Working with Organizational Trauma. Insights from the field.
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
It’s now two years since the original publication, in Dutch, of the book "Trauma in Organisaties". The theme has been on my mind for longer than that, but now that the book is out, my work has focused more explicitly on this theme. What do I mean by this? Previously, when I encountered organizational trauma in my counselling work, I tried to work with it covertly, or with a ‘hidden’ approach. Since the book, I’m frequently contacted because people suspect there may be organizational trauma in their organizations. It’s a great step forward for people to recognize the phenomenon and to want to attend to it.
The trust and the space to be able to work with trauma in organizations led to a refinement and expansion of my insights. Subsequently, the sharing of these insights in my role as teacher forced me to go beyond my more intuitive way of working. In a way I had to become more conscious about my way of working. These extra insights motivated me to not just translate the original Dutch book into English, but revise and expand it. It was released in English under the title Stuck? Dealing with Organizational Trauma.
The English edition opened a new door. In the time since, I’ve been sent manuscripts by people who also recognize the theme, as academics and/or as colleagues practicing in this same field. And that again led to new insights ...
The origins of organizational trauma
In this blog, I build on one of the concepts from my book: the origins of organizational trauma. These origins can be very diverse and are important in order to track down trauma and to tackle the phenomenon. I have noticed that the extent to which the proverbial ‘trauma knot’ is stuck seems to depend on the origin. This is the structure I used in the both books:
The origins of trauma are either internal or external. You could think about an extreme, highly radical internal reorganization with a lot of dismissals, or externally about something like a terrorist attack.
The origins of trauma can be acute or develop little by little. The analogy here is an explosion as opposed to a toxic management style that drags on for years.
Without wanting to generalize, I have noticed that the ‘trauma knot’ is more difficult to undo in certain circumstances. If I were to order the four categories from difficult to extremely difficult - based on my counselling work of the last years - I would opt for the following:
Sudden & External: As there is a clearly defined moment and its origins are external, it is a good deal easier for an organization to recognize an overwhelming incident and tackle it. The connectedness required for the healing process often appears spontaneously.
Sudden & Internal: If the organization immediately succeeds in doing what needs to be done - as in the Sudden & External categorie - it’s possible to avoid the formation of a ‘trauma knot’. Over the years, I’ve noticed that a complete lack of response or inadequate response may have a more nefarious effect than the incident itself. I once worked for an organization that did not adequately respond to a theft suffered by one of the employees. As a result, the team has fallen apart since then. Correctly handling these sorts of incidents is therefore a combination of courage and trauma-informed leadership, which means knowing how this can wreak havoc on the culture and the relationships within an organization.
Little by little – External: A ‘trauma knot’ that is formed gradually by external provocations is even more difficult. It makes you think about the fable of the boiling frog that doesn't jump out of the water that is heating little by little and so stays in the water until it reaches boiling temperature. ‘This is how it is here,’ is how it’s often expressed and what you often hear. New employees or outsiders (the un-boiled frogs from the metaphor) immediately feel that something isn’t right. The question is whether they dare to say something about it. I suspect that certain teams or organizations develop a toxic culture in this manner. If you notice that new employees leave your organization before they find their proper place, it may be an indication of this sort of situation. As this kind of issue does not often appear on the radar, it may eventually become ingrained in the DNA of an organization, making it extremely difficult to overcome.
Little by little – Internal: Toxic and nauseating dynamics can become the norm, nestling themselves in the culture of an organization as in the previously mentioned metaphor of the boiling frog. In this case, it is a lot more difficult to make the organization healthy again. When I come across such a situation, I notice, above all, that people often expect a magical solution. In this case, I refer to the insights from the work of Joost Kampen: ‘The restoration of a neglected organization takes just as long as the neglect itself.’
Estimating how tight the ‘trauma knot’ is
As such, my approach depends on the perceived tightness of the ‘trauma knot’. Step by step, I come to a guiding ordering out of which a suitable approach can be developed. It is especially important for all involved parties that there is clarity about what is needed to make a positive difference in the case of organizational trauma. And, keep in mind that there often is a real temptation to suggest the state of affairs is better than it actually is. After exploring the current situation, I come to the following well-considered strategies:
There is no sign of organizational trauma. In this case, it would be strange to talk about healing. In short: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Counselling or organizational coaching may still be needed and relevant, but then without any link to trauma.
At least one clearly defined incident has taken place. As a result the organization or a part of the organization is still stuck in time. It’s possible to make a quick, targeted start in this circumstance.
There have been multiple incidents. They are not linked to each other and as such, no one has been able to be deal with them. You could think of this as a length of rope with several knots in it that you can calmly untie, one by one.
A series of incidents and/or circumstances have created a cluster and, it is not easy to separate incidents from each other. Think of this as being a length of rope with knots on top of knots, or of a fine, gold necklace that has ended up completely knotted.
