Trauma-informed Leadership When Crisis Feels Constant

By: Renee Branson, MA; Founder | Principal RB Consulting

Loss and grief are part of the human experience. Tragedies and traumas unfold in front of us on the 24/7 news cycle. Some occur globally, and others hit very close to home. Some traumas occur in the present moment, while other traumas are generations old. Because of that, people show up to work in pain, worried, grieving, angry, and confused.

As leaders, we feel compelled to do something and simultaneously afraid of doing the wrong thing. There is no single way to respond to tragedy; however, there are guideposts to help you navigate through the process.


Integrity Gut Check

Before taking any action or making any statement, pause. It’s time for an integrity gut check. Integrity is the congruence between stated values and lived values. Are what you proclaim and what you do in alignment?

When people face a crisis, challenge, or change and try to decide the next right step, I have them pause to reflect on their values. Why? When we are under pressure, that is when we are most likely to “lose the plot” and venture from our values. We seek a fast and easy answer to get us out of discomfort. Maybe we stick our heads in the sand. Perhaps we deflect or downplay a situation.

We don’t do this because we are bad. We do this because we are uncomfortable or fearful and lose track of what we value. The remedy is to stop and ask the question, “What is most important right now?” As a leader, if you proclaim the value of caring for your team and your clients, your actions should pass that litmus test. “Do my words and actions align with my value of showing my team and clients that we care about them?” This goes for whatever value you have deemed as core to your culture: trustworthiness, collaboration, accountability—these are your response measures.


Start from the Inside Out

When addressing a tragedy or trauma, consider your circle of influence and start there. Focus on your team before focusing on an external response. Check-in with those in the office for whom the tragedy or crisis has more personally impacted. That is not to say you shouldn’t make a public statement or take external action; however, a social media post or PR statement can appear inauthentic if the embedded value isn’t being acted upon internally.

Doing this also helps to ensure that tone, messaging, and actions are clear internally. Working transparently and, when appropriate, collaboratively builds trust and psychological safety.


The Four R’s of Trauma-informed Leadership

Guidelines for a trauma-informed response were developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (, known as the Four R’s: Realization, Recognition, Response, and Resist. They are explained below and reflected in this Printable Handout

Realization: Acknowledge the prevalence and impact of the trauma regardless of whether it occurred across the street or the ocean. Understand that these impacts are often long-lasting and differ from person to person, group to group.

  • Be prepared. Clear, consistent policies, procedures, and infrastructure that guide a post-traumatic event response help to alleviate unnecessary anxiety and stress.
  • Create a safe culture at work from the start. Those who feel supported and understood in the workplace are more easily able to move forward after experiencing trauma, grief, or loss.
  • While it is important to consider who is more personally affected by a current traumatic event, avoid making too many assumptions. Asking is the best way to understand what someone is experiencing.
  • Understand that grief is unpredictable. There is no timeline for processing trauma.

Recognition: Trauma can manifest behaviorally, emotionally, and physically. Some are easy to identify, like tearfulness or anger, but others might be harder to identify as trauma, such as difficulty concentrating or changes in personal appearance and hygiene. Being present with your team and knowing these signs ahead of time can help you identify them at the moment.

  • Continue to be cognizant of the tenor in the office.
  • Traumatic events can make some people very emotive (tearful, short-fused, or frantic) while others retreat (disconnected, absent, forgetful).
  • Notice changes in behavior and other signs of trauma to help guide you in knowing who might need additional support.
  • Remember that behaviors that seem dysfunctional (i.e., isolating oneself) are the brain’s unconscious way of keeping a person safe from real or perceived threats.

Those who have experienced trauma can benefit from added work support. This can take the form of breaking down the workload into smaller segments, giving advance notice to plan changes, or providing more reminders. Trauma can inhibit our cognition and make us less adaptable in the short term. Having support allows us to heal that temporary rigidity.

Response: Creating an environment where people feel psychologically safe, valued, and respected long before a crisis occurs is the foundation for a trauma-informed response. Ask about and respond to their immediate needs with empathy and compassion. Create a space of non-judgment for expressing fears, frustrations, and feelings.

  • Acknowledge that productivity, attention, and emotional/ social well-being are all disrupted by trauma. Be prepared to have revised expectations for some time.
  • Listen actively. Sit down with someone and give them the space to share how this experience impacts them.
  • It’s less about what you say. It’s ok if you don’t have the perfect words of advice or eloquently delivered thoughts. Your job isn’t to fix it; your job is to care.
  • Be consistent and prepared. This won’t be a one-and-done. Schedule regular check-ins to discuss a person or team’s evolving needs.

Resist: Resist re-traumatization by unintentionally interfering with trauma recovery. A key element of trauma is a loss of control or consent. Resisting re-traumatization looks like considering ways to empower someone who has been through a traumatic experience by supporting their autonomy, choice, and voice. It also means continuing to create safety for that person, physically and psychologically.

  • Consider policies and procedures that even unintentionally fail to support people who have gone through a traumatic experience.
  • Are there measures that need to be taken or programs that need to be implemented to make the work culture more psychologically safe?
  • Ask for feedback about what you got right and where you could have done something differently.

The Four R guidelines are reflected in Printable Handout.

Leading Your Team with Compassion

Leading through tragedy and crisis is a skill to be honed, even for those who are naturally empathetic people. Empathy and compassion are critically important but, on their own, do not guarantee the best trauma-informed leadership decisions. That is why the best time to strengthen that skill is before it is ever needed.

Renee Branson provides clients with immediately usable tools to increase resilience, well-being, and optimism in the workplace. She works with law firms and other professional services organizations to help them understand and incorporate resilience in their professional lives and teams.