In this series, I am making a bold claim that I believe is key to transformationally elevating our leadership effectiveness. The claim is:
Leadership ineffectiveness is rooted in leaders’ trauma
If this is true, it has a very powerful implication:
In order to help leaders significantly transform, we need to help them heal from their past trauma
This is the second article in a series on the connection between trauma and leadership (in)effectiveness and how we can help ourselves and other leaders heal to unlock the full potential in our leadership effectiveness.
If you haven’t read the first article, you can here: Trauma & Leadership – Part 1 – What is Trauma?
I invite you to join me over the next set of articles to explore this claim, its implications, and ultimately learn how we can help ourselves and other leaders heal to unlock the full potential in our leadership effectiveness.
Intro to the Consequences of Trauma
What I am suggesting is that where any leadership ineffectiveness occurs, there you will find the fingerprint of trauma. Thus, if we want to elevate our leadership, we need to heal to the degree that our past trauma doesn’t continue to wreak havoc on how we think and operate.
In order to fully appreciate this sentiment, we must be able to identify the fingerprints of trauma, or in other words, the common and predictable consequences of trauma.
This week, I will explore the primary consequences of trauma, and next week, I will explore the secondary consequences of trauma.
A traumatic experience is one where the stress of that experience exceeds our body’s capacity to deal with that stress.
When we experience stress that exceeds our body’s capacity to deal with that stress, whether we realize it or not, we mentally break. How we break occurs in predictable ways. In fact, this breaking (the primary consequences of trauma) occurs in a domino like fashion.
Let’s go over these four dominos.
The Primary Consequences of Trauma (The Four Dominos)
Domino 1 – Disassociation
When we experience a situation where the stress exceeds our stress response system’s capacity, our body recognizes that we are in danger. To help limit the danger and the pain, our mind disassociates from our body.
This disassociation occurs in the moment of trauma, but also after the trauma.
Let me give you a sad and extreme example.
When someone is sexually assaulted, it is not uncommon for them to experience an “out of body” experience. Effectively they go numb. This is the body and the mind protecting them from the pain and the hurt in the moment.
But, the pain of trauma lingers, often in the form of shame and emotional pain. To limit that shame and pain, our mind sustains this disassociation and continues with the numbness.
Domino 2 – Disintegration
When our mind disassociates from our body, a neurological change occurs. We have long-range neural connections that connect and integrate our three major brain regions (reptilian, mammalian, and human brains).
In an ideal world, our brain will be integrated, meaning that the wiring across these regions works well enough that all three of these brain regions work effectively together.
But, when disassociation occurs, these long-range neural connections become harmed and this prevents the three major brain regions from working effectively together.
Specifically, what ends up happening is that our reptilian and mammalian brains operate on overdrive and our human brain is unable to effectively step in and regulate the more primitive and emotional parts of our mind.
There are two dominos that fall as a result of disintegration.
Domino 3 – Misencoding
One of the dominos that falls after disintegration is misencoding.
Our mind is an encoding machine. It is constantly taking in information and then interpreting that information. One of its primary encoding jobs is to interpret safe things as safe and dangerous things as dangerous. The more accurately our brain encodes information, the more effectively we can navigate our world.
Unfortunately, disintegration inhibits our ability to encode accurately. We start to see safe things as dangerous and dangerous things as safe.
For example, if we are learning a new skill and we fail in the practicing of that skill, many people (those with a fixed mindset) see that failure as a signal that they are a failure. Failure in practice is not a dangerous thing, it is a safe thing that is commonly interpreted as being dangerous. By misencoding failure in this way, we end up limiting our ability to learn and grow.
Domino 4 – Shrinking Window of Tolerance
The other domino that falls after disintegration is a shrinking of our window of tolerance.
Our window of tolerance is a term used to describe a zone or state of arousal where a person’s brain is functioning well and is effectively processing stimuli. When people are within this zone or state, they are able to readily receive, process, and integrate information and respond to the demands of everyday life without feeling overwhelmed or withdrawn. Also, it is only in this state where we can be present and mindful. It is the optimal zone for us to operate within.
Ideally, we would like to have a broad window of tolerance where we can take on a decent amount of stress without losing control of our cognitive and emotional resources.
When our mind is disintegrated, our window of tolerance shrinks. We become easier to be “triggered,” and sent outside our window of tolerance, to a place where we become emotionally overwhelmed. In this state, we are unable to effectively process and respond to our world, either because we have become too aroused (feel anxious) or because we have become frozen with emotional numbness.
How the Primary Consequences Affect Leaders
I’ll start the conversation about how trauma affects leaders here, but will continue this conversation in future articles.
The reality is that at least 70% of people have experienced significant adverse experiences that have started the domino effects above.
Essentially, all of us, because of the trauma we have experienced, have been and continue to be influenced by the consequences above. Now, the degree of these effects are going to be contingent upon the number and severity of the traumatic experiences that we have encountered, among a variety of other factors including our genetics and social support system.
None of us are perfect encoders and all of us has a smaller-than-optimal window of tolerance. This means that at times, we process and operate in a way that falls short of our ideal self. And, it is all connected back to trauma.
In extreme cases, this manifests as abusive leadership. But, most of the time, this is more similar to death by a thousand paper cuts.
Either way, the consequences of trauma serve to explain why common leadership statistics like these are as high as they are:
- 75% of employees say that their direct leader is the worst and most stressful part of their job.
- 65% of employees state that they would rather have a new boss over more pay
- 60% of employees report that their direct leader damages their self-esteem
The Benefit of a Trauma-Informed Mindset
To me, there are two main benefits for understanding the consequences of trauma.
First, when I see someone, myself or another leader, operating in a manner that falls below my expectations, rather than rush to judgment and think “What is wrong with them/me?” I now first ask, “What has happened to them?” By doing this, I feel like I am being a much more compassionate person.
Second, I now recognize that the best way to help leaders develop is to help them to heal their minds and overcome the effects of past trauma.
If this is something that is resonating with you, please (1) let me know and/or (2) share this with others. If this is something that is not resonating with you, I would love any perspectives or information that might suggest to me that this line of reasoning is off-base.