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Managers: Ways to Recognize When Someone Has Been Through a Traumatic Event

In our culture, we spend a lot of time in our professional roles, creating, meeting deadlines, managing a team. For example, when we are in a management role, sometimes we can have employees that potentially don’t respond to deadlines or communications, shut down emotionally, procrastinate, or self-sabotage. Why does this happen? You know your team, you know the strengths and points of growth, so why does an employee act in these ways?

These reactions can be due to unhealed trauma & shame. So, what does it look like when you have an employee who is struggling, due to traumatic events and shame? Let’s break that down.

What is trauma?

According to Bobbi Parish, Executive Director of the International Association of Trauma Recovery Coaching, trauma is defined as:

A circumstance or event is traumatic to an individual if it meets the following three criteria:

-The individual feels they are powerless to control the circumstance or event

-The circumstance or event intensely frightens the individual

-The circumstance or event changes the individual’s beliefs about themselves, the world and their interactions with the world

What is shame?

As a Certified Healing Shame Practitioner, I have worked with many people to overcome the pockets of shame which was the normal response to their trauma, and has manifested in their professional lives. Shame is a primary emotion, which means that it is felt somatically, in the body. As a great protector, it makes us feel unworthy of good things happening, of respect, of love and caring. It keeps us small and silent. When you view the workplace through a trauma & shame lens, you can see behaviors that may not make sense otherwise, but are telling you a story within employees hearts and lives. Shame can very easily become toxic and pervasive, due to unhealed trauma.

Unhealed shame and trauma can rise up in the following ways, professionally:

· Self-Criticism

· Imposter Syndrome

· Disorganization

· Procrastination

· Self-Sabotage

· Perfectionism

· Productivity-Based Worthiness

· Toxic Positivity/Emotional Bypassing

Persons suffering from toxic, pervasive shame will experience a chronic sense of unworthiness, low self-esteem, and self-loathing. This is all connected to the belief that ‘I am bad’ and the proof is that because they were treated that way relationally though their trauma, it must be their fault. It takes all the negative beliefs about oneself and creates identity from that space.

An example of this would be someone who beats themselves up constantly in the workplace, even when they have done nothing wrong, so as to not show resistance to someone else’s opinions about them. It’s an uncomfortable comfort zone. In essence, they are inoculating themselves against the potential for further external shaming by shaming self first. It’s easier for a person to shame themselves, versus being shamed from someone else, because of the need to be accepted.

As a manager of your team, what can you do, when you see these patterns within your employees behaviors?

· One of the basic human needs, is to feel heard. So many people, struggling to assimilate their trauma, make meaning of it, and their reaction internally of shame, feel isolated and alone. I teach a CE class on Shame & Trauma and one of the most common aftereffects that I get numerous messages about is that people thought they were the only ones to feel that way. Shame is universal, everyone has it and it’s okay. Validating, listening and remaining present with employees, to really hear what they need to say, is the first step in understanding, building good rapport and attuning.

· Approaching the employee and situation for genuine connection. It’s okay if you don’t have ‘right’ words. So much of the time, we may think as managers we should have all the solutions, all the answers. We can’t possibly! And that is okay, approaching someone out of your own space of genuine authenticity is vital. We attune to each other, and if as a manager, you have had a long day, with constant fires to extinguish, you may not have bandwidth to be present. Wait until you do, are replenished and have nurtured yourself. The point of approaching someone to talk about it, is not to fix it. It’s to listen empathetically and respond with unconditional support. The caveat to that is, you can’t give out what you don’t have, so questioning and observing the support of self is important.

· Remembering relationship is the foundation of communication. How are your attuned communication skills in the workplace? How is your relationship with your employees? Are you fair, consistent and trustworthy? My guess is that you are, but this is a great opportunity for us to grow as managers too! There is always work to do on self, and remaining teachable while being the teacher is a beautiful space to operate from, as a manager of others.

· Asking what the person needs right now can empower them, and aid in voice & choice. They may not know the answer, but that’s okay and just asking is powerful. Employees will feel more willing to open up versus shutting down emotionally, when asked this simple question. It can also remain in the forefront of their mind, as a seed of empowerment, that their manager thought enough of them, to simply ask. This is a powerful way to build a more cohesive relationship with employees and very counter shaming.

Learning and growing within ourselves and understanding our employees are vital parts to being an effective manager. Some employees may ask for special accommodations while dealing with their trauma & shame, such as flexible hours, reset breaks and project goals that reflect when they are at their best, such as more challenging tasks in the morning and perhaps less difficult at the end of the day. Employees will be more productive the more they feel heard and seen. You may be asked to help them navigate your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which can be invaluable help for trauma & shame, and the employee will be more invested in you as their manager, and the company.

Navigating trauma & shame in the workplace can be challenging. Doing the best you can to listen and support your employees, communicating transparently expectations without judgement and creating a cohesive team are all a beautiful start to helping maintain a positive work environment. They deserve it and so do you!