Tuesday, June 4, 2024

The Learned Behaviors of Trauma

We are pleased to share an article entitled “The Learned Behaviors of Trauma ~ Understanding how they show up in the workplacewritten by Samreen McGregor.

When we face a horrific situation and we are at a loss as to what to do, our response relies entirely on the most primitive part of the brain, the basal ganglia, which controls the innate and automatic self-preserving behaviors needed to survive. This part of the brain is also responsible for primitive activities like eating, escaping danger and reproducing.

The brain is a predictive organ that learns from the consequences of what we do. It masters typical day-to-day behaviors during our early developmental years. When we take a potentially unsafe action – such as touching an electrical socket or crossing the road when a car is approaching – a guardian intercedes, informs us of the risk and offers an alternative action. From this, the brain will learn and apply those lessons categorically across a diverse set of situations involving danger and safety.

The brain gathers data and understands that certain actions have certain consequences. This stems from our evolutionary survival needs. When our brain perceives danger, a threat or simply bad news, we tend to be guided by a negativity bias.

We register negativity far more easily, but also tend to dwell on these circumstances far longer. Our memories of traumatic experiences stick with us far more than positive ones, we remember bad feedback more easily than good, and we respond to and feel affected by adverse situations more strongly than desirable ones.

If your boss demands that you seek permission each time you want to try something new and responds negatively when you take the initiative without their blessing, a repetitive pattern of you acting in line with their expectations can be established. If you feel the need to know you are doing what is expected, your brain will ensure that you follow this precedent in future situations (involving this boss as well as others).

In a professional context, these learned behaviors impact how we react to performance reviews, stakeholder interactions, and interpersonal exchanges with team members or peers. The things that may once have kept us safe and helped us to survive can become the reasons for patterns (and in some cases, impediments) in our relationships.

The brain learns to expect a reality that isn’t necessarily a reflection of what is happening in the moment, and as a result, it prepares for an emergency relating to a danger that may no longer be real.

Reacting to a danger that isn’t there can have a detrimental impact on your work relationships. Your peers may perceive your behavior as strange or irrational. You may be taking action to avoid a threat you can’t quite articulate. The undesirable reality is that you are then seen as a difficult or awkward team member.

Un-verbalized resistance (manifesting in a lack of collaboration) from an individual can stem from a fear of rejection or the anticipation of negative consequences affecting them or their team members.

Consider moments when you felt misunderstood, unheard or impotent to influence. Reflect on what climatic conditions are missing that would allow for more open dialogue and provide space to question and cultivate appreciation of shared context and interpersonal perspectives.

An absence of these conditions negatively impacts the quality of relationships and incites unhelpful repetitive patterns of interaction. It may lead to feelings of shame and individuals questioning their capabilities and contributions. The absence of dialogue reinforces these implicit and unspoken judgments, leading to unquestioned norms, undermining connection and trust, and resulting in the following undesirable effects:

› Feeling defensive

› Feeling judged

› Having disproportionate reactions

› Attending to the wants of others at the expense of our own needs

› Avoiding personal expression and interaction

These undesirable effects undermine interpersonal connection and shared understanding, and distort the relationship between people’s intentions and the impact of their behavior.

An executive team I coached was reputed to be a group of perfectly nice, functional experts who were individually fine to work with. When together as a team however, this group was defensive, often demonstrated frictious and conflicting dynamics, and were often described as intimidating.

The impact on the wider senior leadership as well as the organization’s culture was disempowerment, fractious relationships, politics and delayed progress on business objectives.


These undesirable effects lead to repetitive patterns in several contexts and relationships. A further complication is that the perception of time is based on lived experience and this varies between people.

Time can be felt as fast, slow, short or long depending on the emotions and perceived experience of the individual. The consequence is that the brain does not always know when the threat is over and when the primal fear response is no longer necessary. A traumatized mind is hypervigilant, programmed to wait for the danger to recur and then respond in the automated manner it has learned.

A leader whose behaviors are grounded in paranoia relating to job security, or who may have experienced manipulation or inauthentic maneuvering from a previous employer, may be projecting this insecurity in anticipation of a repeat scenario.

They may demonstrate over-complacent or subservient tendencies rather than claiming authority and power. We need to find new strategies that help people feel safe and grounded at a deeper level – at the level of their nervous system – to stop the derailing of their relationships.

Paradoxically, it is through relationships that people can find strength, comfort and support to heal the wounds brought about by trauma. Without explicitly interrupting these invisible patterns, this opportunity remains latent.


Enabling people to transcend their traumas – and minimize the perpetuation of their effects – involves encouraging them to reflect on and assimilate the consequences of the specific adversities they have faced, and to learn how to apply this enhanced consciousness.

It also demands that people question their own reactions to the less comfortable emotions involved. However, this is easier said than done. There are environmental factors that make it difficult to create the time, especially in an organizational context.

I catalyzed the transformation of a team whose leader lacked sufficient courage and accountability. By simply carrying out an exercise early during a team offsite, where each individual was invited to share a situation where their personal power had been diminished previously, and reflect on the conditions that were different then, their current team enabled them to exchange and question invalid assumptions from the past that were no longer valid.

This also allowed space to express pent up hesitations and recontract with one another on the conditions needed to challenge each other in ways that harnessed trust and encouraged safe risk-taking as managers.

The capabilities required are significant and specialized. Helping people to notice what underpins behavioral patterns informed by trauma requires skill, consideration and, in many cases, professional intuition.

The expression of negative emotions that stem from traumatic situations can at best get in the way of more functional and operational aspects of a work environment and at worst make people feel uncomfortable, judged and unable to cope.

It is important to address some of these requirements, but they should not be reasons to avoid devising ways to surface and work with the effects of trauma.

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