Building a trauma-informed organization

From TCU Wiki

What is a trauma-informed organization?

"A trauma-informed organization is one that operates with an understanding of trauma and its negative effects on the organization’s employees and the communities it serves and works to mitigate those effects." (Source: Harvard Business Review)

Trauma-informed organizations are able to:

  • Realize the impact of trauma
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms
  • Respond by integrating this knowledge into policies, procedures, practices
  • Resist re-traumatization

Recognize the signs and symptoms

Physiological responses to threat

Humans, like all animals, have built-in responses to threats that have helped us survive as we’ve evolved as a species. When we perceive acute danger, many of these responses kick in without our being able to control them: they are hard-wired to our bodies and minds.

  • The 'freeze response' is when a person becomes utterly still while remaining highly alert and poised for action. This response relies on escaping notice until the danger has passed. For example, we might cease the work that we are doing, stop communicating through our usual channels, or reduce communication with someone with whom we are in conflict. In each case, we are hoping that the unwelcome attention will pass if we become inactive.
  • The 'flight response' is when a person quickly tries to get as far away from the danger as possible. We might move our operations to a safer location, abandon certain activities or modes of communication, or separate ourselves from people who might cause us harm.
  • The 'comply response' involves doing what an aggressor instructs in the hope that our cooperation will result in the attack ending quickly and without injury. We might agree to suspend or abandon certain objectives or activities, or give up passwords to secure information.
  • The 'tend response' happens when people try to protect other, more vulnerable people who are being victimized. Many human rights defenders are motivated to help others because of our own experiences of oppression and exploitation.
  • The 'befriend response' involves trying to build some kind of relationship with the aggressor in the hope that this will limit the harm perpetrated against oneself or others. For example, by telling aggressors about our families we might try to humanize ourselves in their eyes, a strategy that is sometimes useful in reducing violence.
  • The 'posture response' is an attempt to drive off the danger by pretending to have greater power than one actually does. As human rights defenders, we often threaten to expose threats of violence in order to publicly embarrass our adversaries.
  • The 'fight response' is when a person attacks with the intent of driving off or destroying an aggressor. (There are many ways to fight, and we all make our own ethical choices about this.)

If we have been through dangerous, stressful or traumatic experiences, sometimes these reactions can kick in when we are stressed or frightened, even if there is no 'real' danger present. Therefore, it is a good idea to look for indicators in our behavior when we are under stress, and to work with them in order to reduce our stress.

(Source: Holistic Security Training Manual, page 53)

Group responses to threat

Threats and stress affect group dynamics in a number of ways, and this varies greatly due to organizational culture and many other factors. There are some common reactions, however. Consider these potential changes to group dynamics under stress and see if they resonate.

  1. Harder group boundaries - One predictable change experienced by groups under threat is the boundaries that define the group becoming less permeable. Those within the group become more closely connected to each other, and those outside the group become more distant. It also becomes more difficult for people to join or leave the group. While such changes can be protective, there are also some potential difficulties with this. The impermeable boundaries of the group may distance the group from existing and potential allies, leaving it more isolated than it might otherwise be. These boundaries also reduce the flow of information into and out of the group. This may result in members of the group being less informed than they might otherwise have been, and having fewer opportunities to check their perception of the world with those ‘outside’ of their group. Less permeable boundaries also make it difficult to leave groups. Members who wish to leave might be branded as traitors or sell-outs in a way that is harmful to the individual and those perceived to be his or her allies. It is very helpful for groups to regularly discuss the ways in which people and information enter and leave the group, and how to manage this in a holistic way that truly promotes security.
  2. Fixed patterns - Secondly, patterns of behaviour become more fixed and harder to change. This makes it more difficult for members of the group to question (supposedly) shared beliefs, or challenge the behaviour of other members. When we lose the ability to question each others’ assumptions or point out potentially unhealthy behaviours, our ability to constructively and compassionately build group security is greatly compromised. For this reason, it is important for groups to regularly revisit and discuss their shared values in an honest way.
  3. Authoritarianism - A third predictable change relates to leadership and power dynamics within groups. When groups feel unsafe, group members tolerate greater authoritarianism from leaders or more powerful members of the group. This results in reduced levels of information exchange within the group, and fewer opportunities for group members to check their perceptions of the world with other members of their team. In extreme cases, powerful members of the group may become abusive, and the increased rigidity of the group boundaries may prevent victims of such abuse from escaping. Again, it is important for groups to talk about power dynamics and leadership styles on a regular basis, and to make sure that every person has an opportunity to contribute.

