Did anyone hear the splash?

19th June 2020

As organisational practitioners, we rarely get asked to ‘heal’ our clients’ wounds. The explicit contract is about efficiency and effectiveness, learning, development, growth, transformation… It’s easy to be seduced into working with the relentlessly positive aspects of success and in the process, to overlook human suffering. A bit like Breughel’s painting, ‘The Fall of Icarus’, we just get on with our jobs and ignore the fact that a child has just fallen from the sky…

Yet what about the implicit psychological contract of supporting leadership, team and organisational success? In my own practice and as a supervisor of coaches, I come across accounts each week of leaders and team members who share horror stories about why they are rigid, or harsh, or perfectionist, or drive themselves to burnout at work… Deeply impactful things have happened in their personal and also professional lives. Sometimes also, the business as a whole has or is suffering in ways that are overwhelming. This is the case for many SMEs during the Covid 19 lockdown, for example…

People can be traumatised, but can organisations themselves be traumatised as well?

Of course, as coaches, consultants, facilitators and managers we are not therapists – it is extremely important to respect and engage with the explicit contract. I am not arguing for sloppy boundaries. Yet if our work only takes account of the bright side of success, it remains limited in its transformational potential. We also risk colluding with a culture of toxic positivity (1) – itself itself sometimes a symptom of trauma.

I contend that when we work systemically with clients, our work is ipso facto ‘healing’. Systemic work is radically re-inclusive – as Bert Hellinger, the founder of Constellations work said, systemic practice is fundamentally about joining together what has been separated. This is a healing movement, even if we do not cast it as such. When we work systemically, we are looking at organisational clients in the context of their co-participation in families, communities, faiths, cultures, ecosystems and more… The systemic stance is unavoidably a healing stance. To exclude healing possibilities because the explicit contract does not mention it, is unnecessarily limiting in terms of the outcomes we can deliver.

Before I became an OD practitioner, my work in Marketing and PR included providing Crisis Management workshops and coaching. I encountered many organisations, workers and communities who had experienced natural or man-made disasters. Attending to the viability of the business was of course imperative – people’s livelihoods depended upon the business not folding. Yet leaks in chemical factories, fatalities in work accidents, unanticipated market crashes, acts of terrorism and more, that I came across, also required an attention to repairing and mending the social fabric of organisational life. This is not therapeutic work but OD work. We need to attend to business health as well as wealth.

There is an important body of literature about organisational healing that deserves closer scrutiny (2). The focus is not on personal healing but on the collective effort to repair social connections. Empathy (one aspect of EQ) and leadership are critical success factors in this endeavour. Attending to how organisations recover (beyond stock price recovery) is not about resilience – which is concerned with withstanding the effects of trauma – it is about dealing with trauma. The research in this field concludes that healing – more than resilience, coping or recovery – enables greater organisational strength that what previously existed. Treating ‘healing’ as a dirty word in organisational practice therefore blinds us to the possibilities of being of deepest service to our client systems. 

Jan Jacob Stam (3) notes that we can speak of trauma when a system is so overwhelmed by its experience that it is no longer capable of bouncing back; and when there are broken connections between an organisation and the wider society, or parts of the organisation, or individuals within that organisation. We see further evidence of it in rigidity when faced with change; frozen inability to move on and adapt, despite desperate need; intractable conflicts between people and departments that cannot be resolved; silence in the face of ‘open secrets’ that cause harm to workers…

For those of you who wish to leave politics out of dealing with trauma, I wish to remind you that trauma is all about living under social conditions where terrible things are allowed to happen and the truth cannot be told. Bessel van der Kolk

Yet so many practitioners are not sensitised to this – many have probably never even considered whether such a thing as ‘organisational trauma’ exists. I think this is a challenging leap for many coaches, consultants and managers to make, as we still work within a predominantly macho corporate culture where men (it is still, largely, men) in positions of power do not look kindly upon vulnerability – their own or others’. The next leap is to equip ourselves with ways of working with organisational trauma skilfully – not as therapists but as OD professionals. There is much to say on this subject, but for now I’d like to leave you with the thought that the key is not in providing clients with tools and skills – but in working first and foremost with ‘collective heartspace’.


  1. Toxic Positivity is excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimisation, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.
  2. For more on Organisational Healing as an OD practice, see Powley, E. H. & Cameron, K. S. (2008). Organizational healing: Lived virtuousness amidst organizational crisis (pp 21-44). In C. C. Manz, K. S. Cameron, K. P. Manz, R. D. Marx and J. Neal (eds.) The virtuous organization: Insights from some of the world’s leading management thinkers. Hakensack, NJ: World Scientific.. They describe organisational healing as being supported by 4 mechanisms – empathy, interventions, collective effort and leadership.
  3.  Stam, J.J. (2011) The Knowing Field. Issue 18. June. 41-47.
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