Successful Nonprofits: Navigating Trauma in the Workplace

Navigating Trauma in the Workplace

Building Resiliency with Rob Collins

Navigating Trauma in the Workplace

Building Resiliency with Rob Collins

by Ro

We all have experienced traumatic events. And the nature of nonprofit work ensures that we face not only our own trauma, but others’ as well. So with trauma all around us – how is your nonprofit managing it?

Today’s guest, Rob Collins, is a clinical social worker who specializes in trauma. He joins us to discuss how trauma can inspire us to build resilient nonprofits and confident, thriving staff.

Listen to the Episode Here!


Website: CHRIS 180

Register: CEU Workshops 

Podcast: Ep 161: For Your Good and Theirs: Adopting a Trauma-Informed Approach in Your Nonprofit with Kate Daugherty 

Podcast: Ep 29: Impact Without Burnout with Beth Kanter 


(03:14) Trauma and your bottom line

(06:26) How managers can help navigate trauma 

(16:19) Handling mistakes

(19:15) ARC

(22:31) Policies that help navigate trauma


Dolph Goldenburg (0s):

Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. I’m your host, Dolph Goldenburg. Today, we are bringing you a great conversation with Rob Collins about how you can create a more resilient workforce and a more resilient organization. As I think about resiliency, I look back over the last year. I think about spring of last year and how uncertain it was. I had clients who were coming back and saying, “Dolph, can we do strategic planning?” I had to say, “Spring 2020 is not the best time for that because of the uncertainty.”

Dolph Goldenburg (41s):

We did not know how the election was going to turn out. We had a pandemic that was starting. That’s not a great time to do strategic planning. That’s a good time to think about your tactical plan and how you’re going to get through the next year. Now we’re approaching Spring 2021, and we have more certainty about the future. If you are interested in strategic planning and want a more participatory, inclusive and agile strategic planning process, reach out to me at Today, we’re going to be talking to Rob Collins about creating a more resilient workforce – even when your organization works with people who are experiencing trauma. 

Dolph Goldenburg (1m 25s):

I got to share with you, Rob Collins knows a thing or two about trauma. He is a clinical social worker. He went to the University of Georgia, which has a great clinical social work program. He specializes in trauma therapy and professional training around trauma. But there’s something else I got to share with you. He was also in the army infantry and did a combat tour in Iraq. Anyone who has been in combat certainly understands trauma.

Dolph Goldenburg (2m 17s):

So, what is Rob doing now? He is currently working on team building, ropes courses, and training at CHRIS 180 in Atlanta. CHRIS 180 is a great organization. I think most listeners know I have lived in Atlanta for the last 10 or 11 year. I’m familiar with CHRIS 180. They heal children and they strengthen families and they do this through counseling, housing, community support and foster care. I also have to share this with you all: they were probably one of the first non-LGBTQ organizations that provided culturally competent services in the Southeast. CHRIS 180 is on the cutting edge and Rob is part of them being on the cutting edge, when it comes to looking at trauma. So Rob, welcome to the podcast. So glad you’re here.

Rob Collins (3m 10s):

Thank you so much.

Dolph Goldenburg (3m 14s):

Now I got to ask how does psychological safety and trust impact a nonprofit’s bottom line?

Rob Collins (3m 29s):

Wow. I was listening to your intro and I love that you’re talking about resiliency. I think that it is one of my favorite words when we’re talking about trauma. We talk about trauma like it’s a bad thing. It’s weighing you down. Resiliency is the best way to prevent that and to slow that down and help you integrate that experience into your life. I think one of the training concepts that we have started to develop is this idea of resilient businesses, resilient nonprofits. When you think about trauma, you think about pre-client trauma.

Rob Collins (4m 10s):

You also have the experience that the clients are bringing to you, and you have the political climate. As far as social work goes, you have your micro life, which is the things that are happening to you. Then there’s things that are happening around you. And then the things that are happening around that. You think about all of those things that are weighing you down. When you come into work, you don’t need any more stress on your life. So, if you’re able to work with your staff and help develop psychological safety, your workforce is going to be more innovative, creative and adaptable. They’re going to be able to adjust with the times and change with the demands. 

