Creating a Culture of Courage: Sarah F O’Brien On How to Create a Culture Where People Feel Safe to be Authentic & Why That Helps the Bottom Line

An Interview With Vanessa Ogle

Cultivate trust. To create a culture of trust requires use of trauma-informed and human-centered applied skills. Having trauma-informed knowledge is not enough. You have to know how to apply those skills in real time with real people. Without transparency, consent and choice, and space-holding, it’s unlikely a culture of trust will exist.

In today’s fast-paced world, authenticity in the workplace and in our personal lives has become more crucial than ever. Yet, fostering an environment where individuals feel secure enough to express their true selves remains a challenge. The importance of authenticity cannot be overstated — it is the foundation of trust, innovation, and strong relationships. However, creating such a culture requires intention, understanding, and actionable strategies. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah F. O’Brien.

Sarah F. O’Brien (she/her) is a dynamic and innovative trauma-informed professional. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW, LCSW-C), and has been a practicing psychotherapist specializing in Anxiety Disorders, Substance Use Disorders, and Relational/Betrayal Trauma disorders and responses for over 15 years. She is also a Trauma-Informed Coach and Consultant, where she guides and informs on mental health topics and trauma-informed practices. She has been pivoting her clinical skills into other areas to reach wider audiences for impacting social change. Sarah also writes, speaks, and creates audio and video media content in efforts to reduce the stigma around mental health disorders and treatment. As well as, to increase understanding of and accessibility to trauma-informed practices for all people and all businesses. Sarah is a 2x founder/CEO and with both of her businesses, she strives to help folks wrap their minds around trauma-informed skills and leadership, in both clinical and non-clinical settings, and work through their barriers to access transformational change, in life, in business, in self. She has a contagious energy and uses it to empower every individual she works with to be their authentic selves…and wear it proudly. Her collaborative approach creates a synergy between herself and others that provides hype for motivation, follow-through on goals, and recognizable change. Neuroscience and evidenced-based practices are the driving forces behind Sarah’s approach to understanding how people create lasting and transformational change for themselves.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Sure, I’ve wanted to be a therapist since high school. I found psychology courses really interesting and found people to be even more interesting. I set out on the path to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker so I could provide direct clinical treatment to folks long before I realized how much of my own lived experiences would help me relate to my psychotherapy clients. I even wrote my college entrance essay about being a therapist, owning my own practice, and enjoying my work. Now, I’m actually living out that dream. Fast forward 15 years into my career, and trauma specifically has become a huge passion for me. Healing my own trauma and old wounds is just as important as understanding others’ lived experiences of trauma and adjusting course to better serve my clients and educate the wider public about trauma and the negative effects it leaves with people.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I’m not sure if it’s the most interesting, however, my transition from public mental health agencies into my own private practice was a bit of a ride. I was overworked, underpaid, undervalued, at times unsafe, and then eventually burned out after 9 years working in the public mental health system. I was ready to leave the field entirely. I had spent 6 years in higher education, several years working to obtain licensure, a few more working as a licensed clinician to only feel I had come to the end of it, and I was only in my late twenties. I was ready for a new career but I had not idea what else I would do, or what else I was meant to do, because I was a really good clinician for my clients, and spent all this time (and money) obtaining degrees and licensure to be a clinician. I realized I was incredibly unhappy and value-misaligned with management and decision-makers at that final agency job. Yet, I loved my direct clinical work with clients. I worked at that agency job and started my practice on the side. I worked 6 days a week, between both jobs, for 9 months until I had all of the clients I could squeeze into the time I had for private practice work, saved enough income to carry me until I could reach full caseload levels, and then quit. And 8 years as an entrepreneur, I have never looked back. By the way, I started a successful business with zero business experience, classes, coaching, or books. A colleague helped me with some initial information and then I figured out most everything else myself along the way. That is something I never imagined I could do when I set out on my career path. I’m quite proud of my accomplishment in creating a successful, profitable business, without any real business sense. Now, I have gained so much knowledge about owning, running, and practicing within a business, I’m ready to help other licensed clinicians do the same. It is obtainable, it’s teachable, and it’s so much better than working in the system.

You are a successful individual. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Absolutely! First thing, I am a hard worker and go-getter, and a go-giver. I have a goal. I work towards it until I reach it, unless I change my mind about the goal. Then I’ll just set a new, more-aligned goal, and work until I reach it. I’m not lazy, I don’t procrastinate. When needed, I will forego ending my day when everyone else does or taking the whole weekend to myself in order to complete necessary tasks or to start something new. An example from when I was building my practice on the side: I had to work extra hours (about 15 per week) after an exhausting 40 hours a week at the public mental health job, to include all day on Saturdays with client appointments. To get where you want to be, at times, requires sacrifice of something else, for a little while anyway. This was the same when I was in school. My friends used to tease me a bit because when invited for fun activities or parties, I often would respond with, “I can’t, I have to study.” And I would study first, then play. I’m that way today: work hard, first; then, play hard.

