Organizational trauma comes in many forms but impacts organizations in predictable, destructive ways. Here’s how to tell if trauma is harming your workplace.
Today’s guest post is by Dr. Diana Hendel, author of Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
My understanding of organizational trauma was born of firsthand experience. In 2009, a horrific workplace shooting occurred at the hospital where I served as CEO. Three people died at the hands of a disgruntled employee. Even after the initial terror wore off, repercussions from the event sowed long-lasting uncertainty, fear, distrust, and division throughout the organization. From feelings of shame to diagnoses of PTSD to employee departures, the collective damage went deep.
Why am I telling you this? Because there’s a good chance that, at some point, your organization may experience trauma. It’s true that (thankfully) most won’t experience this type of extremely violent “shock and awe” crisis. But there are many types of disruptive events and systemic issues that can sow distrust, erode morale, and severely impact an organization’s ability to function.
I’m not talking about routine workplace stress which, even when intense, is temporary and manageable. Trauma is different. It takes away our feeling of control, warps our worldview, leaves us feeling helpless and vulnerable, and sends us tumbling into survival mode. Obviously, trauma leaves its mark on individuals. But it’s also deeply destructive to organizations.
Mass layoffs, sexual harassment, natural disasters, the death of a coworker, workplace accidents, a leader’s embezzlement, racism, and discrimination are all examples of organizational trauma I’ve encountered. And, of course, there’s the collective trauma we’ve all experienced over the past year and half, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whatever the source of the trauma, it’s all destructive. And if unaddressed, it will cause your organization’s structures, systems, values, and people to suffer. That’s why it’s vital to know what causes trauma and recognize how it manifests. Let’s take a closer look at what you can expect to see if your organization is traumatized.
First, people create their own narratives. Humans naturally want to make sense of upsetting and unexpected events, and I’ve found that there can be nearly as many points of view, personal experiences, and relationship dynamics as there are employees.
As all of these narratives are shared, rumor and speculation can cause secondary blame to spread. People want to know why the traumatic event happened. Could it have been foreseen or prevented? Why weren’t leaders prepared? You may find that victims are blamed, or that leaders are vilified for not preventing “witch hunts.” Strong and sometimes conflicting opinions abound.
Employees who are closer to a traumatic event than others (perhaps they witnessed it or worked closely with the perpetrator) are especially likely to struggle with feelings of guilt. They may blame themselves for not recognizing warning signs or feel that they should have prevented the event from occurring. Some might feel guilty that they survived or remained employed, while others did not.
It’s no surprise that in such an emotionally charged and uncertain environment, communication can be haphazard and inadequate. Traumatized leaders might struggle to be transparent while maintaining confidentiality, which chips away at equally traumatized employees’ trust and confidence. And until a “new normal” is established, it may not even be clear who is making decisions or how they will be reached.
Before long, polarization occurs. You may quickly see people dividing into two or more opposing groups. We’ve all seen what happens in well-publicized sexual harassment cases: one faction might support the victim while another might believe that the alleged perpetrator was falsely accused. The same thing can happen inside a traumatized organization.
As time passes, people begin to worry that they or their organization will be defined by the event, scandal, or circumstance that caused the trauma. This is especially true when there’s media coverage or widespread knowledge of the incident. Rising feelings of shame that “such a thing could happen here” can eclipse former pride in working for the organization and shake employees’ confidence that the organization is trustworthy.
I’ve found that when trauma isn’t addressed, it eventually becomes almost taboo. It can feel painful and even unsafe to speak frankly about what happened. But just because people aren’t talking about trauma doesn’t mean they aren’t still struggling. The shame, blame, division, guilt, and misunderstandings I’ve already mentioned are often festering just beneath the surface, where they silently corrode trust, morale, culture, and more.
Without intervention, trauma can cripple or even destroy a company. But organizational trauma doesn’t have to be a death sentence for your business. Over and over, I’ve seen how transformative it can be to seek help. (And the sooner leaders take action to break the chain of repercussions set in motion by trauma, the better.)
Here’s the good news: While the field of organizational trauma is fairly new, it’s becoming more widely understood every day. And resources—including Trauma to Triumph, a book I coauthored with Mark Goulston, MD—are increasingly easier to access.
You can establish processes to help both individuals and the organization as a whole successfully weather trauma. Even better, you can get prepared before a traumatic event strikes. When leaders learn how to destigmatize trauma, communicate effectively, and make decisions thoughtfully, it’s possible to successfully reunify and recover. In fact, a stronger culture, greater transparency, higher performance, and the ability to more effectively handle future disruption are often achieved on the other side of organizational trauma.
Dr. Diana Hendel is the coauthor along with Mark Goulston, MD, FAPA of Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, March 2021) and Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020). She is an executive coach and leadership consultant, former hospital CEO, and the author of Responsible: A Memoir, a riveting and deeply personal account of leading during and through the aftermath of a deadly workplace trauma.
About the Book:
Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, March 2021, ISBN: 978-1-4002-2837-9, $17.99) is available from major online booksellers.
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