Rob Collins (4m 50s):

I think about CHRIS 180 and what we did as soon as COVID struck. We were able to switch and convert to this completely virtual world. We were given creativity and psychological safety. That meant we were able to innovate and rapidly transition to this virtual world and knock it out of the park.

Dolph Goldenburg (5m 13s):

One of the things that I think is that many of us decided to go to social work school or a helping profession because of trauma that we experienced in our own lives. Whether we did it intentionally or not. We bring that into our organization and we can make it a good thing, or it can be a counterproductive thing.

Rob Collins (5m 41s):

Absolutely. The military and is the whole reason why I got into social work in the first place. I saw that the VA was only hiring clinical social workers. At the time, I knew that’s what I needed to do. We all bring this stuff. The problem is that you’ll sit across from yourself, no matter what setting you’re in. If you’re a therapist, if you’re a case manager, if you’re working as a legal aid to anybody, you are going to sit across from yourself one day. If you have unresolved trauma or unresolved stress, it’s going to come up and the challenge is what do you do at that time? Do you seek help or do you run from it? Does it impact you and therefore impact your clients and the people that you’re working with?

Dolph Goldenburg (6m 26s):

What can organizations do to help their staff members and their teams better navigate that? When you find yourself sitting across from yourself and thinking, “This is what I experienced. I’m panicking in my own chest.”

Rob Collins (6m 45s):

I think there’s a layered approach. It’s like an onion. I think the first thing that we need to do is put on our trauma goggles. We all have little goggles that we put on to see this stuff. I think it’s like the matrix where you take the pill and you’re finally able to see trauma. I think the first thing that you have to do is take a trauma-informed approach for your business. It could look like having a consultant come in or it could be training your directors and CEOs. People need to be told there is trauma out there. I think that’s the first approach. I think the second approach is taking trauma seriously. You should develop and ask questions and say things like, “Hey, are you feeling okay?” I also think it’s important for us to develop policies that are going to be effective. We need to make sure that people have places to talk, process, and sometimes have time off.

Dolph Goldenburg (7m 46s):

Let’s take a step back and go to the second point. Sometimes your manager has to recognize that this person is experiencing some second-hand trauma. What does a good manager do first to recognize it? And then to respond to it?

Rob Collins (8m 4s):

That’s such a good question. I think the first thing you have to do is develop those trauma goggles. Do some reading and training. If this is the first time you have heard about trauma outside of combat or violence or assault, then I would hope that you would pick up a few books, read about it, and figure out what that trauma looks like. Not on the battlefield and not in violent settings, but also in the workplace. 

Dolph Goldenburg (8m 35s):

Let’s talk about what that trauma might look like. Give me some examples.

Rob Collins (8m 40s):

My boss uses this example all the time. She was working with immigrants so she was constantly talking about torture and violence and assault on a daily basis. She was dragging, and almost couldn’t even get in the door. Her head was down. Her arms were loose. Normally she was happy and pointing at people like, “Hey! Good morning!” But she was dragging and HR saw it and checked in with her. So a character shift is going to be a good indicator. Checking in with people doesn’t mean you have to take them aside and be ask them to share all of their problems. I think having a supervisor or anybody who is checking in is a good way to start.

Dolph Goldenburg (9m 36s):

Walk me through this a little bit, because one of the things I sometimes hear from managers and HR directors is, “I don’t want to get too personal with someone. I don’t want to push someone in a way that they feel uncomfortable.” So how does a manager check in? Walk that through for me.

Rob Collins (9m 54s):

One of the things that we talk about in trauma-informed care is this idea of rituals and routines. So you can build these things into every day. One of the things that we do in all of our meetings is a check-in. That gives you a baseline. Some people aren’t going to be anything. They’ll be like, “I’m good all the time.” That’s ok. You just need to know your baseline.

Dolph Goldenburg (10m 57s):

I love that. That’s a great idea to make that check-in or ritual and do it every day or every week in your team meeting.

Rob Collins (11m 4s):

If you don’t already do that and you don’t have that experience, there’s tons of resources out there to look into. And there can be a traumatic side to this. My wife has a great example of this. One of her co-workers had something going on and the management kept encouraging them to share what was wrong. Finally that person shared all of these horrific things. The manager’s response was, “Well, what am I going to do with that?” And now both of them are traumatized.

