Trauma-informed Colleges Begin With Trauma-informed Leaders

March 14, 2022

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By Jason Lynch

From the COVID-19 pandemic to the global impacts of climate change and the continued battle for racial justice in the United States, higher education leaders are now more than ever faced with challenges that will reshape the campus landscape. Recent ACE survey reports show that the mental health of students, staff, and faculty are a top concern for presidents as institutions contend with this evolving environment. Drilling down to the individual campus level, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last month that 73 percent of employee respondents at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee disclosed experiencing at least one symptom of traumatic stress. To meet these challenges head-on, leaders must adopt new approaches and reimagine what it means to serve the institutional stakeholders in their charge.

One tool higher education leaders must adopt is a trauma-informed lens. Grounded in my experience from over a decade working in college student affairs and my research of the impact of traumatic stress on campus stakeholders, I hope to introduce you to the ways that trauma can interfere with our day-to-day abilities to learn, function, and relate to one another. I also present six practical ways in which you can use trauma-informed approaches to enhance your own leadership practice.

What is trauma?

Trauma may be thought of as any event, circumstance, or condition that overwhelms a person’s capacity to psychologically cope. When reactions to these circumstances begin to prevent them from functioning at work or at home, their trauma response could be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[1]1

The experience of trauma is highly individualized and can come in many forms. Studies cited by the Centers for Disease Control estimate that over half of U.S. adults have experienced at least one childhood trauma before the age of 18, with that estimate greatly increasing for racially marginalized and LGBTQ individuals. Given these realities, leaders can assume that trauma is a pervasive experience across the campus community.

However, trauma can also be experienced collectively and have broader impacts on societies and organizations, as with the COVID-19 pandemic. Such events can lead to permanent changes to policies, behaviors, and cultures within communities and nations. You only have to look back as far as 2001 to understand the deeply transformational nature of collective trauma on the culture, politics, and policies of the United States—and the world—after the September 11 attacks.

Those who have experienced trauma may exhibit several patterns of emotional or behavioral responses, such as avoidance, anger, fear, lack of creativity, dualistic thinking, perfectionism, and hypervigilance. As a large body of literature has also demonstrated, the experience of trauma can also change the way the brain works, making it disorganized and overwhelmed. These changes have a significant impact on the way traumatized individuals learn, interact with others, and regulate their emotions. These changes have also been linked to high blood pressure, migraines, and other physical maladies. Taking into consideration the highly person-centered and relational nature of higher education institutions, the long-term impacts of traumatic stress can have a significant impact on campus operations and their ability to carry out their missions.

Six tips for trauma-informed leadership

By now, you may be thinking, “I’m not a therapist. What can I do?” Whether working with students or faculty and staff, leading with a trauma-informed approach can help you to tap into the best of your colleagues and collaborators while also prioritizing their well-being. Here are a few evidence-based steps that you can take to use a trauma-informed approach to enhance your leadership skills.

1. Cultivate safety. In a fall 2020 survey I conducted on issues related to trauma and the workplace in higher education, over half of faculty and staff indicated that they did not feel their work environment was psychologically safe. Put another way, they did not feel like they could show up as themselves or offer perspectives without fear of a negative impact to their career, reputation, or employment. Lacking a sense of safety, faculty and staff can find themselves making decisions from a place of constant, low-grade fear, also referred to as hypervigilance. To cultivate safety, you must first understand how those you lead define safety, both physically and psychologically, as well as demonstrate yourself to be a trustworthy and empowering leader.

2. Promote collaboration and empowerment.A trauma-informed leader understands that the success and wellbeing of their team stems from strong and trusting relationships, as well as their collective capability. One way you may begin to build cultures of collaboration and foster empowerment is through active and regular solicitation of feedback. Offering your team multiple ways to provide direct or anonymous feedback without fear of repercussions—and then acting on this feedback—builds trust and empowers your team to offer perspectives you may have not considered.

3. Acknowledge that trauma is not equally distributed and make decisions accordingly. While much of the discussion regarding the well-being of college stakeholders over the past two years has emphasized the impact of COVID-19, less attention has been given to the fact that Black, Asian, and Hispanic students, faculty, and staff were also navigating incidents of racial violence over the same period. Trauma-informed leaders should acknowledge and account for the ways that stakeholders from marginalized backgrounds disproportionately experience complex trauma within the campus community. For example, offering affinity spaces and resources for processing local, regional, and national events is a good first step in supporting diverse campus communities.

4. Cultivate empathy. Viewing leadership from a trauma-informed lens requires you to first see the humanity of those within your charge. For many, senior leaders on college campuses can seem cold and distant. Trauma-informed leaders are visible and speak to members of their communities with whom they do not regularly interact. Coming face-to-face with diverse campus stakeholders will allow you to actively listen to the experiences of those you lead. It also allows stakeholders to get to know and trust you as a leader.

5. Practice emotional maturity. In one study, doctoral fellow Chelsea Gilbert and I were able to illustrate how psychological safety in the workplace is mediated by perceived supervisor emotional maturity, specifically their ability to maintain consistency. While leaders must be competent in many areas, trauma-informed leaders employ emotional maturity through setting realistic expectations for their teams, respecting the boundaries and capacity of their teams, and practicing consistency in behaviors and responses to stressful situations. After all, if your team cannot anticipate whether you will accept new information calmly, they may not feel safe enough to provide you with honest and real-time feedback that can be crucial to organizational functioning.

6. Find time to look inward.Finding time to pause and reflect is an essential practice to better recognize how your own background and potential experiences with trauma have shaped the way you relate to and lead others. Through modeling a culture of pausing, you also empower your staff to do the same. Engaging in regular moments of pause allows leaders and their teams time to rejuvenate so they can bring their best selves to their work.

These moments of pause may look different depending on the context of the organization. They can take the form of semester check-ins during which leaders facilitate discussions on the successes and challenges of the semester, offering opportunities for reflection during one-on-one meetings with supervisees or encouraging weekly no-meeting days when stakeholders have a choice of how to spend their time that day. From a student perspective, adopting activity hours within which no classes are scheduled for a short period of time on certain days allows time for community building, rest, or other rejuvenating activities.

Trauma-informed organizations begin with trauma-informed leaders. To be clear, this approach takes work and an ethic of intentionality. Yet leaders who are willing to put in the effort are much more likely to meet institutional missions through increased quality of service and capacity to support students, build resilience in campus stakeholders, foster student success, and grow staff and faculty job satisfaction. As higher education institutions move into the post-pandemic era, those with trauma-informed leaders will be better positioned to meet new challenges in creative ways while promoting safe and healthy campus communities.

[1] PTSD is a mental health disorder that should only be diagnosed and treated by a qualified mental health professional.

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