Second, I’m an extremely organized person. I love organization, everywhere! Things in their place, where I can easily find them again. There is nothing that irritates me more than sitting down to do something and I can’t find what I need, and have to spend time looking for it before I can get started. Organization helps me to be efficient so that I’m not over-working where it’s unnecessary. I keep lists, spreadsheets, clearly identified folders and tabs, and check my organization systems often, sometimes daily, to make sure I’m on track with what I need to do and by when. I have found when I forget to make daily, weekly, and monthly lists or guidelines, I get overwhelmed, frazzled, inefficient, and frustrated. It’s not a good headspace. I have many balls in the air, so to speak, basically all the time, with client work, collaboration projects, ambassadorships, and professional networks, therefore, I stick to my systems so things continue to run smoothly for me.

Finally, I’m a lifelong learner. I understand that it’s impossible for me to know everything about anything, especially since I’m in healthcare. New research, new outcomes, new modalities, new information, is a given. Our society, in general, is constantly changing, even more so in science, technology, healthcare, and neuroscience understanding. I remain curious to new and different, and learn to adopt new tech, new information, and new techniques into my clinical practice, and my collaborative work with other people and businesses. This stance of humble curiosity allows me to remain open to new information and learning from others who have more experience, or just flat out know more than I do about a particular thing. In addition, I remain open, and curious, and a lifelong learner of myself. People also constantly change, grow, evolve, and adjust. I’m not going to be the exact same person at age 30 as I was when I was at age 20. Different life circumstances, more history of lived experiences, maturity, relationships, all impact who we are, how we think, what leads us into certain behaviors or choices. Seeing myself as dynamic, rather than rigidly fixed, leaves room for accepting new knowledge and integrating that into the here and now, however that may look. I seek guidance and expansion from mentors, colleagues, and more senior folks in my field. I’m on an ongoing journey of self-awareness and self-compassion through my own therapy, reading, reflecting, journaling, meditating, practicing yoga and breathwork, seeking feedback and new perspectives. The best example is joining a trauma-informed network of professionals after 7 years working solely independently, specifically to learn and practice new skills. This particular network supports Sarah the person, the whole, messy, human. As well as, Sarah the professional, who has expertise and knowledge to share, and doesn’t know everything, all of the time, which is okay.

I did really well on my own for many years. However, the number of things I can do, number of which projects I can be a part, and with people in whom I can network have grown immensely since joining professional networks, projects, and teams who are aligned with my values. It’s significant in making work enjoyable, and more importantly, in reducing the strain and drain from work, that often leads to poor performance and burnout.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you share a pivotal moment in your career or personal life when being authentic made a significant impact on your success or well-being?

After 7 years in private practice, and 3 years into the pandemic, I was starting to notice the early signs of burnout again. I had been working a ton, stacking my days with client psychotherapy appointments because so many people were struggling for such a long time, both with the outcomes of the pandemic, and their own personal challenges or issues that worsened during that time. I also was anxious about my business, as I went from completely in person with clients concentrated in one geographical area, to a virtual, telehealth-only practice overnight, and uncertainty about how that would affect being able to make a consistent income. People were really used to in-person therapy.

However, after 3 years of really doing too much, and having a few really difficult client cases, and experiencing weird and unexpected health issues, I had to make a change. I realized I couldn’t just trade time for dollars and sustain. I couldn’t just keep seeing more and more clients to keep up with inflation (let alone that insurances have not updated reimbursement contracts since before the pandemic). I wanted to do something else with my intellectual property, and my skills and abilities. I wanted to access a different revenue stream and cut back on my clinical caseload. This has led to finding value-aligned professionals and organizations to partner and collaborate with, finding more ways to be creative at work, choosing projects I enjoy instead of focusing on what will make the most money right now. This intentional shift has eliminated my signs of burnout in clinical work, of which I still practice 3 days a week. It has increased desire, excitement and motivation for projects I appreciate and where I can be creative. It has connected me with aligned professional relationships that fill me up both professionally and personally, which has increased overall energy and satisfaction with work, and with life overall.

What strategies have you found most effective in fostering an environment where employees or team members feel safe to express their true selves, including their ideas, concerns, and aspirations?