Dolph Goldenburg (11m 49s):

Let’s back up. What could that manager have done differently or said differently, even if they were not able to do much of anything to help them? How could that manager have handled that differently?

Rob Collins (11m 59s):

The first thing is check in with them by saying, “Hey, it looks to me that you’re having a hard time.” That’s still a basic conversation. You don’t have to say, “Let’s talk about it. Let’s go to the bar and grab a beer” because that’s not appropriate for a manager to do. But what you can do is say, “What can I do to help you? What do you need from me? Or, can I take something off your plate? Or can I delegate something for you?” And that way you can say, “Hey, I’m here for you, whatever you need.”

Dolph Goldenburg (12m 38s):

That is such a powerful question. So I think what you’re saying is after the manager’s team member bared their soul for the manager to respond by asking, “What can I do to help you?” And then they can talk about the possible solutions and what the manager can do. Not just, “what do you want me to do with that?” Which I agree is a bad response as a manager.

Rob Collins (12m 60s):

Absolutely. There is a balance between productivity and then co-regulation. For those of you that are unfamiliar with co-regulation, it is the two of us working to bring our emotions down and bring it to an appropriate level. Within a relationship it’s highly appropriate to work with each other to bring emotions down. However, when in a workplace, you want to bring emotions down without getting into these intimate conversations. That’s where it’s appropriate to say, “Whatever you need from me, let me know.”

Dolph Goldenburg (13m 41s):

I would imagine helping our staff members and our managers understand things like co-regulation is probably the best to do before there’s a traumatic crisis or trauma emerges. Probably the best time to do that is when things are okay, and you’re doing some basic training. Then you can even say, “Hey, do you remember that concept of co-regulation? Could we both bring this down a little bit?”

Rob Collins (14m 5s):

Or “What can I do to help you bring this down? What are the things that I have within my power to do as a manager?” I would highly recommend people find out what therapeutic services you have within your work. Businesses offer clinical counseling through their insurance, or maybe even within the office building. So prepping that before. so you can leverage that conversation at a later date is such a good idea.

Dolph Goldenburg (14m 37s):

Oftentimes team members think, “I don’t need clinical counseling.” So I find it is so helpful to take advantage of an EAP service.  It’s not clinical counseling, but what ends up happening is that EAP services trained to be the gateway to clinical counseling.

Rob Collins (15m 5s):

I love it. I honestly think that once people are at the point where they know they need therapy, it’s going to be hard to claw their way out. I would also encourage people to develop a resiliency toolkit. Right now our rituals and routines are disrupted. When’s the last time you’ve gone out with your friends and your family? It’s hard because we had these rituals set in place and if we’re not intentional about it, then it causes an increase in our stress in our daily life.

Dolph Goldenburg (16m 5s):

I love that you bring that up and I’m right there with you. I think it is so critical in terms of resiliency that we have rituals and routines that help bring us up and keep us out of the depths of feeling bad or trauma.

Rob Collins (16m 19s):

It’s important to also think about spirituality. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to temple or church or a mosque to interact with spirituality. Spirituality can be believing that humanity is genuinely good – believing that there are good things out there in this world. Also knowing that your mistakes are a learning opportunity. At times we’ve been like, “I am my mistake. I made this mistake. I am a terrible person.” But in reality, we’re learning. So, especially as a manager, especially as a leader, giving yourself a break and saying, “Hey, you know what, it’s okay.” And allowing your staff to make calculated errors. I think that’s an important thing – instilling that in your staff. You can make these errors, but walk me through your thought process.

Dolph Goldenburg (17m 15s):

That relates to one of my favorite quotes that I normally see in sports settings: “Success is not forever and failure is not fatal.” When we do experience success, then it does not get to our heads so much because we’re like, “Okay, last year was successful, but it doesn’t mean every year is going to be successful.” But also failure is not fatal – we get back up and we rebuild and we start again.