An important factor to take into account when considering trauma is the number of resources that are present in the organization. If the directors of an organization are unstable or emotionally unavailable, working with a clearly defined incident will be a lot more difficult than when the directors are emotionally healthy adults.
Although Daniël Goleman set emotional intelligence as a defining factor for leadership, it is still not often a selection criterion when recruiting managers and/or directors …
Working with a clearly defined incident
In the past few years, as a counsellor of organizational trauma, I’ve found myself in various situations. And in the case of one-off incidents (see Point 2 above), a certain approach has begun to emerge. I’ll first make an analogy with individual trauma. If you work with an individual who suffers from a clearly identifiable traumatic incident, the basic approach is to:
Identify the incident;
Understand where the pain is or what has had a traumatizing effect—because that is not always the incident itself (see below);
Offer a healing space to allow the channelling of the complex emotions. They may still be stuck in time and need to be channelled without being flooded or overwhelmed again;
Giving meaning to the incident. In the best case, this may all lead to post-traumatic growth or an enriched personality.
There are numerous effective approaches of therapy - some of which are very physical - that come into consideration for this. However, not all of them are suitable for use in organizations and/or with groups. This forces us to develop methods that work with groups in organizations.
Working with a timeline—see my book "Trauma in Organisaties or Stuck? Dealing with Organizational Trauma" —appears to be a good method to track down one or more incidents. By feeling the energy while you’re working with the group, you can track down where the organization is still stuck.
Working with organizations over the years, I’ve learnt that there is also an analytic component. It is extremely helpful for people with whom you work to get a clear reflection of where the pain is. This is perhaps best clarified with an example; please note that for reasons of readability and confidentiality, the case below cannot be presented in full.
An example from the practice
A while ago, we were invited by the principal of an elementary school. She had read my book and contacted me to ask whether I could help the school with the situation it was in. After an exploratory discussion, it became clear that there was a single, clearly defined incident which the school was stuck on. We also noticed that, while meeting her, the principal had everything she needed to create a healing space.
The incident in question had led to an ongoing conflict between the school and the parents of one of the students, at that moment in time. As a result of powerlessness, the parents went to the local press and the school appeared in the news in a very negative light. This led to a negative image in the town and the school environment, resulting in an extreme drop in the number of new students and subsequently, the forced dismissal of a number of teachers.
When we took the time to explore this a little deeper, it did not appear as though the response of the parents or the role of the press was the most traumatizing element; it was the role played by the umbrella organization of the school:
The umbrella organization decreed that all communication about the incident needed to run via them. It was forbidden, as a school, to react to any allegations.
As a result, all the teachers were ‘muzzled’. They were basically being judged without the opportunity to defend themselves or that was how they experienced it.
Before and after the incident, there was a high turnover of school principals, directed by the umbrella organization, as a result of which the school kept flailing about. This led to the fact that there was no net to catch the distraught teachers, students and parents.
The school was audited and received a negative result. However, with no support to improve the points needing attention, they had to arrange everything themselves. It seemed as if no one wanted to get their hands dirty.
When we were able to come to a standstill and recognize all this, a sense of peace settled over the group. This recognition was necessary to move on. There was further work done with the school on the basis of this meeting, but the intervention had already led to a turning point that opened the door to healing.
The somatic and analytic component of recognition
By working with clearly defined incidents. We learn, step by step, that the door to healing will open if there are a number of conditions present:
There must be an adequate number of people—sometimes a single person is all that’s needed—who can create a ‘holding space’. These are people within the organization who, under great pressure, can stay in contact with their own centre and therefore offer room for complex emotions, without wanting to repress them. An important role for you as a counsellor is to ensure that these people can stay in this frame of mind.
You must be able to raise and/or recognize the incident the organization is stuck on. This is where your physical awareness as a counsellor —the somatic component—is of crucial importance. Fine-tune your body to the ‘system energy’ of teams and individuals and you’ll take in information about the systems with which you work. When doing this kind of work, your body is your most important source of information. During some sessions you have been facilitating, you've probably already noticed kind of a knot in your stomach or a proverbial drop in temperature in the room after something was said. Learning to use these sensations as information is an important component when working with groups.
Consequently, it seems like there is a more analytical component that also plays a part in being able to identify the exact location of the pain that has led to the trauma becoming ‘stuck’. In the example described above, it is the presence and the implicit ‘bias’ of the umbrella organization.
Working with organizational trauma involves using your head while still listening to gut feelings. For this reason, it is vital that you, as a counsellor, continue to develop and deepen your knowledge, skills and insights through education, literature and self-examination. You’ll increase the sensitivity of your ‘trauma radar’ as a result.
Would you like to go for a deep dive in this work, start reading "Stuck? Dealing With Organizational Trauma." You can buy or download the book via AMAZON. At this moment I'm also facilitating several trainings in Belgium and The Netherlands on this topic. International workshops are under construction. Feel free to connect with me if you'd like to plan a workshop or event on this topic.
This blog has been co-created and reviewed by Leanne Steeghs and Lies Lambert.