Using trauma-informed and human-centered communication skills invites disclosure, rather than closing off for self-protection. People, I would say all people, have some fears, or discomfort, about being themselves fully in the presence of other people. Likely, this is due to past experiences of judgment, invalidation, relational betrayal, exclusion, being misunderstood, undermined, negative or abusive childhood environments, trauma experiences, marginalization, microaggressions, and disenfranchisement. Under represented groups, such as people of color, women, those with physical or mental disabilities, those with mental health disorders, the LGBTQIA+ community, are particularly vulnerable to armoring up instead of opening up. Invitation, curiosity, non-judgmental stance, open ended questions, empathy, active listening, consistency in behavior, opportunities for consent and choice, all increase access to pathways of safety for folks. Using trauma-informed skills, applied to communication and decision-making, enhances the likelihood others will be able to access their own safety to express their true selves, comfortably.

How do you navigate the challenges that come with encouraging authenticity in a diverse workplace, where different backgrounds and perspectives may sometimes lead to conflict?

Differences definitely can evoke conflicts. Conflicts can kick up shame and embarrassment for people. When people feel shame, they often disconnect. Transparency reduces shame. Empathy reduces shame. A reduction in shame increases confidence, ability to stay present, remain connected to and engaged with others. As a leader of diverse teams, it’s important to invest time into understanding fears and feelings so as to provide empathy for all parties and move folks through differences, disagreements, and conflicts. You first have to cultivate empathy within yourself, which is a rigorous skillset that requires practice. Emotional literacy (understanding fears and feelings) is necessary to display empathy. The more transparent you can be about the importance of everyone’s emotions involved, the more likely folks will feel validated and grounded (avoiding this disconnection). You have to model, support, promote, express and demonstrate value in the diversity that exists on your team. Viewing this diversity as a strength, as an increased opportunity for ideas and innovation, and making that clear to the team opens the pathway for everyone else to view the differences among them more positively. Reframing, checking assumptions, leading with curiosity over judgment can be great tools for navigating the conflict that diversity arouses. It’s important to ensure each person feels as though they have worth and value, despite disagreements and different perspectives.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways to Create a Culture Where People Feel Safe to be Authentic?”

1 . Model it first. Authenticity is often returned when it is received first. If you are a leader at an organization and you desire folks to be authentic, then you have to lead with your own (vulnerable) authenticity to foster an environment where others will want to do the same. Most people are afraid to appear inadequate or to make mistakes. However, this is quite normal. Perfection is impossible. Recognizing, and owning, your mistakes, or growth areas, normalizes this for others. If you don’t expect perfectionism, then don’t model perfectionism. Transparent disclosure of missteps and mistakes makes it easier for others to vulnerably admit the same. And when people aren’t trying to be perfect, they can show up as their authentic self, more easily. I’m often the first to lead with vulnerability, opening the door for others to feel comfortable with being imperfect. I openly admit I don’t know everything, nor claim to know everything. I’ve even cried in supervisors’ offices or in meetings when I was spoken to poorly, blamed for something that wasn’t my fault, or feeling dismissed as a human. I remember back in my first full time social work job this happened; it was a meeting. I was so overwhelmed and embarrassed and disappointed with how my supervisor addressed me in front of all of my peers, and it led to natural tears. A coworker said “What are you doing? You can’t cry here, at work, in a meeting of all places. Be professional.” The bold, young, new-ish social worker (yea, me!) assertively said “I am professional, and I’m a human, and this behavior hurt. I can’t pretend it didn’t and nor should I have to, we all have feelings.” It felt good to have a natural response and not feel bad about it when or where or why it happened. We’re humans first, before whatever role or title we carry.

2 . Pay attention to language and communication. Creating a culture where people feel safe to be authentic is really quite simple, in concept, and more involved, in practice. It’s using trauma-informed/human-centered communication skills. Adopting trauma-informed practices can better ensure folks can access safety for themselves, and, therefore, show up as their full, authentic selves in the space. Understanding how language and bias unintentionally open up pathways to harm, rather than safety, is key. Learning to be aware of ourselves, the language we use, the biases we hold is the necessary first step for anyone hoping to become more inclusive and accepting of others. Words are often not just words. Words can pack a punch and can be harmful. Using inclusive, non-judgmental language that is free from aggression or bias is necessary. Staying away from extremes and absolutes is a good place to start. How can you do that? By using dialectical statements, especially when views and perspectives differ. Example: “I can see how your primary focus is to maintain good rapport and relationship with our customer, and my primary focus is to meet the deadline as planned.” The core of dialectical statements is finding ways for a both/and mindset, rather than an either/or mindset. This moves us away from black/white thinking patterns, and assuming there is one truth, or one to solve a problem or reach a goal. Dialectics leave room for two, potentially opposing, things to be true at the same time. No one is more ‘right’ than the other. Both positions, perspectives, ideas, and priorities are important, one is not greater than the other.