Rob Collins (17m 45s):

I love it. In our management training, I quote General McChrystal, who pioneered learning and then leading rather than leading and then teaching. One of his quotes is, “You can allow your troops to fail, but not be a failure.” I think that’s a powerful statement. It’s okay to make mistakes. You’re not a failure. We can take this apart and find what we did right and learn from the rest. It was a calculated mistake.

Dolph Goldenburg (18m 24s):

I love that. That’s a great quote.

Rob Collins (18m 27s):

It is. I believe that the core of psychological safety in business is the idea of making calculated risks. Because at the end of the day, if you are running a business or a nonprofit and you cannot make mistakes, everybody is super stressed out and super reactionary. Then you’re not going to innovate and you’re not going to be creative and you’re not going to grow. You’re going to stay exactly where you’re at.

Dolph Goldenburg (19m 1s):

If the culture is that mistakes are not okay and mistakes are not allowed, people will hide their mistakes. By the time you find out about it, that mistake is blown up and you have a major problem, not a small problem.

Rob Collins (19m 15s):

We started implementing ARC, which is Attachment, Regulation, and Competency, throughout our agency. I think it was a Harvard Business Review that did a study on an oil rig out in the ocean. They started doing this really touchy, feely orientation process with these hyper-masculine guys. What they found was that it led to a high level of psychological safety. If there was a mistake or they saw something, they were more likely to tell somebody. Casualties and damage went way down. Nobody was getting hurt. Job productivity was going up. It was an eye opening experience. 

Dolph Goldenburg (20m 9s):

We’re going to have to drill down, pun intended. So ARC stands for Attachment, Regulation, and Competence. So what’s the attachment piece?

Rob Collins (20m 19s):

Attachment in psychology is this idea of connection between two humans. It’s a basic idea of how well you attach or attune to other humans. When you were with your mom as a child, how deep was that connection? With any parents that you have, how deep is that connection? How likely are you to connect with businesses or friends or bosses? It’s the connection between humans.

Dolph Goldenburg (20m 55s):

Alright. So what is Regulation?

Rob Collins (20m 57s):

Think about regulation like a water valve that you’re a regulating. You can turn it up or turn it down. When we think about emotions, it is the same thing. You have a baseline right in the middle. So if you’re activated, you’re going to be yelling and shouting and flailing your hands. Or you can be under-activated so you’re dragging and droopy and not so animated.

Rob Collins (21m 39s):

The idea of regulation is to bring it up when you’re feeling down and vice versa. So we can still interact on a standard basis.

Dolph Goldenburg (21m 51s):

Competence – I think I know this one, but explain it to us. 

Rob Collins (21m 54s):

It’s your ability to negotiate your world. When I worked with children a long time ago, I’d almost be diagnostic. When you’re looking at children you’re looking at how many friends they have and wow well they are doing in school. These were two big things that I would ask a child. They are  good indicators to figure out how good a child is at negotiating their environment.

Dolph Goldenburg (22m 31s):

Got it. If we can take a quick shift, because now we’ve spent a good little bit of time talking about what managers should be doing to help create more resilient teams. But earlier in our conversation, you’d mentioned there are some policies that organizations should be considering.

Rob Collins (22m 51s):

It’s important to start by thinking about your organization’s current vision, goals, strategies, and policies. They should complement each other. For example, we’ve identified that our therapists who are constantly exposed to trauma need to have an opportunity to sit down with another licensed clinical therapist each week. This helps them reflect on their experiences and be ready to get back out there and do their job well. So think about your training, supervision, performance management, workplace development, etc. and how you are approaching them. How do you handle someone’s mistake? Or getting to work late? 

Dolph Goldenburg (24m 52s):

So let’s talk about Performance Improvement Plans, or PIP. I’ve been guilty of taking the wrong approach to them and saying things like, “We really need to PIP them out.”

Rob Collins (25m 11s):

You want to make sure that you are using these things as an opportunity to be a leader. To inspire and to encourage, rather than being like, “Okay, I’m done with you. You made a mistake.” At the end of the day, that is about you as a manager or you as a leader. That’s your stuff coming up. 

Dolph Goldenburg (26m 23s):

So the real measure of success is how many people improve, not how quickly you get people out the door.

