Dealing with Organisational Trauma
8th March 2022
There is a blindspot in coaching, consulting and leadership development practice. The various catastrophes that we are living through in these times – war, pandemic, population displacement, environmental collapse to name just a few – have put the subject of trauma on the tips of our tongues. Yet I find it surprising and alarming that our contemporary understanding of trauma does not yet translate into our work as Organisational Development practitioners. Opinions are divided on the question of whether an organisation can be traumatised, and few practitioners are knowledgeable or skilled in identifying and working with traumatised organisations. We do not even have a shared understanding of the term!
Yet collective trauma has unavoidable impacts on organisational resilience, leadership development, decision-making, team dynamics and motivation, values, culture and most aspects of organisational well-being. Vivian and Hormann (2013) note: “Unaddressed organizational trauma – whether sudden or cumulative – causes serious harm and can be catastrophic for organizations. It negatively impacts service delivery, compromises work with clients, and weakens the organization’s ability to respond to internal and external challenges. Over time the unhealed effects of trauma and traumatization compromise the organization’s fundamental health.”
What is Organisational Trauma?
Organisational trauma may result from a sudden and abrupt ‘stroke of fate’ such as a major accident, an attack on the workforce, or a financial crisis; it may also result from slow and insidious series of events over time, such as repeated acts of bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment, from extended periods of extreme stress and uncertainty; from badly handled mergers and acquisitions as well as other forms of weak governance…
The sources of overwhelm may come from inside or outside the organisation, and may result from a single devastating event, from a series of events, from long-term exposure to toxic cultural conditions, or from the impact of exposure to cumulative trauma that comes from the nature of an organisation’s work (for example, with ‘mission driven’ organisations that bring staff into daily contact with human suffering)
An organisation’s resilience is compromised to the extent that people cannot respond to everyday workloads and the business might be unable to respond with agility to internal or external threats or opportunities. People seem ‘stuck’ and unable to move on from difficult past events, there is widespread exhaustion and cynicism, while broken connections between people and teams result in a lack of collaboration or even cooperation. In extreme cases, workers and suppliers may be harassed and exploited, there will be silence about improprieties and there may even be denial that anything is wrong…
Importantly, we have to rethink our image of what a traumatised organisation looks like… Just as with traumatised individuals, we cannot separate trauma from resilience. Many traumatised people and organisations continue to be high-performing, but in ways that are rigid and inflexible, controlled and controlling, and with a distinct sense of everything on the inside (us) being idealised and everything on the outside (them) being vilified – despite evidence to the contrary, such as competitor progress.
Working with Organisational Trauma
There is no standard blueprint for addressing organisational trauma and very little in the literature to support us as practitioners. We are working with a ‘Wicked Problem’ (Grint, 2010) that represents an ‘Adaptive Challenge’ (Heifetz, 2009) – and solutions only become visible when bigger picture, systemic perspectives are adopted. Perhaps we have to accept that piecemeal progress through collaborative approaches over time, is the way forwards.
The role of leaders and of leadership is central when dealing with traumatising events and with systemic organisational trauma. Leaders’ interpretation and framing of events as well as their approaches and actions, strongly influence cultural dynamics. Possible contributions leaders can make include providing safety, stability and resources (not only physical resources but psychological resources such as respect, empathy and compassion); they can prevent or contain trauma in the face of major events such as redundancies, accidents, bankruptcies and more; with longstanding systemic trauma they can name suffering and identify organisational patterns in ways that alleviate guilt and suffering; they can offer optimism, confidence and hope; champion organisational strengths and provide frameworks for making meaning; crucially they can also ask for outside, specialist help when necessary.
Working with trauma requires attunement – and so working ‘with the grain’ of the organisation’s culture and processes at a pace the organisation can sustain, is vital to liberate the self-renewing capacities of the system. Also, working at a pace that is supportable by the system is important – this could include not trying to rush things, but looking for periods of stability that might open up a window for trauma responses to surface and be dealt with. Certainly, the coach/consultant should not try to ‘fix’ anything but rather to enquire and provide a witnessing and facilitative presence.
This might involve working at two levels: first, to create a context for meaning – where people can freely express what the feel, which in turn helps them make sense of events, and imagine a more hopeful future; second, to create a context for action – where those who experience or witness pain and suffering can find ways to alleviate their own and others’ distress in practical ways. Working with these two levels might be accomplished by exploring the organisation’s history, or undertaking some forms of systemic mapping to restore a sense of connection between parts of the organisation; it might also involve experimenting with how to strengthening structures and process, or reaching out to non-competing organisations for inspiration and learning. Integration work is also important – working directly with senior leadership to draw their attention to dysfunctional patterns, or strengthening core identity through a focus on purpose and brand.
For organisations whose people experience vicarious trauma – especially those ‘mission-driven’ organisations in the Public and NGO sectors – providing regular reflective practice groups can be a simple and powerful step, which must of course be integrated with wider cultural transformation interventions. Related to this, as coaches and consultants working with traumatised organisations, having access to good-quality professional supervision is vital.
For further information about identifying and dealing with Organisational Trauma, I’m running a 1-day virtual workshop on 18th May. For further information visit https://meus.co.uk/workshops/organisational-trauma-an-overview-orientation-443
Bailleur, P. (2018) Stuck? Dealing with Organisational Trauma. Het Noorderlicht. Amsterdam.
Grint, K. (2010) Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: The Role of Leadership. In: Brookes S., Grint K. (eds) The New Public Leadership Challenge. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Heifetz, R. et al (2009) The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Harvard Business Press. Brighton.
Vivian, P. & Hormann, S. (2013) Organizational Trauma and Healing. CreateSpace. North Charleston.