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7 Tips to Create Cultural Change at Work through a Trauma-Informed Lens

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

If you take a look at history, it’s obvious that cultural change happens slowly. Many of the changes we experience hardly feel like changes at all. They happen gradually over the course of a lifetime, and they elude our attention.

But when we shift our perspectives and take an intentional, measurable, and trauma-informed approach to cultural change, we discover that it is not only larger and faster than we initially believed—it is also more impactful, more achievable, and more essential.

If you’re ready to become a catalyst for positive change in your organization, these 7 tips for creating cultural change at work can help you on your trauma-informed journey.

1 Identify your current norms and values

To create change, we first need to assess where we are right now. This basic rule isn’t shocking—it’s the foundation for all measurable changes. But, this task is easier said than done.

In order to identify our current norms and values, we must first possess self-awareness. If we want to self-reflect without harming our wellbeing, we must be nonjudgmental and open-minded.

Especially for people who have experienced trauma, it can be very difficult to say, “I accept and appreciate where I am right now while still acknowledging a desire to be somewhere else.”

For example, let’s say that you are someone who feels easily irritated when your colleagues do not respond to your messages and requests as quickly as you would like them to. You are always quick to respond to the notifications in your inbox. Usually, you respond within minutes.

Most of your colleagues are like you, but others take their time—a few hours, a day, or even a few days.

The cultural norm here is that there is an expectation that you will always be available to respond quickly to messages. No matter what task you are engaged in, it can and should be paused to respond to messages.

Perhaps there is also an underlying belief that you should be available to respond to messages after regular working hours or over the weekend. You and many of your colleagues express the stress and pressure you feel to respond if someone happens to message after hours—but you are also someone who initiates messaging after hours.

The cultural norm here revolves around the constant accessibility of your time and the expectation that others will also be constantly available to chat about work.

Once identified, you must accept all the ways that you play into this detrimental cultural norm. Then, if you would like to create a safe and healthy culture, you must also be able to reflect on the actions and beliefs in yourself that you want to change without succumbing to negative self-talk.

If you don’t already use this self-awareness practice for personal development in your everyday life, applying it in a professional setting can be nearly impossible.

So, while the first step to creating cultural change is identifying your current cultural norms and values, there are also the prerequisites of self-awareness, compassion, kindness, acceptance, and a desire for positive change.

2 Embody trauma-informed norms and values at work

Once you’ve established where your work culture stands right now, you can identify where you’d like to be. Typically, the new norms and values we want to put in place are trauma-informed.

The two main models of trauma-informed values that we use at Chefalo Consulting are SAMSHA’s 6 Guiding Principles and the Sanctuary 7 Commitments. Organizations are also empowered to create their own trauma-informed value system.

To initiate cultural change, individuals must embody these norms and values at work. Embodying the values means living according to them, practicing them, noticing when we fail to align our behaviors with them, and teaching them to others.

Going back to the previous example, a desired trauma-informed cultural norm could be work-life balance. This would involve individuals setting and reinforcing boundaries surrounding their on and off hours. Managing these expectations could eliminate some of the negative emotions surrounding this experience, such as stress or guilt.

In turn, this would help create a safer working environment where no one feels pressured to respond on their off hours or interrupt their workflow. Then, there is also the opportunity to discuss when is too long to wait to respond to a message or the best way to communicate that a message is time-sensitive. These actions align with the trauma-informed values of open communication and collaboration.

When we live trauma-informed values, we are focused on creating solutions together.

When people experience trauma, it is common for them to become defensive when approached with conversations about something that went wrong. The trauma-informed approach creates a dynamic where it is not me versus you but us versus this problem. This is part of how we create safety.

As you can see, many of these values and norms are nonlinear. They coalesce and collide with one another in complex ways.

3 Make a conscious decision to create cultural change

It’s very common for human beings to desire things. However, it is less common for them to achieve or acquire those same things.

Committing to change through a conscious decision increases your chances of accomplishing that change. And, when you share that decision with someone else and meet with them on a regular basis to check in on how you’re doing, your chances of accomplishing your goal rise even more.

That’s why a major part of trauma-informed organizational change is to communicate and share this decision with key players in your community. When you schedule dedicated time to check in about how you’re progressing with your goals for trauma-informed cultural change, it makes that change more achievable.

4 Hold yourself—and others—accountable

This process of identifying current cultural norms, embodying trauma-informed norms, and being intentional about change happens all at once.

When you practice trauma-informed norms and begin to initiate cultural change, you are continually discovering new cultural norms you want to change, learning how to better live trauma-informed values, and practicing self-awareness.

Throughout this process, it is essential that you hold yourself and others accountable. Our actions serve as a window into our belief systems.

So, when you notice that you or someone you work with has done something that doesn’t align with your values, it’s important to speak up—especially if it is a habitual and repeated action.

5 Do not punish employees for living your new values