Some Thoughts on Trauma-Informed Management
Amy Writes Words, #15
Hello, and welcome to issue #15 of Amy Writes Words. If you’ve forgotten who I am and why you got this email (or you’ve arrived here via a share or a link): I’m Amy Newell, I write mostly about tech, software engineering, management, mental illness, gender, and Taylor Swift, and I do it all from inside a walk-in closet full of shoes.
Last week I tweeted:
and a few people asked for more information/clarification on what I meant.
So, here’s the gist:
Trauma-informed care, from which I started thinking about this idea, is a movement to take into account the impact of trauma on people and how that informs how folks in caring professions (medical, social work, etc) should interact with patients or clients.
I’m not an expert in trauma-informed care (obviously), and I’m also by no means the first person to think about applying it to management. I have a lot of prior art to learn from before I go shooting my mouth off too much. But I’m going to shoot my mouth off just a little here because that is what people get to do in their newsletters that other people are voluntarily reading.
I think that businesses and managers should operate from the same assumption as trauma-informed care providers, and that the six guiding principles of trauma-informed care should be guiding principles for managers too.
For me this means starting from the assumption that your employees are more likely than not to have experienced trauma not just in their everyday lives outside of work, but, importantly, trauma in their workplaces.
Trauma-informed management means you understand that some of the things employees do or don’t do, some of their behaviors and reactions — and the responses they’ll have to your actions — are rooted in prior trauma.
An easy, small example: most employees, for example, are going to freak out if you throw a surprise meeting on their calendar and don’t say what it is for. Why is that? Because they’ve been fired, laid off, or given upsetting information in surprise meetings in the past.
Another example: many historically excluded folks will be in no position to walk into your organization and “ask forgiveness, not permission” because they’ve had precious little experience of being granted forgiveness — either in the world at large or in their prior workplaces. Trauma-informed management means you understand that and meet folks where they’re at.
Workplace trauma can come in a lot of different forms: harassment, discrimination, micro-aggressions, a toxic environment, getting blamed for things that weren’t your fault, outright exploitation or wage theft, managers who yell at you or make you cry, deliberate humiliation, assault, gaslighting, being lied to, getting fired. Even things that are normal in the course of business: layoffs, acquisitions, going belly-up — can leave a lasting impact on people, especially if done badly, which is the norm.
Trauma-informed management also means you can’t #NotAllCompanies this issue so that you don’t have to deal with it. People don’t leave their prior experiences behind when they walk in your door. You shouldn’t expect them to walk in the door trusting you.
It also means that you accept that they might experience trauma in your workplace too. There are plenty of great companies where most people are genuinely trying hard and still there are folks who experienced trauma there. Trauma-informed management means that you remain open to that possibility and committed to repairing when it happens.
Managers are not therapists; it’s not our job to fix everyone’s trauma or to be the main emotional support for employees grappling with trauma. But understanding how trauma impacts people and assuming that it’s having an impact on people you manage, and taking the time to understand the precise impact it has had on them, is critical to building the kind of workplace culture that a lot of folks think of as culture nirvana: trusting, safe, transparent, creative, diverse, and collaborative.
I have lots more to learn here and I suspect I’ll have more to say, about what this can looks like in practice and how the six guiding principles of trauma-informed care can be applied to management, but that’ll have to wait for another newsletter.
Meanwhile, I bet lots of folks reading this (some of whom I’m sure have more experience or knowledge about trauma-informed care and/or management than I do!) have thoughts they can add here. If you have thoughts about this that you’d like to share, you can smash that reply button to reply directly, comment on this post on Substack, or join the conversation on Twitter. I think there is real potential here to help businesses and managers make better workplace cultures, and I’m excited to talk more with others about it.
That’s all I’ve got this week, folks. I’m in a tizzy because I’m moderating a panel today and I’ve never done that before and live events make me anxious, so I’m letting myself do a short newsletter this week, and, further, even allowing myself to not include a Taylor Swift lyric, just like I told you all I would.
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