Looking into the links between decision-making processes and security, we should not underestimate the positive effects of having fair and transparent decision-making processes. If a group has shared knowledge and responsibilities, it reduces the impact when perpetrators target the leaders of a group.

(Source: Holistic Security Training Manual, page 57)

Respond by integrating knowledge into policies, procedures, practices

Crisis management

Being prepared to handle crisis situations is a crucial part of the organization’s commitment to protecting the physical and emotional well-being of its staff.

Conveys a strong message that staff safety is a top priority.

Before the crisis (preparedness)

  1. Determine what types of crisis events might be faced by an organization, and develop a list of potential risks.
  2. Gain an understanding of how staff respond to crisis events and what stress reactions they might have before, during, and after such events.  This will help determine what strategies might be useful to individuals or groups (see the section above on Physiological responses to threat)
  3. Create a staff support plan that can be used in the event of a crisis.
  4. Create a crisis response team with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. It is crucial that the crisis team understands the psychosocial and mental health effects of trauma, how to provide support, and the options available to staff requiring specialized assessment and care.
  5. Prepare a list of internal and external resources available to staff in the organization. Ensure that these lists are reviewed regularly and kept up to date.
  6. Develop communication plans that include how to inform staff members immediately about the nature of the event, how to protect themselves in case of danger, and how to keep them informed about the crisis.
  7. Practice responding to different crisis scenarios with all staff members.

During the crisis


  1. Identify people who need immediate attention or support.
  2. Focus on safety.
  3. Pay attention to physical and emotional reactions.
  4. Be attentive to staff members who want to share their reactions.
  5. Assess how the crisis is impacting staff members’ decision making and abilities to fulfill their given roles and responsibilities.


  1. Listen with your eyes, ears and heart
  2. Pay attention to body language and words
  3. Validate staff reactions to the crisis
  4. Provide comfort and reassurance where possible
  5. Obtain multiple perspectives on the situation if possible


  1. Remind staff members about the internal and external resources available to them if they need support
  2. When you suspect any staff member is having a difficult time dealing with his or her situation or having severe symptoms, recommend that they seek professional support
  3. Give permission for anyone who is severely impacted to step away from their responsibilities if possible and get the support/rest that they need.

After the crisis

  1. Debrief the event as an organization. Analyze how the incident occurred, how to prevent it from happening again, and what measures must be taken in the meantime to control the risk.
  2. Consult with staff members about the effectiveness of the existing plan. Update the procedures and protocols as necessary.
  3. Follow-up with staff about how they were impacted by the incident, and what ongoing needs them might have.
  4. Make adjustments to work schedules according to staff capacity and needs.

Resources for building a trauma-informed organization

Assessment resources

Trauma-Informed Workplace Assessment by the Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute

Organizational Self-Assessment: Adoption of trauma-informed care practice by the National Council for Behavioral Health

Trauma-Informed Organization Assessment Manual(PDF) by National Healthcare for the Homeless Council (NHCHC), 2020

Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care (CCTIC): A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol - This assessment tool provides guidelines for agencies or programs interested in facilitating trauma-informed modifications in their service systems. For use by administrators, providers, and survivor-consumers in the development, implementation, evaluation, and ongoing monitoring of trauma-informed programs. (Source: Community Connections; Washington, D.C. Roger D. Fallot, Ph.D. and Maxine Harris, Ph.D., 2009)

Resource hub

The Safeguarding Resource and Support Hub (RSH) is a programme that aims to support organisations in the aid sector to strengthen their safeguarding policy and practice against Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Sexual Harassment (SEAH). RSH supports organisations working in both the humanitarian and development sectors but is driven by the needs of smaller national or local organisations in developing countries. RSH has an Online Hub website available in English, Arabic, French and Swahili and is free for anyone working in the aid sector to use.