How trauma impedes our work and relationships
At its core, leadership is about cultivating relationships, building trust and inspiring influence. Leadership guru Dale Carnegie was so convinced of this reality that he spent his lifetime teaching people how to “win friends and influence people.” Leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman studied 300,000 business leaders and identified 10 key qualities to a successful leader. Not surprisingly, more than half of the qualities that emerged were relational in nature. Even employees want and expect their leaders to be relationally intelligent. Research by the Pew Research Center found that 89 percent of adults say it is essential for today’s business leaders to create safe and respectful workplaces.
While relationship-based research around psychological safety, emotional intelligence and interpersonal neurobiology are brought to the foreground of leadership, the discussion of trauma still remains in the background. This is shocking considering trauma is one of the greatest threats to connection and perceived feelings of safety. At its core, unresolved trauma always breeds disconnection — from ourselves, from others and from our work. According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, trauma often occurs within relationship and, therefore, wires our subconscious to distrust even when someone is trustworthy. Trauma literally reinforces our neural synapses to believe that relationships will result in wounding, especially with people who are in authority above us.
Trauma’s Impact on Work
While interpersonal skills are important for success, there are other prized qualities of high-level leadership. The CEO Genome Project — a 10-year study of 17,000 C-suite executives, which included 2,000 CEOs — found four qualities that set successful CEOs apart. Firstly, decisive CEOs were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs because of their ability to make decisions earlier, faster and with greater conviction. Secondly, successful leaders gather buy-in from others by being actively aware of their emotions and body language. Thirdly, the ability to adapt to rapid changes in the environment by having a long-term perspective made a CEO 6.7 times more likely to succeed than those who remained inflexible and myopic. Lastly, the capacity to reliably produce results over the long haul was one of the most essential behaviors of CEOs. In fact, those who scored high on reliability were 15 times more likely to succeed in their role. While these four behaviors are highly coveted among C-suite executives, trauma has been shown to impede every one of them.
Firstly, decisive decision making — the benchmark quality of a successful CEO — is made possible by the activation of the prefrontal cortex, which is petitioned to assess, analyze and make well-reasoned and logical decisions. Brain scans of individuals who have experienced trauma reveal an underactivation in this region of the brain and an over-activation in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. As a result, decision-making becomes delayed and logic and reason are unclear, at best.
Secondly, while emotional intelligence — the ability to recognize, understand, manage and influence our own emotions as well as those of others — was pivotal to success as a CEO, research has shown that trauma disrupts the social and emotional engagement centers of the brain. For example, the insula, a small region of the cerebral cortex that is primarily responsible for self-awareness and the detection of emotional cues in others, has been shown to be under-developed in trauma survivors.
Thirdly, adaptation as a leader requires long-term planning, which is controlled predominately by the prefrontal cortex. Trauma re-routes energy away from the prefrontal lobe and, instead, activates the amygdala, resulting in a “fight, flight or freeze” response. As a form of survival, the amygdala restricts, rather than expands, our perspectives, resulting in myopic and rigid thinking patterns.
Lastly, trauma limits our ability to produce reliable results over the long haul. Due to the prolonged and increased activation of the stress response system, often seen in trauma survivors, individuals often collapse emotionally, physically and relationally. Stable energy and mood states are extremely difficult due to trauma’s impact on the body and brain, and survivors often fluctuate — sometimes rapidly throughout the day — between anxious and depressive states.
If the business community is going to support the professional and personal development of leaders, it must address the facet that is most disrupting leadership: trauma. Only when trauma is brought to the forefront of these conversations can leaders tap into their full capabilities.