Navigating Trauma in the Workplace: A Guide for Managers Using Humble Inquiry

Today’s workplace can often be a highly stressed environment. Trauma is an unfortunate reality that many employees face. Whether it’s due to personal issues, workplace accidents, or broader societal crises, the impact of trauma on employees can be profound and far-reaching. For HR specialists and managers in Australia, addressing trauma effectively is not only a moral imperative but also crucial for maintaining a healthy, productive workforce.

Understanding Humble Inquiry

One of the most effective strategies for dealing with trauma in the workplace is the practice of Humble Inquiry, a concept developed by the well-known organisational psychologist Edgar Schein. This approach fosters a culture of openness, trust, and genuine communication, which are essential for supporting employees through difficult times. Humble Inquiry is the art of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, fostering a spirit of genuine curiosity and interest in the other person’s perspective. It contrasts with leading questions or those that imply judgment. Schein defines it as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

Why Humble Inquiry Matters in Trauma Management

When dealing with trauma, employees need to feel safe to express their feelings and experiences. They need to experience a place without fear of judgment or repercussions. Humble Inquiry helps create this safe space by:

  1. Building Trust: When employees feel heard and understood, they are more likely to trust HR professionals and managers. This trust is essential for effective trauma support.
  2. Encouraging Openness: Humble Inquiry encourages employees to share their thoughts and feelings more freely, providing managers and HR with the insights needed to offer appropriate support.
  3. Fostering Empathy: By engaging in Humble Inquiry, HR professionals and managers can better understand the personal impact of trauma on employees, fostering a more empathetic workplace environment.

Implementing Humble Inquiry in the Workplace

  1. Create a Safe Environment
    • Ensure that your workplace is a safe environment for open communication. This includes having clear policies on confidentiality and non-retaliation, as well as providing training on trauma-informed care for managers and HR staff.
  2. Ask Open-Ended Questions
    • When engaging with an employee who has experienced trauma, use open-ended questions that encourage them to share their experiences. Examples include:
      • “Can you tell me more about how you’re feeling today?”
      • “What aspects of your work have been most challenging recently?”
      • “How can we support you better during this time?”
  3. Listen Actively and Reflectively
    • Active listening is crucial. This means fully concentrating on what the employee is saying, rather than planning your next question or response. Reflective listening, which involves paraphrasing what the employee has said to confirm understanding, is also vital.
  4. Avoid Judgment and Assumptions
    • Approach each conversation without preconceived notions about what the employee should feel or do. Avoid making judgments or offering unsolicited advice. Instead, focus on understanding their unique perspective.
  5. Follow Up and Provide Continuous Support
    • Humble Inquiry is not a one-time event but an ongoing process. Regularly check in with employees who have experienced trauma to provide continuous support and adjust accommodations as needed.

Case Study: Humble Inquiry in Action

Consider the case of a large Australian corporation that faced a critical incident affecting several employees. Managers and the HR team, trained in Humble Inquiry, initiated a series of one-on-one conversations with the entire team, avoiding singling out the most affected employees. By asking open-ended questions and actively listening, the HR team gathered valuable insights into how they could best support the employees. Most importantly, people felt heard and comfortable expressing their needs and feelings. Some expressed anger and worked through their emotional reactions without fearing negative consequences. This built significant trust and brought the whole team together. “I don’t need to be fixed, just heard” was a common theme. This approach not only helped in tailoring specific support measures but also strengthened trust between employees and management, leading to a more resilient and cohesive workforce.

Final Thoughts

Trauma in the workplace is a complex issue that requires a thoughtful and empathetic approach. For Australian HR specialists, Humble Inquiry offers a powerful tool to support employees through their toughest times. By fostering a culture of genuine curiosity, trust, and openness, HR professionals can help create a workplace where employees feel safe, valued, and understood, ultimately contributing to a healthier and more productive organisation. By embracing the principles of Humble Inquiry, HR specialists can not only address trauma more effectively but also build stronger, more resilient workplace communities.

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