Trauma-informed work place in highly-competitive environments

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Last week I was present at the Trialogue Business in Society conference 2022 (10-11 May), representing R-Cubed, to deliver a keynote presentation on ‘creating a trauma-informed workplace’. I had around 15 minutes with another 15 for Q&A – it is hard work and good practice to pull a sizeable topic into a small presentation space.

One of the questions that was raised from an online participant was around the relationship between creating a trauma-informed workplace in the context of a highly competitive environment (I can’t recall the exact phrasing). Although I engaged with the question in the moment I continued to reflect on it in the days that followed. It seems to have been a concern as to whether creating a trauma-informed workplace might compromise the competitive edge of the company.

I confess that I have only worked briefly within a corporate-competitive environment, with the majority of my work life within the NGO/NPO/FBO sector (not that that is without some degree of competition, especially as far as funding is concerned). Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that creating a trauma-informed workplace will in fact enhance the capacity of the company to perform within that competitive space.

My key reasoning is that a highly competitive environment that is not trauma-informed, especially in the SA context, is very likely to produce a toxic work culture. It is a culture that sabotages performance even leading to a high turnover of staff, division and/or disengaged staff.

I follow football, have done so for a large portion of my life. What I have seen from highly competitive leagues, such as the English Premier League, is that when the dressing room becomes toxic it manifests in poor results, even with some of the best talent money can buy. In this current season, Manchester United went from being touted as contenders for the league, after their 2nd finish last season, to a club in disarray. Most of it seems to have stemmed from the development of a toxic dressing room as well as toxic relationship within other domains of the club itself. Another example is Chelsea FC of 2015/16 who went from league winners in 2014/2015 to finishing 10th – again toxic culture has been argued as the key reason. (Btw, yes I do think that even football clubs can be trauma-informed especially when you consider the ages of players who become professionals within elite clubs).

Moving to the corporate sector, in the USA in 2021 there was what has being referred to as ‘the great resignation,’ when 24 million people resigned from their jobs. Research by Donald Sull and Charles Sull presented in an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review found that the number 1 driving factor was toxic work cultures. Taking that as a cue, I do wonder whether people in South Africa feel that they are able to resign from toxic work spaces given our high levels of unemployment, with the consequence of feeling trapped. What we know about responses to threat is that when a way out is not considered a possibility (i.e. can’t fight it, can’t run from it) then the term ‘dissociation’ comes into play – disconnected from yourself, even your body and the world around you. What effect will this have on the work place?

Remember that a trauma-informed work space is not all about yoga and meditation (they have their place). What it is saying is that by creating a culture of safety, belonging, inclusion, empowerment and collaboration means that people are more likely to be pulling in the same direction, are more present, less likely to leave and can enhance performance and productivity.

What I do think requires discussion and consideration is, what does a trauma-informed culture look like in a highly competitive environment?


  1. Charles Sull, Donald Sull and Ben Zweig, Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation, MIT Sloan Management Review, January 11, 2022