Organizational trauma takes many forms. It can be “collective trauma” like what we’ve all struggled with over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be a “shock and awe” event like an act of violence or a suicide. It can be ongoing and cumulative, like systemic sexual harassment or racism. Or it could be a less dramatic, but still disruptive event like a round of layoffs (or the ongoing threat of them), a contentious merger or restructuring, or a cyber hack. Regardless of the specifics, says Diana Hendel, PharmD, trauma affects organizations in predictable (and deeply destructive) ways.
Dr. Hendel speaks from experience. In 2009, the hospital she led experienced a workplace shooting by a disgruntled employee. This horrific event left three people dead and shook the organization and its employees to the core. And it shaped her own trajectory, leading her to become an expert in organizational trauma. To understand how trauma manifests, you must first understand what trauma is. It is very different from the routine stress we all experience at work from time to time. While stress might be intense, it eventually passes. Trauma, on the other hand, overwhelms our protective structure and sends us into survival mode. It leaves us vulnerable and shatters our sense of safety and security and how we look at the world. And if left unaddressed, it can result in long-term harm—not just to individuals, but to organizations as well. Here are some of the common signs and symptoms of a traumatized organization.
People create their own narratives. There are hundreds of unique points of view, and each person creates a narrative based on their own perspectives, personal histories, and relationships to those directly involved.
Blaming and finger-pointing ensue. Initially, most organizations experience a great degree of camaraderie and altruism in the face of a traumatic event, but once the question of “why did this happen?” surfaces, speculation and second-guessing can cast a wide net of secondary blame that extends well beyond the perpetrator or causal agent. Why didn’t the organization prevent it or stop it? How could the leaders have been unaware? In some instances, people blame the victims for overreacting, or the organization for not preventing “witch hunts.”
Feelings of guilt rise to the surface. Those closest to a traumatic event may struggle with feelings of guilt: guilt that they’d missed a warning sign, hadn’t stopped it from happening, or hadn’t spoken up sooner—and that it had then happened to others. Some feel guilty for surviving.
Communication falters. Frequently, communication is initially haphazard and often too little and too late as leaders struggle to navigate the line between transparency and confidentiality. Trust and confidence can quickly erode as wild rumors spread and strong opinions surface. And in the immediate chaos of a traumatic event, it’s often unclear how decisions are being made (and who is responsible for making them).
The workforce rapidly polarizes. People tend to divide into opposing factions. For example, in one organization that experienced a sexual harassment case, “Camp 1” believed and sided with the victims while “Camp 2” defended the accused, resulting in a deep division within the organization.
A sense of shame arises. People often worry that the traumatic event (a shooting, a rape, a financial scandal) will define them or the organization they have been proud to work for. They may feel ashamed that their culture could give rise to such an event. If the event is covered in the media, that shame may deepen. They wonder: Will others—staff members, customers, the community—ever trust the organization again?
Trauma becomes unspeakable. Often a trauma grows exceedingly difficult and painful to talk about—bordering on taboo—and becomes “unspeakable.” Because it isn’t being addressed, people continue to struggle, and the ongoing, perhaps deepening of division/polarization, blame,
shame, and guilt hurts the culture. All of this can damage collaboration, cooperation, cohesiveness, and teamwork and erode people’s belief and trust in one another.
As you can see, trauma wears on an organization and can cause lasting destruction. But it’s never too late to recognize trauma, name it, and break the chain of repercussions.
Dr. Hendel and Mark Goulston, MD, are co-authors of Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side.