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Hosted by Tom Henschel

Managing Trauma


July 2018

A rising leader struggles to manage a direct report who may or may not be a trauma survivor. She and her coach discuss whether compassion is always the most helpful approach.

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July 2018

Managing Trauma

Tom Henschel

Volumes of confusion

Marisol’s organization had rewarded her powerful performance as an individual contributor with the leadership of a small three-person team. They’d also given her a coach to help her begin her leadership journey.

In our coaching conversations, she’d shown herself to be an adept student of people and leadership, just as she seemed to be about everything else.

One day, she asked, “I’ve mentioned Haylee, haven’t I?”

I said yes. Haylee was one of her three direct reports.

She said, “I’m really annoyed with her today about something, but I’m trying to keep the bigger picture in mind.”

“And what’s that?” I asked.

I saw her try to formulate an answer. Then she gave up, saying in exasperation, “I don’t know what to talk about with her any more!”

“Because why?” I asked.

“Here’s an example. The other morning, I’m getting dressed – it was really early! – and this text from her pops up. It’s like a hundred words long with all these reasons why she might not hit the deadline on something she’s supposed to deliver that day. But, she says, I shouldn’t worry because maybe she will hit the deadline. She just wanted me to know she might not just in case. Oh my god!”

She took a breath and kept going. “And that’s just one example. You should see her emails. I opened one the other day and couldn’t even read it. I just scrolled through it thinking, ‘What the hell is all this?’”

Then, sincerely, she said, “And I really like her! If she has a gripe, I want to hear it. But this is beyond that. I don’t know what to say anymore. Do I talk about how that text was really, really long? Or that she sent it at like dawn o’clock? Or that it was full of made-up scenarios that, oh, by the way, none of which came true, and she wasn’t late delivering, so the whole thing was a waste of time?”

“Wow,” I said, a little surprised by the extreme she was describing. “Is she good at what she does?”

“I think so. I can’t really tell yet. When we reviewed her year’s work, I couldn’t actually tell how much she’s gotten accomplished.”

“You couldn’t?” I said, surprised again. “Why not?”

“Because it’s Haylee. She’s a little confusing.”

“Did you share your thoughts with her about that text?”

Separating noise from signal

“No, I let it go.” she said wearily.

“If you had, what would you have said?”

“Something like, ‘Hey, uh, thanks for the text, but, next time, you could just wait and tell me when you see me.’”

“So it would be about setting boundaries. That her text was too early?”

“No, it’s more about getting her to stop worrying all the time.”

“She worries a lot?”

“Oh my gosh. All the time. About everything.”

“Have you reflected that back to her?”

“No!” she said.

“If you did, what would it sound like?” I asked.

“‘Get real! Get a grip!’ That’s what I’d like to say.”

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Almost forty, I think.”

“Oh!” I said, surprised yet again. “So she’s not a kid. Well, that’s completely different.”

She asked, “Different how?”

“I was imagining someone in her twenties. What you’ve described is a sort of adolescent mind: lots of noise in her head and can’t separate the signals. Everything’s as important as everything else. That way of thinking is kind of adolescent. I think it’s one reason a lot of young professionals talk so much – they’re learning to separate the signals from the noise. And that’s good. They need to learn how to do that.

“But you tell me Haylee is almost forty. It makes me wonder why she’s stuck in adolescent thinking. If you asked her to cut to the bottom line, could she do it?”

“I do ask! And she asks for time. She says she’ll get back to me.”

“Wait, what about something like that text? If you pointed at her text and said, ‘Hey, Haylee, what was the point here? Bottom line it for me.’ Could she do it? Could she get to her own point?”

She laughed. “It might take her a while, which I guess means she can’t.”

I shifted gears. “What were you angry about with her today?”

Even fragile people deserve development

“Oh! We were in our one-on-one meeting. I told her I had five items on my list to talk about. She told me she had two. So we started with one of hers, and that’s the only one we got through! Arrgh! Everything with her takes so much time!”

“Have you reflected that back to her?”

“That everything takes so much time? No!”

“Why not? It’s the truth. Reading her texts takes time. Reading her emails takes time. Could you ask for those to be more concise? Or your one-on-ones. Could you ask for those to move more quickly?”

“I suppose I could.”

“But you’re reluctant. Why? What’s your concern?”

“I don’t want to shut her down.”

“Do you mean hurt her feelings?”

“I guess,” she said.

“Is she particularly fragile?” I asked.

That caught her up. She thought for a second, then said, “I’m treating her that way, aren’t I? This makes me think of one of my sisters-in-law. She’s not as likeable as Haylee, but this whole hard-to-follow, takes-a-lot-of-time stuff feels the same. And you know what’s a little creepy? My sister-in-law is a trauma survivor. Big time. Oh god, her entire family are survivors. Every one of them. And that makes me wonder…maybe Haylee’s a trauma survivor.”

