Updated: Nov 14
Creating lasting change is no small task. Still, it’s frustrating when most organizations fail to create the sort of lasting change that is the hallmark of effective social justice and DEI work—and the reason why is complex.
If we were to boil it down to the simplest answer possible, it would be that organizations hyper-fixate on the technical while leaving the cultural unaddressed.
What does that mean, exactly?
Let’s use a relevant example to unravel this phenomenon. One of my clients works with a large organization, and that company recently found itself in a problematic situation.
Why Technical Solutions Fail Without Cultural Change
Usually, Governors will order their states to lower all the US flags to half-staff after an injustice or tragedy. It shows that we are in mourning or distress, and it is a sign of respect.
This was the case after George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020. His death sparked a widespread awareness of and push back against police brutality and racial violence. Although the Black Lives Matter movement was officially founded in 2013 and the human rights movement long before then, 2020 became a year when organizations could no longer ignore the glaring racial injustices in America.
Well, this particular organization did not lower its flag as a response to Floyd’s murder, and many members of their community responded as you might expect. There was distrust, confusion, irritation, frustration, and outrage.
Why would a major organization that claims to stand behind BLM not lower its flag?
In this case, the answer was a simple technical error. No one decided they weren’t going to lower the flag. It was a detail that slipped through the cracks.
So, they created technical solutions to avoid this problem in the future. They created a collection of forms, put in place new systems for flag-lowering, and clearly outlined who was responsible for this task.
Although this was a technical error, there were cultural implications. And their technical solutions didn’t solve their new problem: growing distrust in their community, which now saw leadership on the wrong side of history.
A trauma-informed approach includes the technical, but the more important area of change is the cultural.
Cultural Change in Practice
The technical solutions didn't solve the problem. So, what would a cultural solution have looked like?
A trauma-informed coach would encourage leadership to release an authentic statement to their community. This public document would:
admit to making a specific mistake
acknowledge the hurt they caused through that mistake
apologize for the damage done
reassure the community of their values
reassert their stance on social justice issues and community needs
remind their community of their goal of creating safety at work (if they have one)
Although it seems like a simple solution, it’s difficult for many leaders to admit to their mistakes, acknowledge the damage done, and mend relationships.
I’d be lying if I said it was easy for individuals to accomplish this same task in their interpersonal lives (and while that struggle arises from trauma responses—it can also cause trauma responses in others).
Having these conversations is a small part of what it takes to create a safe space. Safe spaces are not devoid of mistakes and pain. But those who create safe spaces are quick to remedy these mistakes, make amends, and move forward.
Here's a sample of what that apology letter might look like.
Although this message implies other avenues of trauma-informed implementation (like providing resources and holding All Hands Meetings), the apology letter itself isn’t even half of the solution.
Trauma-informed solutions that create cultural change require much more than a single letter. That message is one small part of a larger atmosphere of open communication, accountability, honesty, and trust—which are notoriously difficult to build.
So, what other cultural solutions can we implement for this organization?
Here is where the interconnected and layered trauma-informed approach comes in. Our goal would be to create a culture of trust and safety in the organization.
Thought Project: The Same Mistake with a Different Company Culture
Imagine for a moment that we’ve already accomplished this goal. The same mistake is made. The flag is not lowered when it should be due to a minor technical error.
Instead of bringing out the already present distrust and resentment that many employees at this organization have, the employees feel safe and valued at work. When they see the mistake, they don’t see it as yet another example of how racist and unjust the company is.
Instead, they think it’s possible someone was too busy to do all the parts of their job. They give the leaders the benefit of the doubt. Since it’s a simple enough task, they lower the flag themselves. In this scenario, this employee is also empowered. They know that they will not face repercussions for this action.
So, the flag is lowered, albeit late. The mistake doesn’t further damage the relationship between community leaders and community members.
The question remains, how do we get there?
The Avenues of Cultural Change
Organizations are made of people, so it follows that change beings with people. So, when we discuss cultural changes, particularly within organizations, it’s essential that the people within that organization are on board.
That first step is critical.
There are many people who don’t experience injustice based on their identity. Privilege can be blinding, and if leadership sees no value in cultural change (maybe they fail to see how a flag could hurt members of their community), then they’re unlikely to be a core player in the cultural change—which makes it nearly impossible.
So, the baby steps towards trauma-informed implementation are communication and education.
Holding conversations with people who are impacted by these things can change your view of them. It’s okay to not completely understand, and it can even be okay to respectfully disagree on matters of opinion.
But you can’t argue with a person who says, “When you failed to lower the flag after Floyd’s murder, I felt unsafe at work.”
There’s no matter of opinion here. It’s a fact that a mistake led to an unsafe workplace.
Dialogue is one key aspect of trauma-informed implementation because it is an essential catalyst for cultural change. Conversations with others increase our awareness, and together we can develop greater empathy, compassion, and kindness.
