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  • Writer's pictureMeg Mateer

Transform organizational trauma from destructive to productive

Updated: Oct 2, 2019


Just reading the word makes us cringe, right?

Addressing trauma is controversial, sensitive, and uncomfortable! Many of us don't know where to begin, so we simply don't do anything. We deny it, sweep it under the rug, pretend everything is fine. This is especially the case in organizations.

As much as we would like it to, this denial does not make trauma go away - on the contrary, it creates a lot of dysfunction.

But fear not! Organizational trauma is not just a painful reality of operating a business. Embedded in trauma are opportunities for organizational learning, for development, for innovation. The key is to foster ways in which the organization can acknowledge trauma and listen to the lessons within those experiences.

If you are brave enough to continue reading about this sticky topic, we’ll walk you through what organizational trauma is, what events trigger it, how unaddressed trauma breaks down organizations, and what companies can do to address the elephant in the room.

First...a word about trauma: what is Trauma, anyways?

Trauma is a deeply disrupting experience that typically elicits a fixed habitual response (coping strategy) designed solely to keep us from ever experiencing it again.

We often associate trauma with its most extreme forms: death, sexual abuse, violence. These events are indeed traumatic. But trauma is not limited to these extreme events. Experiences that elicit feelings of rejection, loneliness, isolation, can also be traumatic. This is because trauma is a subjective experience - what one person experiences as trauma may not be traumatic for others.

So far, we think about trauma in social and family systems. But we are not talking about trauma in the workplace.

What is organizational trauma?

Organizational trauma is when an organization (or a part of an organization) undergoes a transition that elicits fear and disturbance in the existing system.

What things can trigger organizational trauma? Major reorganizations, mergers & acquisition, new technology adoption, or periods of large growth often trigger organizational trauma. See any common themes here?


Change is the red thread. Why does change trigger organizational trauma? Because change is hard. No human being likes change. Change means sitting with the unknown.

Change means taking risks. Change means possible failure. Change means that we may not be as competent as we were in our old roles / functions / habits. Change means we have to figure things out again.

Strangely enough, this unstable feeling that often comes with change triggers a fixed response, these coping mechanisms that people use to prevent future instability. The impact of unaddressed trauma at work can last years, changing collective behavior and cultural norms in your organization and spreading responsive behavior to people who were not even initially impacted.

How does trauma affect organizations?

Trauma breeds cultures of distrust, fear, isolation, and self-protection. Trauma keeps people closed.

When trauma is not addressed, given space, or released, people carry it with them over long periods of time, developing their coping strategies, and operating primarily from these coping strategies.

This gets in the way of organizational innovation - this gets in the way of best practices, of collaborating in ways that enable growth and transformation. People operate in rigid, inflexible, fear-based ways because they are subconsciously trying with all their might to prevent a disrupting event from ever occurring.

Results of unaddressed Organizational Trauma:

  • Breakdown in communication (rumors replace of regular channels of communication) - the less leaders communicate to their teams, the more people’s imaginations run wild with worst-case scenarios

  • Breakdown in trust - people will put up emotional barriers to people who they see as a threat, and will align with people who they feel are in a similar position or situation. In an organizational context, this often pins departments against each other or creates an “enemy-at-large” out of leadership.

  • Breakdown in productivity - during organizational trauma, motivation is no longer driven intrinsically. Instead, it is primarily fear-based, the focus being to avoid a bad situation rather than moving towards something positive. In these situations, innovation and creative collaboration are almost impossible. People will do the bare minimum to avoid what they are afraid of and, after this, it feels pointless to do anything more - they become purely transactional employees.

  • Breakdown in power - people become victims of an event and may feel that they don’t have a voice in the process. This is especially the case when proceedings of these events are happening behind closed doors. Side effects of this breakdown include a feeling of passivity, lack of responsibility, and feet dragging that never helps collaboration.

  • Breakdown in stability - during these times of turbulence, many people may feel uneasy because they don’t know what will happen. Everything may feel up for grabs, with nothing that people can hold onto. In this case, the culture of the organization can be significantly impacted - a general feeling of stress and anxiety dominates the atmosphere.

What can we do in these situations?

These periods are highly sensitive. This means that if they are managed ineffectively, they can breed more fear, resentment, and rigidity, resulting in many challenges for leaders and chaos for operations. But if they are addressed head-on and people are considered in the process, organizational trauma can be a catalyst for growth and innovation. Here are 5 ways to directly approach trauma in organizations.

  • Be vulnerably transparent - many leadership and cultural consultants speak about the importance of transparency on gaining broad sweeping trust. However, an even more powerful “short-cut” to developing trust with the people around you is to be vulnerable in your transparency - to share not only what will happen, but how the leaders feel, where there are unknowns, even disclosing fears about the situation. If a change is anticipated to be difficult, announce this. It may feel counterintuitive to “reveal” the shadow side of a change. However, most often, people are aware of this whether or not you say it explicitly, and it can actually feel like a relief to hear it directly.

  • Open various ways to dialogue - it is not just important that organizations communicate with their people, but they are genuinely interested in hearing them. These dialogues usually unlock new insights for management teams, allowing them to better manage the situation. How to do this? Engagement surveys only get you so far - a more effective way to do this is to take a hybrid approach: use online tools to get a wide-sweeping “pulse” of the feelings of the people involved, especially when there are many people impacted. Then, set up in-person forums for people to speak about their experiences and opinions. Use unique dialogue structures to help people open up about their real feelings and to extract insights from a large group. For example, use impromptu networking to get a group more familiar about their initial feelings, 1,2,4, all to gather themes that come up, and fishbowl to dive into the nuance behind each of those relevant themes.

  • Build awareness of individual coping mechanisms - organizational traumas can be opportunities for personal insight. Many people are not aware of their own coping mechanisms to trauma, and becoming aware of these automatic reactions can help them develop personally as well as helping the organization effectively work with the situation. We all react differently to trauma - we have different coping mechanisms. Some rebel against the situation, creating more chaos. Others withdraw, becoming more private and disengaged. By helping people become aware of these patterns, they have the opportunity to break them, to choose differently. This can have a significant positive impact on individuals that goes beyond the office.

  • Unlock organizational resilience to trauma - here, you not only can help people build awareness of their coping mechanisms but enable them to identify risk factors in themselves and amongst their colleagues, allowing groups to anticipate change or uncertainty and come together as a community to have dialogues and address these challenges before they become toxic.

  • Understand and shape the organizational narrative and norms - every organization, like every individual, has particular characteristics. Just like each person has his or her unique coping mechanisms to trauma, each organization has certain patterns of how it responds to stress and change, often developed as responses to past collective traumas. Repeated collective responses are carried through the organization through narrative, through stories. Understand the story that has been passed down in your organization, and reshape it to influence collective normative behavior.

So….what now?

You know the basics of addressing organizational trauma, the first step to transforming your organization. Let us help you with the next steps - implementing these strategies into your day-to-day operations. We help forward-thinking organizations build broad sweeping emotional capabilities to manage change and build resilience. Reach out to and let’s talk.

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