“Do you have reason to think so?”

“Well, someone asked me if Haylee had ‘told me her story yet.’ I don’t know what that portends. But she hasn’t. And there was something about a single mom, but I don’t know what.”

“So she might have trauma in her past,” I said.

“It’s crossed my mind,” she said.

“And what if she does?” I asked.

She laughed. “I’ll probably be even more cautious about talking about any of this with her!”

“Why, Marisol? Doesn’t she deserve development whether she has trauma in her past or not?”

“Of course, of course. But it makes me nervous.”

“That’s understandable. So can I give you a way you might talk with Haylee?”

Cut to the chase

“Sure!” she said.

“Let’s say she sends another text. Or an email. Rambling. Lots of words. Ideas all jumbled together. Ask her to reduce it to a bullet point. She can print it out. She can use red pens. She can work on it however she wants. But tell her not to bring it back to you until she’s boiled it down to one bullet point. Two max.”

“That’s a great idea!”

“And she should do it right away. As soon as you see it. Make it a priority.”


“Really,” I answered. “And then review it with her.”


“Yes. You want to know if her meaning is the same as yours.”

“Oh, now this just sounds embarrassing. Like she’s a first-grader.”

“It’s not meant to be embarrassing. This is skill building. Plus it should fly by. Five minutes total. If she turns it into forty, then that becomes the development issue.”

She asked, “What would that sound like?”

I took a breath and said slowly, “’Haylee, I had expected this to be a five-minute task. It doesn’t merit discussion. It’s just a task. Find the one big idea. Part of doing the task well is doing it quickly. See you in five. Bye-bye.’”

“Oh my god, she’s going to become my full-time job!”

I gave a shrug. “Look, Marisol, we don’t know if trauma is an issue or not. But whether it is or isn’t, it sounds like Haylee has a lot of fear-based behaviors. So you may need to manage her with a lot of compassion. But you can be rigorous at the same time.”

To herself she said, “Like asking her to bottom-line her emails. Wouldn’t that be great?”

I said, “You’re trying to get her to see that all the extra words she’s using to explain herself aren’t helpful. She probably thinks they are. You need to recalibrate her thinking about that. You don’t have to say, ‘Hey, I know you have a lot of noise in your head because of your trauma.’ Just address the behavior. ‘This text is too long and it’s not helpful. What’s the bottom line?’”

“She might even start editing herself, huh?”

“One would hope!”

Does she know herself?

I continued, saying, “You know what I bet? I bet she knows this part of herself. All this fear-based behavior – I bet she has seen it in her life somewhere before. You might ask her what she knows about it.”

“I’m no therapist, Tom,” she said. “I don’t know diddly-doo about trauma.”

“I’m not suggesting you address her trauma, Marisol. I’m suggesting you get her to see that she has behaviors that might limit her career. And you’d like to help her gain some awareness about them – or even better, gain some mastery over them.”

She laughed. “That’s like the definition of what you’re doing with me! Develop some mastery.” Then, seriously, “But I can’t coach her like you coach me.”

“Maybe not. But one tool of mine you can definitely use is listening. Listen to her history. Listening will make it so much easier to help her.”

“What if she launches into a whole monologue? I can imagine her never shutting up!”

“Be rigorous, Marisol. It’s your job to keep the conversation on track and on time. That’s your challenge. You’re the manager.” Then I asked, “Is she a reader?”

“I think so,” she said.

“You might give her ‘Leadership & Self-Deception.’ I love that book. It helps people recognize that they have systems and that those systems can be managed. It’s told like a fable. You know, an employee gets mentored by the CEO. It’s a hero’s journey with a lot of learning. It’s good. She might like it.”

“Of course that means I’ll have to read it, too! See? She is becoming my job!”

“What I really appreciate, Marisol, is that you seem to have a lot of compassion for Haylee.”

“Listen, I believe trauma is a thing. Like addiction is a thing. Like cancer is a thing. If you’ve got it, it’s going to change your life. So, yes, I have a lot of sympathy for her. I just didn’t know how to address it with her. But being behavioral – cut to the chase, get to the point – that makes it all a lot less scary.” She gave a little laugh. “By the way, I can think of several people who could benefit from getting to the point a little faster!”

Marisol discovered that, yes, Haylee did have trauma in her past. Managing her with both patience and rigor sped Haylee on her own path towards The Look & Sound of Leadership.    


Core Concepts:
  • A severe inability to focus may indicate trauma. Or not.
  • Develop, don’t heal. You are not a healer.
  • Compassion and patience may be important.
  • Rigor and feedback are equally important.
  • Reflect what you see.

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