Rob Collins (26m 40s):

This may be an overgeneralization or may be my own bias against nonprofits. But I think we hire people that are passionate and driven and are good at their job. Then they become a manager. Then they get good at managing people and making sure that they adhere to the policies and the grants or whatever it may be. Then they become a director. So you take somebody that’s passionate and driven and good at a job, make them a director without giving them the capacity of seeing strategically or tactically and now you’re upset and want to find someone new.

Dolph Goldenburg (27m 22s):

I know listeners have heard me say this a lot, but one of my pet peeves about the nonprofit sector is we take a case manager or a grant writer, and we say, “You’ve been a great case manager. You’ve been an incredible grant writer. Your boss left. We’re going to promote you to that position. You’re going to be managing three case managers. You’re going to be managing two grant writers.” We do that without giving the new manager the mentoring, the support, and the coaching necessary for them to be successful. Then their director scratches their head and goes, “Why isn’t this person a successful manager?” Why aren’t they a successful manager of the grant writing department? And the reason is because we failed them. We said, “You are great as an individual contributor.” We assumed that meant they were great at everything without making sure they got the skills they needed.

Rob Collins (28m 22s):

Exactly. That director was probably in the same shoes as them. “I need to do all this stuff in order to elevate myself as a director. Why can’t you do that?” That’s expecting someone else to do something that you had the understanding and knowledge to do. Not everybody’s going to do that. Not everybody has that priority. It’s important that you develop as a manager, and it’s almost like raising a child a little bit. You develop as a human while raising another. Well, you develop as a leader while leading and inspiring and encouraging other people. 

Dolph Goldenburg (29m 29s):

I think it is successful for organizations to think about lead positions on the road to becoming a manager. I did not learn about this on my own. While I was not in the military, one of my bosses and professional mentors was a West Point grad. She used to tell this great story. When she was a junior officer, she was reporting to a Colonel. Two or three years into her military career the Colonel came to her and said, “Every Thursday from noon to four, I’m going to be working on improving my golf score. You are going to be working on improving your management. So every Thursday from noon to four you’re in charge.”

Dolph Goldenburg (30m 13s):

On Friday, we’ll talk about issues that you encountered and we’ll work through them and we’ll figure out what you should do differently. She was a boss of mine and we ended up designing what we called program leads. So if we thought you had leadership potential, instead of waiting for your boss to resign or leave, we would give you this role. We also were clear, it’s a role, not a job. So you don’t get extra money for it. It’s an opportunity. You’re your manager’s number two. When your manager is on vacation, you stand in for your manager. We made the scope of responsibility clear. The other thing that I thought was so brilliant about this was your manager had the responsibility to take the lead and say, “Hey, this month, I need you to do my monthly report for the executive director”. Every month the manager had to give them some new tasks that they had never done before and offer them support. 

Dolph Goldenburg (31m 48s):

A couple of things came out of this. The first is we sometimes had people who become leads come to us and say, “I never want to be a manager.” We viewed that as a success because if someone realizes they don’t want to be a manager, isn’t it better they realize that before we make them a manager and they realize they’ve made a mistake? They would feel stuck because they think, “I can’t go back. That’s humiliating. And I can’t stay here. So I need to go somewhere else and do something else.” So that was a huge success. The other thing is we then could give people a little bit of a trial run. So after a couple of years of them being a lead, we knew whether or not they were manager material. So for us, that was a game changer. 

Rob Collins (32m 31s):

Peer leaders. I love it. It’s all about succession planning in the military because at the end of the day you never honestly know if you’re going to return from this mission.  I remember learning about the Revolutionary War in history class. They were always talking about shooting the officers because once an officer was down, it was over. The American military baked this thing into the cake where if somebody falls, they also have somebody else to take their place immediately. I think that’s such a brilliant approach.

Rob Collins (33m 14s):

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Lean Six Sigma. But we’re working on it right now at CHRIS 180. So we’ve designed is this idea creating a committee of people that are trained in Lean Six Sigma. It’s almost like a succession planning group where you take the people that are going to develop up and say, “Okay, let’s think about this as a level higher. Like if you were the COO, let’s look at how you would handle this and how you would treat this.” I got my green belt in February. I’m hoping to bring Lean Six Sigma to the nonprofit world.

