How to Help Your Employees Heal From Toxic Workplace Trauma

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“Are you stupid?”

The words are harsh, even to look at. I could never imagine saying them to a member of my team.

Yet, when I set out to write this article and asked everyone in my company to talk about workplace trauma, these were among their experiences: CEOs calling people stupid in a meeting; managers blowing up over small mistakes or lying about a promotion; feeling stressed and being yelled at every single day. Fifteen percent of my employees were willing to share their stories. Some were hard to believe.

Most surprising was how prevalent workplace trauma is. Not big “T” trauma that results from dangerous or criminal behavior, but rather “little t” trauma that still causes serious harm, but results from poor leadership. Toxic work environments leave people feeling unworthy, incompetent and unhappy, diminishing their potential contribution to a company. While it does take individual responsibility to work through trauma from one job to the next, leaders and managers can and should want to help empower them to heal.

Related: How Managers Can Dismantle Workplace Trauma

The horror stories

Trust is easy to lose and harder to gain, but a history with toxic leaders can make that even worse. At every traumatic workplace, my employees reported hearing the same messages: “We’re transparent,” “a family” and “We trust you to do your work.” Then, the inconsistencies began. One described a former manager, who spread negative gossip and was hypercritical of even the smallest mistakes, as leaving her with PTSD. One called his particularly condescending former manager a “nonviolent psychopath.”

Even after leaving a toxic company, employees risk carrying that trauma to their next workplace. They may read articles on spotting a healthy culture, even join a new team, hopeful, but any signs of toxic behavior and they quickly lose that optimism. Many stay, feeling trapped without options or economic stability, but the more time spent in these toxic work environments, the deeper they instill fear and insecurity. Without healing, people carry that trauma with them, reducing the potential value they might contribute or desire to contribute to any future company.

The impact of leaders

Leadership behavior sets the tone for the entire organization. In my 30-year career, I have never yelled because yelling would be incongruent with my expressed beliefs that mistakes are opportunities for growth and continuous improvement. When words and actions are inconsistent, an employee who experienced trauma will be quicker to lose all trust in that company’s leadership.

While the vision and actions of senior leadership lay the foundation for a supportive workplace culture, daily experiences with direct management and coworkers have the greatest impact. As a CEO, I can equip managers with the tools they need to build trusting relationships and empower them to support healing, so we hired someone to package the insights and skills of our top-performing managers into a training program. By training them in effective communication, recognizing trauma and fostering an emotionally safe environment, leaders can help managers mitigate the effects of past traumas on the rest of the workplace.

Related: Why Trauma Integration Will Give You a Competitive Advantage in Leadership

Rebuild with consistency

To rebuild trust after a traumatic experience, consistency is key. Leaders and managers need to do more than talk about emotional intelligence and living company values — they need to visibly and consistently demonstrate actions that measure up with those words over time. One team member remarked how surprised he was that the CEO would email him to recognize his efforts only days after joining the team, but even more so that every ongoing experience with leadership since has aligned with that behavior.

Start working to rebuild trust from day one. One person commented on the authenticity and transparency he felt in having his first interview with the CEO and how, after over nearly four years with us, that has continued. Most of my employees recalled smaller, day-to-day events making the biggest difference — supportive emails, free movie tickets and flexibility to handle last-minute emergencies. They also mentioned opportunities for team bonding over non-work topics, like our Vegas trip and book club, as helpful in releasing trauma by calming concerns that coworkers might cause similar problems.

Plan, assess and improve

There is no magic way to heal people of their preexisting trauma, but regular check-ins are the best way to help. It can be uncomfortable speaking about toxic experiences, but one-on-one, managers can more easily draw out, identify and help resolve individual workplace challenges. Create a standardized process to ensure consistent experiences and leverage technology platforms to facilitate scheduling and clear communication.

HR can be valuable in supporting these check-ins: taking in employee feedback, assisting managers or participating themselves. When we hired an HR leader, she took over regular one-on-ones and her open-ended questions were incredibly successful in unearthing past workplace trauma. Her ability to make people feel comfortable garnered valuable feedback, which has built stronger relationships and done so much good for the company.

When check-ins are successful, recognize and reward the efforts behind that success. One employee described the profound impact of a simple “thank you” on his trust in leadership and organizational commitment. By exemplifying and sharing stories of successful check-ins, leaders encourage an environment of supportive manager-employee interactions.

Related: Career Trauma Is a Real Thing. Here’s How to Recognize and Recover From It.

Our positive results

At a social event in February, we invited everyone to send their coworkers Valentines expressing how special it was to work together. The next day, we received the messages others sent us and a second wave of positive feelings. Then, people took to social media and deepened the impact: “Amazing to wake up and read all the love from our Influence Mobile family. Thank you for encouraging such an enjoyable and positive workplace environment.” That single spark of positivity became contagious.

No one can heal someone else’s trauma, but leaders can do a lot to facilitate their healing journey. By fostering a culture of consistency and support between employees, managers and coworkers, we can build a work environment where people overcome past workplace trauma.