12 Ways Trauma Impairs Organizational Health and Function

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Trauma can play out in organizations and groups in destructive and constructive ways. Destructive “enactments” more likely occur when there is unseen and unaddressed trauma tainting how people make sense of reality.

Sandra Bloom, psychiatrist and public health expert, breaks down trauma’s impact on organizational function (2010).

12 Features of Traumatized Organizations

From a “group-as-a-whole” perspective, organizations and groups respond to trauma in much the way that individuals do, though they are also uniquely more complex. Whether a corporation, a clinic, a community group, a building board, a family, or practically any other group from small to large, organizations, like people, can develop significant post-traumatic syndromes.

1. Parallel process. Parallel process is the playing out of patterns contagiously from person to person, and on the group and organizational level, often showing up throughout the organization like termite tunnels in a wooden house. An example of parallel process: A supervisor mirrors being hypercritical of a supervisee who is working with a client who is extremely self-critical. A company might blame an external partner for bad outcomes without seeing its own contributions to dysfunction. Trauma can be passed along laterally and vertically within an organization, the way intergenerational trauma passes from parent to child.

2. When tragedy strikes: the impact of chronic stress and collective trauma. Organizational collective trauma occurs in the face of tragedy affecting the whole system. Smaller traumas pile up as cumulative trauma” Cumulative trauma flies under the radar, reaching the tipping point even if predictable in retrospect.

3. Lack of basic safety. Familiar organizational experiences violate safety: “[S]ilence, glaring eye contact, abruptness, snubbing, insults, public humiliation, blaming, discrediting, aggressive and controlling behaviour, overtly threatening behaviour, yelling and shouting, public humiliation, angry outbursts, secretive decision making, indirect communication, lack of responsiveness to input, mixed messages, aloofness, unethical conduct” and related behaviors. Traumatized organizations repeat unsafe conditions, even when cultivating safety.

4. Loss of emotional management. Strong emotions need to be contained and regulated, expressed in effective ways without being too explosive or shut down. Eventually, they will come out, often in destructive ways. Organizations may eventually enter a state of chronic distress, leading to burnout, escalating interpersonal problems and further undermining organizational self-awareness.

5. Dissociation and organizational amnesia. Organizational blind spots (such as occurs with groupthink) and information loss cause big mistakes. But remembering the past, and especially learning from shameful or stigmatized mistakes, isn’t easy. Trauma predisposes to dissociation—the splitting off of parts of experience and associated knowledge and memory as a last-ditch self-protective measure. Siloing leads to poor performance and increased uncertainty1.

6. Organizational miscommunication. As stress builds and festers, organizations forget how to communicate. People may forget to follow proper procedures, ignore feedback from clients and staff, get rid of staff or clients who seem like troublemakers, or ignore critical information. For example, intelligence warns of an imminent attack but the memo is shut down by a mid-level manager, or an IT lead warns about a software vulnerability and gets a bad performance review. Miscommunication pushes organizations into dysfunction and then, when most needed, undermines crisis response leading to critical failure.

7. Increased authoritarianism. Traumatized organizations can galvanize around authoritarian leadership as a quick fix to hidden fears and complex problems. People have a natural tendency to rally around leaders who provide clarity and direction, even if misleading2. As power is centralized, the system cuts itself off from what’s happening on the ground, compounding problems. “Betrayal trauma” (defined by Jennifer Freyd and colleagues, founders of the Center for Organizational Courage) occurs when trusted individuals (often leaders or caregivers) cause harm when expected to ensure safety.

8. Silencing of dissent and organizational alexithymia. Dissent gets silenced in authoritarian settings. Leaders, who may have personality traits such as pathological narcissism and/or sociopathic tendencies, are emboldened. Silencing goes with alexithymia, the inability to recognize or name emotions. Emotional information is required for understanding what’s happening among staff, clients and in the organization at large. Without it, leadership flies blind.

9. Decision-making and conflict management. Sound decision-making is trashed by any and all of the above, along with the capacity to manage conflict both within the organization and with external groups. This is typically reflected in a lack of effective conflict resolution skills, failed efforts to build conflict resolution, and communication skills, and escalating HR and customer experience complaints, as well as in failure to achieve goals and confusion surrounding the causes of such failure.

10. Disempowerment and learned helplessness. Chronic feelings of powerlessness and, worse, giving up abound as unresolved trauma plays out. Workplace learned helplessness “has been defined as a debilitating cognitive state in which individuals often possess the skills and abilities necessary to perform their jobs but exhibit suboptimal or poor performance because they attribute prior failures to causes which they cannot change, even though success may be possible in the current environment.”

11. Increased aggression. Violence may emerge, including physical aggression and increased sexual assault or harassment, alongside emotional and psychological aggression or abuse. The presence of overt aggression, as well as ongoing microaggressions and passive-aggressive enactments, creates a lot of dry powder. It’s only a matter of time until something bad happens3.

12. Unresolved grief, re-enactment, and organizational decline. Difficulty processing various kinds of losses is a hallmark of traumatized organizations. Losses can include staff turnover, changes in ownership and leadership from sales and mergers, rebranding and updates to business model leaving behind cherished prior versions, financial strain due to market shifts and associated downsizing or cutbacks, and more4. Rather than actively coping with such events—often part of the natural life cycle of organizational development—with healthy responses, already-traumatized organizations miss opportunities to makes sense of, navigate, and successfully mourn. Losses pile up, ungrieved, leading to additional unprocessed emotion and functional impairments.

Making It Work

As insidious as it is, though education, training and best practices, organizations can effectively deal with trauma. External consultation, analogous to individual therapy, can be useful. Business coaching and leadership practices often emphasize behaviors that create safety—without directly addressing traumatic root causes, leading to recurrence, demonstrating that a hallmark symptom of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is avoidance. However, properly addressed and grieved, trauma work leads to resilience, growth, and, hopefully, wisdom.

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