While this sounds great on paper, living these values can mean making lifestyle changes that are difficult.
Let’s talk about a few more examples of how to create cultural change at work.
There are two main types of mindsets: a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Most, if not all, people tend to oscillate between the two.
When we’re in a growth mindset state, we are open to challenges, resilient in the face of failure, open to new and unfamiliar experiences, and accepting of feedback.
When we’re in a fixed mindset state, we use black and white thinking and are prone to taking criticism as a personal attack. We prefer to stick to what we know and give up easily.
When we’re operating with trauma brain, we become stuck in a fixed mindset. So, the toxic workplace environment becomes a negative feedback look. Trauma brain prevents real change. Without real change, we’re retraumatizing others.
Self-awareness is not a skill that we either have or don’t have—it’s a skill that we cultivate and grow. In some moments, we may be extremely self-aware, while in others, we may fail to see ourselves with clarity.
Self-awareness is the act of observing the self. Through self-awareness, you can see where your values and behaviors align or don’t align.
Once you can identify your beliefs, behaviors, and thought patterns, you can answer questions like:
How are we practicing trauma-informed values?
How do the concepts we talk about become embedded and embodied into our work?
Curiosity helps us think of other creative questions to ask ourselves. Through curiosity, we can explore the answers to questions like:
Why do we do things the way we do?
Why do we believe what we believe?
Curiosity also aids us in keeping a growth mindset. Instead of assuming we know the answers, staying curious allows us to see the bigger picture.
Self-development is an essential piece of trauma-informed leadership. Although we like to think that “work” and “life” can be separated, work is a part of our lives. So, our personal development plays a huge role in how we implement trauma-informed practices at work.
Trauma-informed implementation isn’t simple or direct. It requires us to embed the values into our everyday lives. By making a concerted effort to practice and live these values in our personal lives, we make trauma-informed leadership a part of who we are.
Through personal development, we accomplish lasting cultural change.
Cultural change cannot happen without accountability. The sample letter we discussed earlier was an act of accountability, but the letter itself matters less than the attitudes of those responsible.
Accountability is saying, “I made a mistake, and I’m sorry.” It’s taking responsibility and carrying the acknowledgment of that responsibility with you. This is no easy task, especially if you’re operating with trauma brain or a fixed mindset.
For those with trauma, holding themselves accountable can feel dangerous. If you have a fixed mindset, and you say, “I made a mistake,” it’s incredibly difficult to also believe, “I’m not a bad person.” So, accountability and self-preservation become at odds with one another.
We run into the same negative cycle again, which is why safety is central to cultural change. Safety makes accountability possible.
If you want to create lasting cultural change at work, the members of your organization must agree on their shared values.
Trauma-informed organizations should follow SAMHSA’s 6 Guiding Principles and the Sanctuary 7 Commitments, although they may tweak these models and create their own value systems.
Empowerment is another critical piece of cultural change. It’s important that members of your organization—especially those who have historically had their voices silenced—feel empowered to create change.
Employees will feel empowered when there is evidence that they are capable of creating positive change. That capability comes partially from believing in themselves and partially from believing in their organization’s willingness to change.
are aware of and can set clearly defined boundaries and expectations
have access to the resources they require
know their input will be seriously considered
have the freedom to complete projects their way
Concrete Tasks to Accomplish Cultural Change
You might be thinking that these ideas all sound great, but how can we actually accomplish this? What concrete tasks can I do to implement trauma-informed practices and embody these values within my organization?
Now you see why many leaders choose to focus on the technical. It’s easier. But it’s also ineffective.
Here are some concrete examples of what trauma-informed implementation looks like:
All Hands Meetings
Weekly or monthly meetings to check in about values, relationships, and communication
Journal prompts for self-awareness
Funded support groups for minorities
Clearly defined roles and abilities
An accessible, public organizational safety plan
Resources for minorities and trauma-survivors
Clear procedures in place for incidents
Leaders modeling behaviors and values (trust, respect, accountability, etc.)
Remember, the key concepts do not lie in these concrete examples. To achieve cultural change, you must focus on the larger value systems of your organization.
The Big Picture: Cultural Change and Trauma-Informed Practices
Cultural change is a large project to take on, especially when you’re doing it at an organizational or a national level. It’s even a challenge when your goal is to create change within yourself.
However, it’s not impossible. When you keep in mind that the changes you must make have more to do with the cultural than the technical, the pieces start falling into place.
Remember, the technical pieces are important, but shifting the culture has a much greater lasting impact. If you want to learn how to embody trauma-informed values, be sure to stay tuned for the next blogs in our series on trauma-informed implementation.
If you’re ready to create lasting change in your organization now, book a free consultation to learn about your options from a trauma-informed specialist.
And don’t forget to download our Guide to Trauma-Informed Implementation, a free resource that takes a deep dive into trauma-informed key concepts and practices.