Dolph Goldenburg (34m 6s):

I love that.  It’s time we move to the off-the-map question. I understand that you took a run at being a comic.

Rob Collins (34m 30s):

Yes I did. I’ve always loved comedy. I’ve always loved making people laugh. I was the best man at a wedding and gave a speech.  I spent time writing and developing it, and people loved it. They thought it was hilarious. I had tons of people coming to me and say, “You should do stand-up comedy.” I said, “Okay, I’m going to do it. I’d already been to combat and what could be worse than people trying to blow you up or kill you?”

Rob Collins (35m 11s):

In reality, it’s comedy. There’s nothing more frightening than standing up in front of people trying to make them laugh. I did an open mic at the Laughing Skull Lounge in Midtown. What I realized is I had to face my fear. When you’re working with trauma, you’re essentially asking people to talk about their most horrific stories and they’re frightened to even tell a stranger what has happened to them. I figured if I can’t do this, if I run from this, then I don’t deserve to be a trauma therapist. So I went up there and I clutched that microphone and I ran through all of my material and I got a few people to laugh. And that was it. I decided I’m never doing that again. I’m going to do things like training and facilitation where I can maybe throw in a few laughs, but that’s not the expectation. Maybe one day I’ll revisit it again. But right now I think I’ve had about enough for one lifetime.

Dolph Goldenburg (36m 15s):

I love that. So your comedy was one night only. 

Rob Collins (36m 21s):

That’s it. If somebody has a recording of it somewhere, I hope it never sees the light of day, honestly.

burg (36m 29s):

In Brooklyn, I think that would be called curated comedy. So there you go. It was once and it’s done. That’s it.

Rob Collins (36m 36s):

That’s it. It is a unique experience.

Dolph Goldenburg (36m 39s):

That’s awesome. Rob, thank you so much for joining us today. Listeners, I want to make sure that you know how you can get more information about the important work Rob is doing around resiliency and trauma. Head over to There’s a few things I want you to check out at that website. The first is make sure you learn more about their CEU workshops. I know a lot of our listeners are not in the Atlanta area, so check out their virtual training and virtual CEU offerings.

Dolph Goldenburg (37m 19s):

Also, CHRIS 180 and Rob have launched trainings about trauma-informed leadership for managers. So if you go to, you can find out more about those trainings. If you’re in the Atlanta area and have a family or a child that might benefit from CHRIS 180 services, check them out. Then finally, if you were at a mental health agency, a social support agency or a housing agency, anywhere in the country that is serving children, and you want to see an organization that has adopted best practices and is doing it successfully, go over to their website.

Dolph Goldenburg (38m 3s):

Hey Rob, thank you so much for joining us today.

Rob Collins (38m 6s):

My pleasure.

Dolph Goldenburg (38m 8s):

Listeners, if you missed that URL, go over to and we will have them there for you. Don’t forget that if your organization is now finally emerging from the last year and thinking about strategic planning, reach out to us

Dolph Goldenburg (38m 49s):

Finally listeners, if you enjoyed today’s episode, there are two additional episodes that I think you should consider listening to. The first is episode 161, For Your Good and Theirs: Adopting a Trauma-Informed Approach in Your Nonprofit with Kate Daugherty. The second is episode 29, Impact Without Burnout with Beth Kanter. Now a quick secret, Beth is about to come back on the podcast. So don’t miss that either. If you’ve enjoyed this show, if you get something from it, please make sure that you rate and review us on iTunes, Stitcher or your streaming app of choice. That is our show for this week. I hope you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment. 


I’m not an accountant or an attorney. I’m also not a licensed clinical social worker. Neither I nor the Goldenberg group are providing tax, legal, accounting, or mental health assistance. If you find yourself in need of tax legal, accounting, or clinical therapeutic work, I encourage you to reach out to a licensed professional and get the help that you need.

**  We have edited this transcript because how you listen is not how you read. If you have a problem with this, remember you got this for free!


Got an Idea for a Topic?

Recommend it to us!

    Please prove you are human by selecting the Cup.

    How are we doing?

    Tell us your thoughts!

      Please prove you are human by selecting the Key.