast.


It’s unnerving to think that, at this moment in time, “ennui” might be the best word for our collective, daily experience. While some have tried, and even succeeded, to get back into the groove of things following all that’s happened in the last two and a half years, there’s a large contingent of the world that hasn’t. We see that reality reflected all around us: it’s mentioned on the news; it comes up in weekly team check-ins; it’s the focus of TIME articles; and it’s become part of the cultural ethos we see reflected in the memes of a Gen Z workforce that’s replacing Baby Boomers at a rate of 10,000 per day according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's something that I, myself, struggle with day-in and day-out alongside many of my industry peers.

In the process of trying to find a witty and interesting way to open this article, I stumbled upon the work of Nakeia Homer, a self-healing guide and author. She released her first book, “I Hope This Helps”, in October of 2020 as a collection of curated quotes, poems, and other messages that drew from her wealth of experience and her own personal struggles. One of its quotes managed to cut through the noise of my Google searching, and in a few short phrases, succinctly captured what today’s workers feel and needed to hear: “You are not lazy, unmotivated, or stuck. After years of living your life in survival mode, you are exhausted. There is a difference.”


Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

That difference was well understood by Rachael Kelly, the former Chief People Officer of bar-and-grill-chain Smokey Bones; Kelly is now the CPO at Platinum Dermatology Partners & WestDerm, a leading provider of dermatology services under the same PE umbrella. Smokey Bones was hit the way you’d imagine at the start of the lockdowns, and within three days, revenues were slashed by 80%. “We had to immediately change our business model [from dine-in],”explains Kelly, “and it was a question of how are we going to do this and survive?” They were confident that they would be successful, and that they’d even learn to thrive in what they anticipated would be a new normal, but they knew they couldn’t do it alone. There was an opportunity to redefine their business model, but it would take everything they could do to help their people navigate this disruption.

As Kelly put it: “Everyone was on compensation reduction, in a population that already, in many instances, was working paycheck to paycheck. Overnight, the rug was completely pulled from underneath them. They had to figure out how they were going to pay their bills […] and there’s no buffer – you don’t get a month to figure that out.” All that financial pressure was compounded by the other realities of being in a service industry position at the height of the pandemic: having to deal with angry patrons; being the enforcer of not just company, but city and state policy; watching those around you, from coworker to loved one, suffer through the full gamut of tragedy, from sickness to destitution. “In the restaurant industry, you never thought about life and death as part of your work,” explains Kelly, “but now with increased sanitation and all the precautions, it was life and death.” The server trying to make ends meet may not be the first image to come to mind when someone hears the word “trauma”, but that’s exactly what they – alongside most of us – experienced.


The Trauma-Informed Leader

Trauma recovery, like the rest of mental health, is tricky business, as it impacts both the mind and body due to the way in which we respond to stress. The recovery process can be simply summarized into three key steps – achieving safety and stability, remembering and grieving what was lost, and finally reconnecting with the self – but those are all much easier said than done. Walking down that path requires not only considerable discipline, mindfulness, and self-care, but the support of others. While wellness and resilience had always been discussed with a tangential link to the workplace, that connection was crystalized during the pandemic. The workplace itself became a source of undue stress, making harm reduction and employee support not just moral imperatives, but strategic levers. It’s here that trauma-informed leadership (TIL) principles shone as a means of providing the validating, safe, and supportive environment teams needed to meet their objectives.

TIL has its roots in trauma-informed care (TIC), which came about in the 1970s as a response to the physical and mental traumas experienced by Vietnam War veterans. TIC is built on 5 key foundational principles:

  1. SAFETY: Ensuring secure and unconditional physical and emotional protection.
  2. CHOICE: Providing affected individuals with control and an outlet for their voice.
  3. COLLABORATION: Making decisions with – not for – them.
  4. TRUSTWORTHINESS: Clear, consistent delivery on promises and an unwavering respect for boundaries.
  5. EMPOWERMENT: Encouraging skill building and identity through validation and affirmation.

Originally a lens for approaching patient care that better took into account trauma when diagnosing and treating individuals, its principles have since been adapted as a framework to help leaders achieve better team cohesion, cultural growth, and leadership agility. And it’s easy to see why, given that those principles should resonate with nearly any manager or executive that’s participated in a leadership development course. By applying these principles to the workplace, leaders can replace command and control leadership that expects employees to process the situation and roll with the punches – typically to their own detriment – with something warmer. Something more humanizing, that actually delivers on the promise of being able to bring “your whole self” to work, and in turn, speaks to what today’s employee want to see in the workplace.


TIL Praxis

This begs the question: how can your average manager, VP, or Executive apply TIL principles to everyday interactions? What does this all practically look like? As with nearly every other element of leadership, the short answer is, “it depends”. It’s a highly situational process of evaluating the present and immediate evidence and making the call that best aligns with the stated goals. However, there are some general tips to keep in mind:

  • Maintain a watchful eye for signs of stress, frustration, agitation, and depression, as well as for evidence of absenteeism or anxiety.
  • Follow that identification with increased communication and support, using a calm and genuine tone; the focus should be on their health, not the sentiment that they’re underperforming.
  • Prioritize the “why” when making decisions or offering guidance, as that helps build consensus and gives an opportunity for open, candid dialogue.
  • Help in removing stigmas around mental health through marketing/communications, regular team dialogue, and vulnerably sharing your own story.
  • Model the healthy, self-care behaviors you expect teams to practice. The more your team sees you overextending yourself, the more they feel pressure to do the same.

Perhaps most importantly, recognize and respect the fact that every individual on your team is unique, with their own capacity, situation, capabilities, and in turn, trauma recovery timeline. Many of us joined the workforce in an era where the principles of consistency and predictability were seen as virtues, but the world has become too volatile and unpredictable for those to be anything more than general goals. It’s easy for our desires of what “should” be possible to get in the way of what “is” possible if we’re not vigilant in assessing how we interact with and guide our teams. Ultimately, what makes an effective leader isn’t the consistency with which once cleaves to protocol and strategic plans, but one’s ability to recognize, in the moment, when an exception needs to be made.


The Results Speak for Themselves

Redefining how they approach leadership and being comfortable with pivoting helped save Smokey Bones from what seemed like an impossible situation. They managed to tangibly recover as early as October of 2020, and maintained industry-leading growth for 5 consecutive quarters. As it started to work, Kelly and the rest of her executive team began to ask themselves: “what is it that’s working, and how do we codify and memorialize this and continue to evolve our organization? Because we’re not going to go back; we’re going to go forward.”

To learn more about Smokey Bones’ journey, how they achieved their transformation, and the practical lessons Kelly tends to bring with her to Platinum Dermatology Partners & WestDerm, be sure to tune in to the entirety of her interview with Maureen Metcalf below: