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Using Trauma-Informed Approaches in Agile Environments

Key Takeaways

  • We all carry some developmental trauma that makes it difficult for us to collaborate with others - a crucial part of work in agile software development.
  • Leading in a trauma-informed way is not practicing unsolicited psychotherapy, and it is not justifying destructive behaviors without addressing them.
  • Being more trauma-informed in your leadership can help everyone act more maturely and cognitively available, especially in emotionally challenging situations.
  • In trauma-informed working environments, people pay more attention to their physical and emotional state.
  • They also rely more on the power of intention, set goals in a less manipulative manner, and are able to be empathetic without taking ownership of others' problems.

In recent decades, scientific and clinical understanding of how the human nervous system develops and works has increased tremendously. Its implications are so profound they radiate far beyond the field of psychology. Topics such as trauma-informed law, volleyball coaching, legal counseling, education, and social activism have arisen.

It is time to consider how it affects working in an agile tech environment.

Defining "trauma-informed" work

Working in a trauma-informed manner means professionally conducting whatever you set out to do while taking into account different forms of trauma that humans you work with are affected by.

It is not practicing unsolicited psychotherapy, and it is not justifying destructive behaviors without addressing them.

This means different things when you do trauma-informed legal counseling, volleyball coaching, or agile coaching.

An everyday example for an agile coach would be to notice the shallow rapid breathing of participants at the start of a meeting and to invite them to briefly take three long breaths and for 20 seconds to reflect on what they each want to accomplish in this meeting and summarize that in one sentence.

Traumatic patterns make collaboration difficult

Let's look at a typical example of a team member moving from individual responsibility for tasks to sharing in team responsibility for done increments. The reactions triggered by such a change vary strongly depending on the person affected. They could just be happy and enthusiastic about new opportunities. However, they could also experience spiraling self-doubt, become subliminally aggressive, perfectionistic and distrustful, withdraw themselves from most interactions, or become avoidant.

Any of the above reactions may be adequate for a short period in a particular situation. However, if they become a pattern that doesn't resolve itself, it harms everyone involved. Such patterns typically originate from traumatic experiences we've had.

When such a pattern is triggered, our attention gets stuck within. We may think and overthink whether we are allowed to speak up and, if so, what words we can use. We may search for tricky ways to stop the change or to completely disconnect ourselves from what is changing around us.

Whatever the pattern is, once it is triggered, we pay less attention to what is actually happening - the reality, but are more preoccupied with ourselves. Dealing with these internal patterns can take up a large portion of our cognitive and emotional resources. We act less like mature adults. This makes finding a common way forward for us, our co-workers, and our leaders much harder.

Traumatic patterns used to serve us as kids but are harming us in adult life

There are different forms of trauma. Here I am not focusing on shock trauma, which typically arises from one or few particularly terrible situations. The patterns I describe usually originate from different forms of developmental trauma. These emerge when our environment systematically does not meet our basic needs as a child.

When this happens, we can't do anything about it as children and adapt by changing what we think is normal in the world and us. We end up denying ourselves some part of being human. Paradoxically, this helps us a lot, as it dissolves a consistently hurtful dissonance.

Later, when we are confronted with this need in our adult life, we react from the altered idea of ourselves and the world. However, since what we are denying ourselves is an inevitable part of being human, we end up in an unending struggle. When we are in such an inner struggle, our capacity for using our conscious thinking and being empathic is strongly impaired.

Typical Examples from Tech Organizations

Since we are all, to some extent, affected by developmental trauma, you can find countless examples of its effects, small or large, in any organization. And as developmental trauma originates from relationships with other humans, its triggers are always somehow linked to individuals and interactions with them. Just think of colleagues with typical emotional patterns in interactions with you or notice your patterns in interactions with particular colleagues.

One pattern I've often observed with some software developers I worked with, and I am also familiar with myself, is perfectionism. The idea of delivering a result that is not perfect and imagining being made aware of a mistake I made is sometimes unbearable. And most of the time, it's unconscious. I just always try to make something as perfect as I can imagine. This can make collaborating with other people very hard, they may not meet my standards for perfection, or I may fear being at the mercy of their high standards that I can't fulfill.
Another such pattern is self-doubt, which manifests in the inability to express one's wishes or opinions. In this pattern, the pain of others potentially seeing our statement as inappropriate or useless is so strong that we don't even invest time into thinking about our own position. Again, this typically is unconscious, and it's just how we are used to behaving. Overlooking a critical position can cause significant long-term damage to organizations. And almost always, another person in our place and with our knowledge would express similar concerns and wishes.

A trauma-informed approach to leading people in agile organizations

First of all, I would like to emphasize that we are still at the very beginning of professionalizing our work with respect to developmental trauma, and I would love to see many more discussions and contributions on these subjects.  
I want to share how I changed my practice as an agile coach and trainer after completing basic training to become a trauma-informed (NARM®-informed professional). These insights come from understanding how professionals deal with trauma and how to deal with it without justifying destructive behavior or beating people over the head with their patterns.

