When Work Triggers Trauma

During a leadership training I facilitated, for a large group with whom I’d become rather intimately acquainted, everything changed with one realization. We were discussing the best ways to regulate our reactivity with cross-functional partners when I paused to ask a broad yet fundamental question, “Why does hyperreactivity keep happening?” To which one of the most senior C-suite members blurted, “It’s because we are all walking around with unresolved trauma and nobody wants to acknowledge it.”

She went on to clarify that the “it” referred to both our individual discomfort as well as our collective avoidance of this phenomenon. It shifted everything for me. In a few seconds, my brain traced the continuum of workplace wellness from becoming mainstreamed in corporate discourse to the feeling that all of these good, incremental efforts merely dance around this one fact. The realization upended our discussion.

Unhealed trauma often manifests as dysregulated reactions (e.g., fight/flight/freeze, hyper-vigilance to perceived threats, distorted beliefs about oneself and the world). Consider, for instance, the colleague who consistently reacts disproportionately to corrective feedback. Their defensiveness may stem from past experiences where vulnerability led to pain or humiliation. And the supervisor who micromanages a team who is unable to relinquish control; perhaps their need for authority  is rooted in the belief they need to “manage” everything to stay safe.

Such behaviors can turn workplaces into minefields in which individuals get retriggered and recreate (past) dysfunctional relationship patterns. The responses to the leader’s comment during our training illustrated the validity of this statement as the participants began discussing a litany of miscommunications inflamed by past hurts. One common theme centered around filtering the feedback about their individual contributions through never feeling valued or good enough when growing up.

Yes, many organizations can and do provide trauma-informed training, access to counseling services, emotional intelligence coaching, and explicit support for personal growth practices, but the truth remains: while none of us can change the painful things that may have happened in our lives, individuals must change how we relate to those experiences through inner work. The good news is that for employees who do their inner work to confront old wounds, their relationships at work and overall professional satisfaction tend to improve, sometimes dramatically. Taking responsibility for our own healing ultimately creates a cultural transformation where there is more psychological safety, trust, and cohesion in the workplace. It all starts with the willingness to go inward.

While it’s not the job of a supervisor to psychoanalyze their employees, they can influence dysfunctional workplace dynamics with great tools. Be sure to join us for Rockin’ Your Supervisory Role to find out how!

Guest Blog by John Mancuso

Authentic Communication Matters


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