Organisational Trauma

Groups of people can suffer trauma in very much the same way that individuals do. Organisational trauma differs from situation to situation, but most people have experienced – or at least witnessed – some form of organisational trauma. This trauma can come in the form of small things like office relocations, new staff, staff leaving or equipment issues. It can also be bigger, such as restructures, funding cuts, redundancies, poor management, or negative outcomes of projects. These are some of the more obvious forms of organisational trauma, but it can also be far more insidious. Insidious organisational trauma can look like bad WHS, ongoing safety issues, bullying, harassment, or crisis-driven operations.

Naturally, it is easy to examine Organisational Trauma through the lens of COVID19, but I’d invite you to widen that lens. Think about your organisation: your teams, the people you work with. I was once working in an office space with about twelve other people. After we won a tender for a new program, we needed to expand our staff, doubling the numbers. I remember sitting in the staff meeting when we were told about this, thinking to myself, “Where is everyone going to fit?” Almost as soon as that thought had occurred, we were told that this would mean moving offices.

The cloud of negativity was immediate. Not only would our lovely little team be doubled, but we would have to move as well! Thus began a significant period of collective stress and uncertainty. One of the things I noticed during this period was the significant downturn in our productivity. In hindsight, this isn’t surprising: we were all so caught up in the trauma. Who would these new people be? Would they fit into our workplace? What if we were not a close team anymore? Would they ruin our relationships? Where would we be moving to? What would it look like? Would there be toilets? What about a kitchen? What about parking? There was a lot of stuff going on for us.

As you yourself may well know, stress and trauma can be contagious. Unintentionally, we infected each other and increased the stress of the situation. This phenomenon is called Collective Disturbance. We may each have been impacted differently, but we were all impacted none the less. We were all educated, highly resourced adults, but we could not save ourselves from the vortex of trauma. What we needed was trauma-informed leadership, a guide to help us through this transition period. Unfortunately, we were left to fend for ourselves.

Over the course of the next year, my original team had all but left the organisation. These were dedicated, knowledgeable, experienced professionals, and they left that workplace with a sour taste in their mouths. Unsurprisingly, the organisation’s performance began to suffer as well. They developed a reputation amongst potential candidates for not caring about their employees. What should have been a celebrated professional achievement saw the organisation crumble from within, simply because our leaders didn’t know how to support their team through trauma.

In this ever-changing world, we need – now more than ever – to be leaders with a dynamic, considered and people-focused business approach. Ask yourself this: as a leader, do you feel ready to guide your team through trauma? If not, why not? What could you do differently? Who could help you be the leader your team will need you to be through a time of trauma?

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