Higher attention to physical and emotional states

Software is, by definition, very abstract. For this reason, we naturally tend to be in our heads and thoughts most of the time while at work. However, a more trauma-informed approach requires us to pay more attention to our physical state and not just to our brain and cognition. Our body and its sensations are giving us many signs, vital not just to our well-being but also to our productivity and ability to cognitively understand each other and adapt to changes. Paradoxically, in the end, paying more attention to our physical and emotional state gives us more cognitive resources to do our work.

Noticing our bodily sensations at the moment, like breath or muscle tension in a particular area, can be a first step to getting out of a traumatic pattern. And a generally higher level of body awareness can help us fall less into such patterns in the first place. Simplified - our body awareness anchors us in the here and now, making it easier for us to recognize past patterns as inadequate for the current situation.

One format that helps with this and is known to many agile practitioners is the Check-In in the style of the Core Protocols. I use it consequently when training and or conducting workshops and combine it with a preceding silent twenty seconds for checking in with ourselves on how we are physically feeling. It allows everyone to become aware of potentially problematic or otherwise relevant issues before we start. After such a Check-In, most groups can easily deal with any problems that might have seriously impeded the meeting if left unsaid. People are naturally quite good at dealing with emotional or otherwise complicated human things, provided they are allowed to show themselves.

The power and importance of intention

My second significant learning is that we need a deep respect for the person's intention and an understanding of the power that can be liberated by following one's intention.

For me, as a coach, this means when interacting with an organization, clarifying my client's intention is a major and continuous part of my work. And it means supporting them in following their intention is more important than following my expert opinion. I should be honest and share my thoughts; however, it's my clients journey which I am curiously supporting. I know this way, change will happen faster. It will be more durable and sustainable than if the client blindly followed my advice to adopt this or that practice.

In fact, clients who choose to blindly follow a potentially very respected consultant often reenact traumatic experiences from their child's past. It is a different thing when organizational leaders are driven by their own intentions and are uncovering their paths faster and with more security due to an expert supporting them on their journey.

For the leadership in organizations that rightfully have their own goals and strategies, understanding the power of intention means leading with more invitations and relying more on volunteering. Instead of assigning work, they try to clarify what work and what projects need to be accomplished and allow people to choose for themselves. Even if something is not a person's core discipline, they may decide to learn something new and be more productive in their assignment than a bored expert. This way of leading people requires more clarity on boundaries and responsibility than assigning work packages to individuals.

For all of us, respecting our own intentions and being aware of their power means looking for the parts of work that spark our curiosity or feel like fun to do and following them as often as we can.

I use this insight every time I deliver training. At the end of a typical two-day workshop, my participants will have an exhaustive list of things they want to try, look into, change, or think about. From my experience with thousands of participants, having such a long list of twenty items or more isn't going to lead to any meaningful result. Most of the time, it's just overwhelming, and people end up not doing any of the items on their lists. So at the end of each training, I invite my participant to take 5 minutes and scan through all their takeaways and learnings to identify 2 or 3 that spark joy when they think of applying them. Not only has this produced a tremendous amount of positive feedback, participants regularly report how relieving and empowering these 5 minutes are to them.

Set goals as changes of state, not changes in behavior

My third trauma-informed insight is that I became aware of an essential nuance when it comes to setting goals, a key discipline when it comes to leading agile organizations.

Often when we set a goal, we define it as a behavior change. Instead, a trauma-therapeutic practitioner will explore the state change the client believes this would bring.

For example, if someone says, "I want my developers to hit the deadline on our team."

I might ask: "If your developers do start hitting the deadlines, how do you hope this will impact your leadership?"

The outcome of such a goal-setting conversation, the state someone wants their leadership or themselves to be in, is often a much more durable goal, and it's typically more connected to the actual need of the person setting the goal. On the other hand, focusing on behavioral changes often leads to manipulation that doesn't achieve what we really want.

The above example applies to an internal situation. However, looking for a change in the state of our customers is also a different conversation than looking into the behavioral change we want them to exhibit. Here the change in state is also a more stable, long-term goal.

Leadership topics benefiting from trauma-informed approaches

I believe that in organizational leadership, there is a lot more to learn from trauma-informed approaches, to count a few:

  • Get a deeper understanding of the stance of responsibility in oneself and your co-workers and how to get there. In NARM®, this is called agency.
  • Understand the difference between authentic empathy that supports someone in need and unmanaged empathy that overwhelms and disrupts relationships.  
  • Get a new relieving perspective on our own and others' difficult behaviors.

Becoming trauma-informed in your daily work

I believe that you can only guide people to where you’ve been yourself. Familiarize yourself with the topic and start reflecting on your own patterns. You’ll automatically become aware of many moments that trauma plays a role in your work and will be able to find new ways to deal with it.

My journey started with listening to the "Transforming Trauma" podcast. If you like to read books, I’d recommend "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk or "When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress" by Gabor Mate. However, the moment I truly started to reflect and apply trauma-informed practices was during the NARM®-basic training I completed last year. There is something very unique about it since it's the first module of education for psychotherapists. Still, it is on purpose open to all other helping professionals, anyone working with humans. I'd recommend completing such a course to anyone serious about becoming trauma-informed. 

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