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Paradigm Shifts to Change Toxic Workplaces: How Shifting Perspectives Impacts Company Culture

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

There is a common trend where organizations acknowledge that we need change. They see the value in DEI work, and they genuinely want to embody social justice in their work.

But nothing changes.

If leaders value change and are ready to create change in their organizations, why are they still struggling to achieve equitable treatment, anti-racist working environments, and safety at work?

One reason for this barrier is that while leaders are ready to create change at work, they skip over an essential piece: creating change in themselves.

On top of that, organizations fail to achieve their goals because they do not create a plan for shifting paradigms.

What is a Paradigm?

A paradigm is a working model. It’s the typical, assumed way that we go about our lives or a certain area of our lives. Paradigms encompass thought patterns, beliefs, and behaviors. They impact how we do things, what we believe is “right,” and set standards that most people generally agree on. These are the unspoken rules.

The issue with unspoken rules is, well, that they are unspoken. Since there is no explicit document that reads, “We collectively believe that…” it can be very difficult to edit that document and reach its audience.

But another key issue lies within the paradigms in the American workforce themselves. We all have certain unspoken beliefs that contribute to unsafe workplaces for others and ourselves. These beliefs are often hidden—even to us.

Since one of the main goals of implementing a trauma-informed approach is to create safety, and these paradigms actively work against that goal, another major part of trauma-informed leadership is to dismantle existing paradigms and replace them with belief systems that serve everyone.

How to Initiate a Paradigm Shift

Since paradigms consist of collective beliefs, each individual must work to create an internal shift in order to achieve a complete paradigm shift.

Here’s where the problem of leaders resisting internal change comes in.

Leaders oversee overarching decisions. They initiate change. They set the tone.

Without leadership on board, a paradigm shift becomes increasingly difficult. So, how can we show leaders—and other organizational members—that a paradigm shift is valuable and necessary? Then, how can we teach every member of the organization (including leadership) how to create personal changes to their thought patterns and belief systems?

The simple yet not-so-simple answer is trauma-informed implementation.

This is why trauma-informed implementation typically takes three years or more to accomplish. It is also why trauma-informed leadership is such an effective method for creating lasting change at work and removing toxicity from the workplace.

For now, let’s assume that we’ve accomplished that task. The organization agrees that change is needed, everyone is mentally prepared to take on this project, and individuals have access to the necessary resources.

What paradigms, then, are we seeking to change?

The Standard Paradigm: What’s Wrong with You?

The major paradigm shift in trauma-informed work is the shift from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you” to “What’s strong in you?”

In the “What’s wrong with you?” paradigm, when someone behaves a certain way, we are quick to identify that person’s faults. We are problem-focused and judgmental.

When we’re in this mindset, it can be difficult to be aware enough to admit these faults in ourselves—then we may become the target of the “What’s wrong with you?” mentality. In people who have experienced trauma, this experience could trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response.

At this stage, approaching the topic with kindness, compassion, and empathy is essential.

Recognizing our current paradigms and the harmful mindsets it puts us in is the first step toward shifting the paradigm.

Next, we must identify and move towards a new paradigm.

The New Paradigm: What Happened to You?

A trauma-informed perspective moves away from the harsh questioning of “What’s wrong with you?” and towards an awareness of trauma.

When we operate in the what-happened-to-you paradigm, we’re not actually approaching situations by asking, “What happened to you?”

This phrase encompasses an awareness that most people have trauma. When we see them behaving in ways that don’t make sense, it’s usually because they’re having a trauma response.

Most of the time, people (including us) aren’t aware of the trauma response until after the fact. With trauma-informed practices, we can cultivate greater awareness and change our response—but that’s a conversation for another day.

The point is that many people have trauma that impacts their behavior. Their actions are automatic responses that their brain believes will protect them. This idea is the backbone of the what-happened-to-you paradigm.

This paradigm is growing, especially with Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s 2021 book, “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.”

But a true trauma-informed approach doesn’t stop there. It’s a “yes and” proposition. Yes, the ideas in that book are great. And there’s still more to learn.

The Trauma-Informed Paradigm Shift: What’s Strong in You

The "and" here is that we should keep pushing forward. Instead of stopping at “we have trauma,” we should move from “What’s wrong with you? to “What’s strong in you?”

This new trauma-informed paradigm is strengths-based. It focuses on resilience. It shifts our perspective of situations from negative to positive.

Through this paradigm shift, we accomplish trauma-informed goals and live the values. We empower one another, build community, and establish trust.

In practice, this is a perspective shift that largely takes place in our own minds. But, we can also imagine this shift in how we describe someone (or ourselves) to others.