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Why Those Leading Change Need to View Past Trauma as A Key Stakeholder


As an organization change strategist who has been working with clients for the past 30 years to help roll out new technologies or install new post-merger cultures, I’ve seen millions of wasted dollars occur because true adoption did not take hold.   While the root causes for this are various, one core reason can be attributed to the failure to consider and support the whole person – physical, emotional and spiritual - of the stakeholder.

One of the first steps we take with clients when working to implement a significant change is to conduct a stakeholder analysis.  We identify a list of the individuals, functions and departments that will be impacted by the change.  We then conduct conversations with these stakeholders to further learn about their key concerns as to how they see the change impacting them. Typical concerns center on the ability to remain productive, how day to day work will be shifted by a new process, or on a more personal note, and what the impact will be to their paychecks.   These “stakeholder” conversations become the core information we use throughout the change implementation to plan for the appropriate communications, training and other support that stakeholders need to embrace the change.  However, no matter how many plans we set up to address all the concerns discussed, issues always appear that silently play out and can be deadly for our change initiative if we aren’t prepared for them.  

We know that each of us experience change through our own lens of our personalities, expectations, biases and past experiences. Different past experiences mean that individuals will experience the same current situation differently.  Any change brings about various levels fear and uncertainty.  If an individual has experienced a traumatic event where high levels of fear and uncertainly were constant, then that same individual is likely to be triggered when there are events occurring in their current world that introduce fear and uncertainty.  And the survival brain will kick in to do its job of protecting and ensuring survival, both on a physical and emotional level.

With 66% of our population experiencing at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) ( and at least 25% having experienced four or more ACES during their lifetime, we can assume with some confidence that leaders and employees will be influenced by these past events and will experience your change through these lenses.

This is why trauma is a key stakeholder. It may be silent but it is there. It has its own needs, its own personality. It lives in the hearts of leaders and employees. When it begins to display through behaviors that resemble lack of buy-in, emotional distancing, indifference to the change, lack of follow-through or co-operation, argumentative, it gets tagged as “resistance”.  Then it can be met with negative perceptions or impatience from those leading the change.  In reality, it’s just the human brain doing its job.   As then as change leaders, it becomes our job to help alleviate that resistance.

So how do we do that?  After all, we don’t typically ask stakeholders for their life story to uncover any traumatic event as part of our stakeholder analysis activities.  There’s really no need to do that anyway because we already know it exists. In many cases, your stakeholders may not even be consciously aware of their underlying trauma impact. And our goal is not to re-traumatize but rather our goal is to create a safe environment that facilitates people adopting the changes we want.

Three Actions We Can Take to Address the Silent Stakeholder

The Leader 1:1 Relationship

When we are asking people to change their behavior, we need to be intentional about creating safe environments that allow them to do so. Nothing is more critical to the success of the change process than the 1:1 leader to employee relationship.  Leaders are the key lynchpins that help people pivot to adopt during change.  The change team working at the enterprise wide level cannot possibly know the personal stories and potential reactions of each individual in the organization.  But each leader can – particularly when a trust filled relationship exists with each direct report.   When this relationship is solid, employees will get on board with the change.

We spend a lot of time coaching leaders to help them understand not only the neuroscience of change but explore how their own life experiences might be hindering them from building these important relationships.

Getting People Involved

I’m sure all of you will remember where you were when you heard about the planes hitting the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001.  Six months after that terrible disaster we were asked to help facilitate a public conversation about what was going to be done with the real estate footprint of the former site of the Twin Towers.  Imagine asking a group of 5000 hurting souls, many of whom were still in the heavy grieving process, to spend a day and come to agreement about a significant change after one of the most traumatic experiences in their lifetime.  But we did and within an 8 hour time period.  All because of getting them involved in creating their future. Nothing works better to help heal and move people towards change than acknowledging the realities of what’s happening and getting them involved in creating their future.  You can read more about the details of this powerful experience at our website Transformation Strategies or at this link here:

Consistent Communications

Our brains like certainty which can be challenging to provide during periods of high change.  Change is messy and messiness bring uncertainty.  Committing to providing a regular cadence of communications throughout the change implementation provides a sense of security for the unsettled minds of employees. Our communication plans also include opportunities for dialogue and conversations.  These occasions provide space which allow each individual make meaning and gain insight for themselves about the change.   This also means that we equip leaders with the skills to have dialogue, how to ask questions and not feel uneasy when they don’t have all the answers.

During change, each key stakeholder needs to make their own personal decision as to whether or not to adopt that change.  Yes, we may get “compliance” and some will say that is adoption.  But when there are big dollars at risk, we don’t want to just settle for compliance.  We want hearts and minds fully committed and engaged to make the change. Considering trauma as a key stakeholder will enhance the change leader’s ability to plan for and better realize success.

Tricia Steege, CEO of Transformation Strategies, helps leaders develop trust filled relationships that create better results and change mastery.  Her practice leverages evidence based neuroscience research about change and her own personal trauma story to build change leadership capabilities with her clients.  Learn more about our services at

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As a retired [former] 'Community Organizer', I was duly pleased by an article from one of our Canadian 'allies' at entitled: "The Hippocratic Oath for Community Workers".

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