3 . Allow room for personal agency. This is the piece about consent and choice. People don’t want to, and often can’t, function indefinitely, without opportunities to make their own decisions for themselves about themselves, this includes in workplace settings. Offering options for folks to address their in-the-moment needs, instead of expecting robotic reliability day in and day out. Room for humans to be humans, which can be a bit messy, and par for the course. Examples include small options, like choosing where to sit, taking a break whenever needed even if not a ‘break time,’ having water available. Larger examples include taking a personal day, even when there is a big meeting because the employee doesn’t have capacity to show up well, or postponing an annual review meeting because the initial feedback activates the person’s nervous system responses and they can no longer stay present and focus on the feedback. In business, this is customization. How can something be modified or adjusted to work better for this person? Allowing people within your culture or organization to have the personal agency and self-determination to make a choice is paramount to creating a culture where people can be authentic.

4 . Cultivate trust. To create a culture of trust requires use of trauma-informed and human-centered applied skills. Having trauma-informed knowledge is not enough. You have to know how to apply those skills in real time with real people. Without transparency, consent and choice, and space-holding, it’s unlikely a culture of trust will exist. It’s really a culture of trust that leads to safety that leads to folks feeling comfortable to vulnerably be their authentic selves, in any space, with any people. Cultivating trust includes the first 3 principles mentioned: model it, use inclusive language, allow for personal choices whenever possible. In addition, consistent behaviors/actions, transparency, emotional literacy, self-awareness and self-compassion, doing your own work first, vulnerability, empathy, clarity in roles and responsibilities (rather than vague expectations), mindfulness, accountability, openness to new/different perspectives or knowledge (life-long learning), and knowing how to repair after a rupture occurs are other important characteristics and practices needed for cultivating trust. Trust will erode if things are unpredictable and unreasonable. I have to cultivate trust as a major part of the therapeutic alliance between myself and clients. To assess for and then provide treatment for diagnosable mental health disorders, requires the client to open up and share honestly. If they don’t feel safe and comfortable to do so, the treatment will not be as effective. Some ways I do this in my private practice include communicating if I am going to be more than 5 minutes late starting an appointment, consistently; clarity in roles and responsibilities as outlined in informed consent, policies and procedures, and other initial paperwork, as well as discussed verbally in the first appointment to ensure things are clear, allow for questions, transparently answer them for added clarity as needed; doing my own therapeutic and healing work first, so as to keep my personal stuff (or unresolved stuff) out of the professional space, where it could cause harm.

5 . Repair after ruptures. Authentic humans will accidentally offend or hurt one another. Often this is unintentional, yet still needs to be addressed properly to avoid ineffective and unproductive behavior, or ongoing disconnection and conflict among people. You can’t just sweep it under the rug and hope it’ll all be fine. It won’t. If there is a rupture, it’s usually due to someone’s feelings/ideas/opinions being dismissed, invalidated, or ignored, or someone left feeling dismissed, invalidated, or ignored due to poor communication about or around the rupture, or during the attempt to repair — this is why language and communication are so vital. Understanding we will have “empathy misses,” or will make assumptions that are unhelpful and/or erroneous, is important for a healthy repair. Taking responsibility and accountability for whatever your part in the rupture is step #1 to repair. Being accountable requires self-awareness, humility, and courage and those traits can go a long way in cultivating trust to create an environment where people feel empowered to be themselves. I even accidentally misinterpret client testimonials and unintentionally cause harm. It’s not easy, and owning it with my clients in the next appointment, apologizing for any hurt incurred, asking what would help for them to feel restored in the relationship, and doing my best (without crossing my own boundaries) to accommodate their need to repair the therapist-caused rupture with the client so we can move forward together in the treatment process. It’s not a failure or character defect to cause a rupture, it’s pretty normal, we’re all going to do so at one time or another. Being able to do this in real time with real clients almost always enhances our rapport and increases levels of trust, especially around experiencing hurt or conflict. In fact, repairing after a rupture increases feelings of trust and safety. Think of it like ‘getting the worst out of the way’ and being less concerned about a rupture happening again, because you’re more confident and comfortable in the repair process being effective.

In your opinion, how does authenticity within an organization influence its relationship with customers, clients, or the broader community?

