The Post-traumatic Organization
Even before the pandemic and other troubling events, trauma has been a world-wide problem. In response, organizations that provide health services have developed trauma informed workplaces and approaches to care. Trauma informed practices involve creating an awareness of trauma and its impact on individuals, creating a sense of safety, and training staff in interventions to assist a person who has experienced trauma. The trauma-informed initiative helps both the individuals with trauma and the employees themselves, who may experience secondary trauma, by virtue of their work with victims.
One speaks of a trauma informed organization with the emphasis on the word informed – awareness of trauma is not something added on or laid on top of the organization but rather is something that is internal to and shapes (forms) the organization’s culture
One of the difficulties in trauma work is its delayed impact. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for example. Includes symptoms which may not reveal themselves until days or months after a traumatic experience. The individual may experience recurrent memories or dreams about the traumatic event. They may have dissociative reactions in which they behave as if they are re-experiencing the event. They may have distorted cognition and volatile emotional reactions.
Attention to trauma victims and trauma-informed care can obscure another important aspect: an organization itself can have trauma. The organization is an entity unto itself, apart from the employees and departments which comprise it. During the pandemic years, organizations have faced life-threatening events: the loss of many employees to death, lay-off or resignation, loss of customers, disrupted supply chains and production and the closure (death) of many competitors or partner businesses.
Moreover, public relations events are also traumatic for an organization. A major industrial or environmental disaster, a whistle-blower exposure, illegal or disreputable behavior by a company leader or an extremely negative external audit all threaten the organization’s survival.
Given this, it is reasonable to think that organizations can also experience post traumatic reactions. Here are some clues that your organization may be having such an experience.
Does management seem to over-react to events that may be similar to a past traumatic event? For example, an organization that had a negative public audit or external investigation may become hypervigilant about future audits. On one hand, this is good management – learning from experience and correcting past wrongs. On the other hand, if the preparation and planning for a future audit results in impulsive decision making or rapid reversals in procedures it may indicate that the preparation has less to do with the upcoming audit and more to do with the reactive memories of the past.
Has the organization developed a more rigid structure for decision making? Not every decision can or should be made collaboratively. But, a change in the decision making structure such that fewer people are involved in making decisions or decisions are less transparent could indicate a traumatic reaction.
Is the organization less inclined to take risks, apply for new opportunities, develop or promote new products? Persons with PTSD demonstrate social withdrawal, particularly avoiding circumstances that remind them of their traumatic experience. Likewise, organizations that are experiencing PTSD-like reactions may pull back from some of their development or social engagement activities. Re-evaluating a business is a necessary activity. But, again, is it motivated by the goal of further growth or the goal to minimize distress?
Given the idea that an organization can experience trauma, what are some interventions that can be implemented? Trauma informed practices include 4 general elements: Awareness, Safety, Choice and empowerment, and Focus on Strengths.
Awareness. Recognizing that the behaviors of the organization and its culture could be reactions to a traumatic event, is an important step in managing the problem. Business leaders should continually ask themselves what their motivation is for a given decision or procedure and invite the perspective of others outside of the organizational culture.
Sometimes it is helpful to frame questions differently to elicit other ideas. For example, not just asking: What are the reasons for going forward with this decision? But also: What are the reasons not to go forward with this decision? Not only: What will happen if we take this action? But also: What will happen if we do nothing?
Safety: Underlying the experience of trauma is a disrupted sense of safety. The world around seems unreliable and unpredictable. Therefore, focusing on those aspects of the organization that are most stable and reliable can be reassuring. It may be useful to publicize things in the organization that point to its stability – long-term employees, historical milestones that are being passed, honoring long-term customers. These activities have the effect of reminding everyone of some stability which can reduce anxiety.
Choice and empowerment: Trauma disrupts a person’s feeling of belonging. The person feels that they do not fit in anywhere and feel isolated. Activities that emphasize the possibility of choices and collaboration can overcome these feelings. Organizations that have experienced trauma may find support from trade groups or sister organizations. If they do not feel ready to take on a new initiative alone, maybe it can be done in collaboration with another organization.
Strength-based: Trauma informed interventions draw on the person’s strengths. Likewise, an organization can conduct a self-audit to identify its strengths. Input from employees, customers and other stakeholders is especially useful here and furthers the collaboration that was noted previously. Above all, the focus is on creating a sense of hope, that this situation can be overcome and that it can lead to better times ahead.
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