Understanding Trauma in the Workplace: Insights from Dr. Lee Cordell

Many companies are struggling with employee well-being and an epidemic of burnout. Fostering psychological safety has become crucial. Our very own Brian Gorman explored this topic in a recent conversation with Dr. Lee Cordell, the CEO of the Institute for Trauma and Psychological Safety. Their dialogue highlights the significance of recognizing trauma, nurturing relationships, and creating safe spaces within workplaces. The article provides insights into understanding trauma's impact and the role of psychological safety.

"When people say we get no negative feedback, what that tells me is, is that you have not made negative feedback safe. Microaggressions are so important to look at. If somebody tells me that they felt harmed, as a leader, I need to look at my own behavior and say, okay, was what I did harmful?"

Dr. Lee Cordell emphasizes the importance of acknowledging trauma, both big and small, within the context of business environments. Trauma isn't limited to major events; even minor instances of disconnection can have a lasting impact on individuals. She points out that humans are wired for connection, and creating a safe environment where individuals feel heard and valued is paramount. This extends to acknowledging microaggressions – subtle actions that can be harmful – and validating individuals' experiences.



The conversation turns to the role of leaders in cultivating psychological safety. Dr. Cordell notes that leaders don't need to be therapists but rather compassionate humans who prioritize attunement. Attunement involves paying attention, validating experiences, and showing genuine care. When leaders create an atmosphere where employees can express their feelings without fear, it builds trust and encourages engagement. This approach not only addresses immediate concerns but also enhances innovation and idea-sharing.

"It's that okay; this person cares about me, so I know that I'm going to be safe with them. If that psychological safety isn't there, then it's just really invalidating this person's experience. It's about choosing accountability."

Dr. Cordell draws attention to the power of authentic leadership. Leaders who can express vulnerability and openness resonate more with their teams. This authenticity creates a sense of trust that extends beyond professional boundaries. By inviting employees to share their experiences and ideas openly, leaders can foster an environment where individuals can thrive and contribute meaningfully.

Microaggressions often go unnoticed, but their impact is significant. Dr. Cordell explains that these seemingly minor incidents can erode psychological safety and hinder engagement. It's crucial for leaders to create a space where individuals can bring up concerns without fear of retaliation. Validating experiences and showing empathy are essential in addressing these issues effectively.

"When people feel like you care about them, when they have evidence that you have, that you are going to consider them. For some people, you're going to get that from them right off the bat, they're going to trust you right away."

The conversation circles back to the importance of trust and inclusion. Dr. Cordell emphasizes that leaders should aim to create a culture where people feel valued and understood. This entails acknowledging that individuals may have past experiences that influence their reactions. By fostering a culture of curiosity, leaders can engage in conversations that lead to solutions and greater understanding.


Dr. Cordell concludes by emphasizing the transformative impact of building a psychologically safe workplace. A culture that prioritizes connection, authenticity, and empathy paves the way for employees to flourish. The journey towards an inclusive and supportive work environment is shaped by leaders who recognize the significance of trauma and commit to fostering psychological safety.


Listen to the full conversation here.

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