Authenticity opens the door for real, true alignment. Customers want to be aligned with an organization to feel comfortable purchasing their product or service. People don’t like to be ‘sold,’ misled, or given misinformation. Remember being authentic = being transparent. Adopting transparency within, and without, your organization increases the trust quotient both internally among teams and employees, as well as, externally with stakeholders, clients, customers, and the broader community.

All in all, authenticity breeds authenticity. Cultivating an authentic culture in the organization accepts and supports everyone being themselves, without apology. Leaders, too. The more places and spaces people feel comfortable showing up as their full, human, messy self the less likely folks will feel depressed, anxious, isolated, marginalized, disenfranchised, and judged. The more included and accepted people are, the more healed they can become, and the more healed people are, they are more likely to include and accept others, and THAT’S the cycle to continue. Acceptance begets acceptance. Instead of trauma (or harm) begets trauma (or harm).

Also, being our authentic self feels good for the nervous system. If we have to ‘put on’ a virtuous face or demeanor that isn’t truly who we are, it increases stress in the body, which leads to higher outputs of cortisol, which can lead to insomnia, weight gain, poor concentration and focus, many healthy conditions and chronic illness, and, ultimately, shorten the life span. Yes, you heard that correctly. Ongoing stress is very detrimental to both physical and mental health, and life expectancy. If people can’t be authentic in their workplaces, where we all spend a lot of time, then there’s actually a higher chance of call outs due to illness or unwellness, more likelihood of low productivity and higher turnover, because folks cannot thrive if their physiology and bodies are in ‘survive mode.’ We definitely stay firmly rooted in ‘survive’ (which can also be ‘avoid harm’) if we can’t be our true, full self.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m already part of the movement that I believe will bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, and that’s the trauma-informed-future-for-all movement! We know that trauma affects people worldwide. People carry their lived experiences of trauma around in their bodies and they erupt as nervous system activations (think Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn -which is people-pleasing) often as a result of other people doing stuff to and around them that triggers this physiological response. This physiological response to trauma reminders is involuntary. These responses can cause great harm to the person experiencing them (in the form of many chronic health conditions to include autoimmune disorders, insomnia, chronic pain, frequent sickness, unhealthy self-care patterns, substance use/addiction, shortening of the life span, as mentioned above), as well as, harm to others and relationships. This isn’t something that only affects a small percentage of the population; this is something that affects nearly everyone. And the fact that it hasn’t been a movement (with tangible results) already is quite disheartening. We’ve had excellent research about trauma and trauma healing for over 50 years, and still the systems around us refuse to adopt the changes necessary to acknowledge this well-known and fairly well-understood universal truth. I would love to see every business, organization, and person move towards learning about trauma and emotions, practicing the skills needed to address those things well, and apply those practiced skills in real time with real people.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I’m very active on LinkedIn and Instagram with my professional accounts. I post almost daily to both platforms. I’m often invited to be a guest speaker on podcasts, panel discussions, and LIVE presentations or conversations, and those links are posted on my social media accounts and website. I write monthly blogs that are published to my professional website. You can find links here:

Again, here is the link to my youtube video discussing 5 ways to create a culture where people feel safe to be authentic.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About The Interviewer: Vanessa Ogle is an entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. She is best known as the founder of Enseo which she and her team grew into one of the largest out-of-home media and connected networks in the world, serving more than 100,000,000 people annually. Vanessa’s talent in building world-class leadership teams focused on diversity, a culture of service, and innovation through inclusion resulted in amazing partnerships and customer relationships. She collaborated with the world’s leading technology and content companies such as Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Dish Networks to bring innovative solutions to the hospitality industry. Enseo has also held an exclusive contract to provide movies to the entire U.S. armed forces for almost 15 years. Vanessa and her team’s relentless innovation resulted in120+ U.S. Patents. Her favorite product is the MadeSafe solution for hotel workers as well as students and children in their K-12 classrooms. Accolades include: #15 on FAST 100, 50 Fastest Growing Women-Owned 2018–2020, Entrepreneur 360 Best Companies 2018–2020, not to mention the Inc. 500 and then another six times on the Inc. 5000. Vanessa was personally honored with Inc. 100 Female Founder’s Award, Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and Enterprising Women of the Year. Vanessa now spends her time enjoying her children, sharing stories to inspire and give hope through articles and speaking engagements. entrepreneurs-to-be with her articles including her LinkedIN newsletter Unplugged. In her spare time she writes music with her husband Paul as the band HigherHill, teaches surfing clinics, and trains dogs.

Please connect with Vanessa here on linkedin and subscribe to her newsletter Unplugged as well as follow her on Substack.

Creating a Culture of Courage: Sarah F O’Brien On How to Create a Culture Where People Feel Safe to… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.