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In my work experiences, I’ve dealt with tons of trauma and abuse. I’ve also fought against it, resulting in more trauma and isolation. I soon realised that the rules of the corporate work were probably not suited for a black woman such as myself.

When I ventured into entrepreneurship, the first few years were occupied with my leadership style oscillating between what Founder and CEO of the DARA Group, Dr Aradhana Mansingh (Dr Ara) PhD, describes as the 2 ways past traumas that affect relationships in woman leadership:

  1. Positive, but less frequent, women in leadership empathise with others on the journey due to the challenges they have had to contend with and are supportive due to their own traumatic experiences.
  2. Past traumas especially regarding workplace experiences create negative emotions of anger and resentment within female leadership. These include prior experiences with queen bees, workplace bullying, not being recognized for their work and commitment, and constant stumbling blocks and disrespect from the boys’ network.

The reality that Dr Ara mentions is that I, like many women in leadership, often isolate myself for the fear of constant scrutiny from the boys’ network and pleas for support from the sisterhood.

I didn’t feel seen where I came from and often projected it into the workplace.

Industrial Psychologist, Ashley Motene, says it is possible for trauma, past and present, to influence how we lead regarding how psychologically safe we feel as leader based on our responses and reactions.

She references Tsitsi Dangaremba and says, “’The business of womanhood is a heavy burden” and so it feels sometimes for women in leadership positions.”

The impact of trauma can also be gauged by the extent to which you feel comfortable with confidently being your full self without being guarded or indifferent to how inconsistent others may experience your behaviour or decisions. Trauma in this regard can be linked to personal, social, or career-related experiences of exclusion in any of your relationships or states of being, which may have involved you being hurt by something (e.g., loss and grief), violated in any way or having had your trust or kindness taken advantage of in unjust or inhumane ways.

Sounds all too familiar as a black woman in the work world. I am yet to meet a black woman who can say “I don’t have workplace trauma”.

Motene cautions that sometimes past traumas can be linked to you being the person who has traumatised others intentionally (e.g., bullying, toxic leadership) or unintentionally (e.g., poor self-awareness or emotional self-management) and perhaps you have not sought help to overcome this. If you are leading from a place of unresolved trauma, the way that you view threats and opportunities can be distorted and so too, how you decide to respond to these. 

I have often wondered how much of what I carry from past experiences I bring into my leadership and how does it affect the progress I wish to make.

I am a person that wants to continuously make people happy and comfortable in the workplace, and I have come to learn that there are down sides to this too, I end up overcompensating and this is not usually from a good place.

She goes on to mention how the impact of trauma can also be gauged by the extent to which you feel comfortable with confidently being your full self without being guarded or indifferent to how inconsistent others may experience your behaviour or decisions.

I find myself lingering on Motene’s words “Indifferent to how inconsistent others may experience your leadership style”… because it was a tad relatable.

So, in what way does trauma manifest in leadership and decision-making?

“It manifests differently in everyone depending on how intentionally it is being processed”, says Ashley Motene, “If you are leading from a place of unresolved trauma, the way that you view threats and opportunities can be distorted and so too how you decide to respond to these.”

Dr Ara whose research topic on the “Queen Bee Syndrome”, and whose work has pledged to identify systemic gender impediments obviating women’s advancement in the workplace is sacrosanct, mentions that in a culture that equates masculinity with physical power, some men and boys feel they are failing at “being a man”. Toxic masculinity has created a void in their lives that they believe can be filled through violence, domination, and aggression towards women. Toxic masculinity is the root of phenomena such as the Queen bee. Reminds me of the saying “We walk around and interact with unhealed little children in big people bodies”.

We will do another blog piece that tackles the Queen Bee Syndrome and deep-dives into it, amidst other challenges women face in the workplace.

What are the steps to take should one realise they are leading from the influence of trauma? What is the healing process to go through?

Motene advises that by becoming more open to feedback from others regardless of whether you like it or not, will offer you insights as a leader into your behavioural patterns, how you make decisions or connect with others, through their eyes. “Giving yourself time to reflect on the feedback given instead of dismissing or becoming defensive in the moment, may help you to connect the dots or see a trend in terms of what you need to do differently or more thoughtfully. Unresolved trauma can be difficult to overcome without support or new techniques.”

In closing, Ashley Motene advises that should you feel your leadership style is one that needs work, and you may be struggling with some trauma, you may find that seeking counselling support from a registered counsellor or counselling psychologist may give you the psychological safe space to deal with what you have been or are going through.

We must remember that not all trauma that affects leaders is linked to past experiences. Current traumas, such as the Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people, the loss of predictability, loss of health, loss of lives Including team members perhaps and loss of physically shared spaces can increase the stress levels of leaders and their ability to cope with the change fatigue. She has also given some tips on how to overcome the overwhelm in this article.

“It may be helpful to make your closest friends or family members aware of the healing journey you are on so that they can also support you further or not be surprises if you are less available for things you previously enjoyed together. Once you reach a point where you feel like you cope and respond better to life, you may find it helpful to work with a coach or industrial psychologist to build confidence or refine decision-making or strategy development skills that is specifically linked to building your career, thriving in your leadership roles, or managing your career better. “