An opportunity for trauma informed leadership

Casey Onder, PhD
3 min readJan 22, 2023
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Got trauma? I hope you’re getting help, and unfortunately you’re in good company. Trauma can happen to anyone, from vulnerable populations to top leadership levels.

As a result, the effects of trauma (beyond obvious and often debilitating mental health issues like PTSD) show up in the workplace in otherwise high functioning individuals.

Few people would say leaders need to be trauma informed. I argue that it would be advantageous, from a performance perspective, not only a wellness one.

Disclaimer: I am not a trauma expert. I’m an executive coach with a psychology PhD and rudimentary trauma training.

Trauma, which happens when there is a lasting emotional response to stressful events occurring in the past, can manifest in a variety of ways at work including hotheadedness, compulsive behavior, failure to adapt, collaboration issues and lack of empathy. While it may be difficult to prove scientifically, I suspect trauma is also a risk factor for personality disorders including the Dark Triad, as well as cognitive disorders like ADHD.

Trauma is not uncommon. Most people experience at least one traumatic event in their lives, a smaller proportion suffer complex and relational trauma. Even top performers and leaders are susceptible, trauma responses are often functional in the context in which they develop and in high pressure or dysfunctional cultures may be reinforced unintentionally.

What is trauma and how does it “ work?”

Basically trauma happens when, for whatever reason, we experience something as too much, too fast or too soon and we’re unable to shake off an ordinary stress response and re-regulate our nervous systems. There is overlap and ambiguity but trauma is often classified as “Big T” or “Little t” trauma. Big T trauma results from an obvious event that is body or life threatening. Think war and sexual assault. Little t, relational and complex trauma responses result from insults and injuries that don’t pose an immediate physical threat yet exceed our ability to cope. Think abuse, divorce, childhood neglect, loss of a loved one or of one’s livelihood… ego threatening, in other words.

Because we’re wired differently and learn different ways to cope, events that are traumatic for some people won’t be traumatic for others, and the same event could be traumatic or not for the same person depending on contextual factors.

What are signs of trauma in the workplace, keeping in mind we may be wrong?

Fear and fight-based posturing, for example shrinking or slumping, as well as puffed up, aggressive stances (physically and/or behaviorally) outside of a person’s control.

Numbness, overreactions, and compulsivity, for example behavioral and personality excesses, from perfectionism, compulsivity and stubbornness to arrogance, insensitivity and angry outbursts.

Recognize anyone, maybe yourself? It’s important to recognize that trauma responses fall on a spectrum and need not be extreme.

Is there anything to be done if we notice them?

I hope this is obvious but this isn’t about diagnosis, information sharing or offering aid (imagine those performance reviews, yikes!). This is about being aware of what could be going on beneath the surface so as to facilitate collaboration and leadership.

Again trauma can happen to anyone, including the highest performing and the most intelligent. It’s not always debilitating, and it limits performance long-term in hijacking our thoughts, emotions and our nervous systems.

Beyond trauma, beliefs about ourselves, others and the world — and their building blocks of chemical and neurological associations — are stored in the body. Our nervous systems can hang on to the past even if our brains don’t, or want to see it differently. I think this is critical for leaders and coaches to know, as well as anyone in a position of influence.

Bottom line, trauma limits response range and our ability to respond peacefully and even joyfully, consciously, creatively and to socially connect.

Leaders make the greatest and healthiest positive impact at their most alive, levelheaded, empathic, creative and resilient, and when they lead in a way that facilitates others to access their full capacities as well.

Further reads/listening:

Trauma Is Really Strange

Waking The Tiger

Beginner’s Guide To Trauma

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Casey Onder, PhD

Executive Coach | Psychologist | PhD. Follow me on LinkedIn or sign up for my newsletter @ caseyonder.com.