Can an organisation be traumatised?

16th November 2020

Trauma is receiving a lot of attention these days, in psychotherapeutic literature as well as on social media. Given the context of COVID 19, Brexit, the Black Lives Matter Movement, population displacement, global financial distress and environmental collapse, this attention is timely. Yet it is both surprising and alarming that organisational trauma is rarely mentioned, acknowledged, researched or discussed.

This is despite widespread understanding of organisations as living systems which can function in states of health and sickness.  Furthermore, while there is acceptance of the reality of the collective trauma of family and community groups, this acceptance has not translated in to understanding that organisations as social systems can be epicentres of collective trauma. Why are we so silent on this subject – of recognising and working with organisational trauma – as coaches, consultants and leaders engaged in cultural transformation?

Part of the problem is that trauma in organisations is often not recognised as such, especially by those leading organisations. Leaders might notice and complain about symptoms of negative behaviour in individuals but do not relate this to deeper patterns of organisational distress. Most leadership models still propound a heroic construction of the leader, and business cultures still emphasise thinking over than feeling, efficiency and speed of execution over the messy complexity of acknowledging and transforming human suffering.

In addition, approaches to working with trauma are strongly associated with ‘healing’ which is a phrase that is anathema to many organisational leaders, managers and practitioners who operate from an old-fashioned mechanistic paradigm. I firmly believe that systemic work is inescapably healing, as it is based on a holistic orientation – “making whole again” by re-including what has been separated or excluded. Linguistically, wholeness, healing, holiness and holism share the same etymological root – haelan, from Old English. While I believe that wholeness and healing are inextricably linked in systemic practice, this does not mean that organisational practitioners should be approaching clients with a healing intention, which might be inappropriate and grandiose – but neither should we be excluding the possibility of healing as part of our impact.

Organisational trauma is a cultural wound – caused by an identifiable event or series of events, or by a more insidious accumulation of toxic conditions, that overwhelm the resilience of the system

I see organisational trauma as a cultural wound – caused by an identifiable event or series of events, or by a more insidious accumulation of toxic conditions. These factors overwhelm and impair the resilience of the business to respond to everyday workloads, as well as to internal or external threats and opportunities. Of course, many organisations bounce back from terrible circumstances untraumatized. It seems that susceptibility to organisational trauma is accentuated by poor crisis management practices; unproductive relationships between the organisation and its environment; being a ‘mission-driven’ redemptive organisation with a strong social contract; and ruptures in founding purpose – for example, brought on my mergers and acquisitions.

Resilience is not just something that people need to cultivate – it is also about the system’s ability to respond effectively to both disturbance and opportunity, through both the quality of relationships and connections between teams and the wider matrix of stakeholders; and through the quality of people’s sensing of organisational ‘distress signals’.

Most contemporary traumatologists note that broken connections are key to recognising trauma – do departments pull away from others and self-isolate to deal with business? Do businesses pull away from their stakeholders and operate as closed systems rather than open systems? Is there a pervasive atmosphere of stress and anxiety, with a corresponding despair and loss of hope of improvement? Is there some erosion of the organisation’s identity and values (for example, through mergers and acquisitions)? What about high staff turnover rates and burnout (as well as absenteeism, leaders need to be on the lookout for ‘presenteeism’ – staff coming to work despite illness and injuries).

There is no standard blueprint for addressing organisational trauma, and very little in the OD literature to support us as practitioners. We have to view organisational trauma as an adaptive challenge – solutions only become visible when bigger picture, systemic perspectives are adopted. Perhaps it is akin to working with ‘Wicked Problems’, where we have to accept that piecemeal progress through collaborative approaches over time, is the way forwards.

Because trauma represents a tear in the relational fabric of a system, it is often experienced culturally as something that is missing; lost, split off, damaged, hidden... And often that ‘something’ is not tangible; you cannot put your finger on it. Attending to the relational fabric of the system is therefore critical – we need to be cleaning the fishtank rather than attending to the fish. Questions that might help coaches, consultants and leaders in this respect include:

  • What positions have different groups taken and how rigid, stuck or entrenched are they?
  • Who has formed coalitions and are victim / perpetrator dynamics in evidence?
  • What is the quality of connection like between departments, functions and stakeholders inside and outside the organisation – which connections are robust and which are stressed or even broken?
  • When, where and why has time stopped?
  • What is no longer allowed here and how did this happen?
  • What capabilities are stuck?
  • What themes place the relational matrix under more tension?

This is a huge topic and I think of it as a blindspot in OD theory – certainly until recently it has been a blindspot in my own theory of practice. Some fellow practitioners I have shared my views with are reluctant to accept that organisations can be traumatised – what do you think?

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