Stuck in time? An invitation to deal with loss, trauma, and grief.
Updated: Feb 10, 2021
There is a way not to run social systems, and if you look around you will find several examples. Just browsing through some books and articles brings the following to the surface:
“80% of reorganizations fail to deliver the hoped-for value in the time planned.”
“10% of reorganizations cause real damage to the company.”
“Most of the time, reorganizations are miserable experiences for employees. The uncertainty they provoke about the future often causes greater stress and anxiety than layoffs.”
“In about 60% of cases, reorganizations lead to noticeably reduced productivity.“
”94% of executives are dissatisfied with their firms’ innovation performance, despite all the spending.”
”The workplace profoundly affects human health and mortality, and too many workplaces are harmful to people’s health — people are literally ‘dying for a paycheck’.”
“88% of people feel they work for an organization that does not care about them.”
“70 % of people are disengaged.”
Even more data and facts will not change the experience of employees. Only opening up for their experience and acknowledging it will. This article is an invitation to see the well-being of employees as an early-warning mechanism for the overall health of an organization. When leading a social system, proactivity means acting on so-called ‘weak signals’ rather than waiting until unhealed losses and organizational trauma show up in the share price, the profit forecast or customer turnover. How can we move beyond the mechanistic, quick-fix paradigm and start embracing the fact that social systems can’t be fixed when healing is needed.
“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between
how nature works and the way people think.”
Stuck in time
An ever-faster changing world makes for faster cycles of attachment and detachment. When people or teams are confronted with overwhelming events or toxic conditions, complex emotions develop such as sadness, frustration, insecurity, embarrassment, anger, and fear. Many people have already had to deal with the effect of these accelerating cycles:
Just by experiencing more change than they can cope with.
Because they never learned to deal with the accompanying emotions.
Because these types of processes receive limited guidance in organizations.
Painstaking attempts to avoid these complex emotions will not succeed and certainly not in a world full of challenges, growing complexity, and changes. It's clear that the current COVID-pandemic is triggering unhealed wounds in people, teams, and companies. Not dealing with these emotions will lead to rigidity, most of the time a symptom of the fact that people, teams, or even the whole company are getting stuck in time.
It is important to know that unprocessed emotions do not disappear, even though they might no longer be ‘visible’. They actually become encapsulated and nestle down in the deeper layers of the organization, slowly and remorselessly eroding the resilience of an organization. You could compare these encapsulated emotions with pharmaceutical soft capsules, whose contents only come free with water. The development of these capsules leads to rigidity, but why?
People will try to avoid situations, people or work that might tear open those capsules;
Tons of energy are getting lost in the ‘management’ of these capsules. This can and does exhaust people;
A pattern of avoidance, denial, suppression will start unfolding;
Together with those complex emotions, parts of people and their corresponding capabilities are also getting stuck in these capsules. And these capabilities will only be available again when we make room for mourning and healing. Unfortunately, companies are not very good at mourning or allowing space for emotions. So, companies end up in an interesting paradox: a complex, fast-changing and challenging world will lead to more complex emotions. So even more energy and capabilities could get stuck in time and at the same moment, companies need the full potential of people and teams.
So, when looking for resilience but bumping into rigidity, it’s time to go one step further than quick-fixes. Learning to deal with complex emotions will be necessary to keep organizations healthy. It’s as logical as regularly cleaning a fish tank.
Time for healing
When confronted with rigidity or irrational dynamics, when much-needed capabilities seem to be stuck in time, it’s time to stop pushing forward, stop repeating the big “why?” or building a “burning platform”. Exactly these patterns could be an invitation - or a cry for help - to look back and figure out where people or teams are still stuck in time. But how?
When healing is needed, you can reveal where a social system is still stuck in time with exactly the same approach, inspired by the Spanish ‘Descansos Ritual’. A 'descanso' is a cross placed on a spot where someone lost their lives in a violent or unexpected way. Everywhere in the world, you’ll see these crosses by the side of the road where someone lost his or her life.
Building a timeline to support healing, means going through the history of the organization (or the entity with which you are working) and mapping the ‘descansos’ along a timeline. This joint exploration usually makes a number of things clear:
What events or time periods still need healing?
What events were swept under the carpet although still impacting the current way-of-working?
What kind of acknowledgment or healing is still necessary?
Who is still stuck in time and still attached to a certain event or time period?
What events have been carefully processed?
“Research suggests that what has happened to people matters less,
than whether they’ve processed what happened to them.”
Lindsay C. Gibson
Go slow to go fast
When exploring the past of a social system you will bump into unhealed, complex emotions. It’s important to be aware of the fact that these emotions are encapsulated for a good reason. Never fight the coping mechanism of people. This will lead to re-activation or re-traumatization. Emotions get encapsulated because at that moment of time the people that got impacted and the people that could or should have supported them, were not willing or not capable to deal with those emotions. If - in the meantime - they haven’t developed the capabilities to deal with complex emotions the coping mechanism will just do what it is used to do and no healing will take place.
So, there is a huge difference between ‘fixing’ and ‘healing’, and exactly in these cases, it will make the difference. Fixing is an outside-in intervention. Something is broken and an expert knows how to fix it. Healing is an inside-out intervention. You can only create a safe or holding space (cfr. the work of Heather Plett) that supports the inside-out healing process. The quality of the healing process will be linked to the quality of the holding space. Pretty challenging for the fixing nature of the corporate world.
“A fool with a tool still remains a fool”
R. Buckminster Fuller
Building a healing timeline can be done in multiple ways, depending on the healing phase you're in:
Designing your approach can be done based on the following principles:
If you’re still exploring the social system (= phase 1), you can build a timeline by doing interviews throughout the company without mentioning the fact that you are building a timeline. This will help you figure out where healing is still needed without confronting the company with this need from the beginning.
Try to figure out the current capacity to deal with complex emotions of all parties you want to involve. Think about the expression of complex emotions, the capacity for emotion regulation, the capacity to open up, to contain, to hold and to acknowledge emotions.
Monitor the quality of the relationship between the parties you want to involve. You can’t bring together parties that are still stuck in a conflicted relationship without preparing them for such an intervention. Bumping into unhealed aspects of their shared history will re-acivate the conflict and generate deeper wounds.
Be very alert for drama-dynamics. If people are still fully identified with a fixed position in the drama triangle - victim, persecutor, rescuer - it’s unsafe to bring them together around a timeline. You’ll need to prepare them for such a ritual.
By wanting to fix things in a fast way, chances are high that you will just activate the coping and/or survival mechanisms of a social system. This will lead to more rigidity, bigger distances between the parties involved, and even more encapsulated emotions.
What are you looking for?
Based on the building blocks mentioned above you will design a timeline ritual with a well-defined group of people. You can work with one person, a small group of people, or even a larger group of people. And you can work with a homogeneous group of people if safety and common understanding will be crucial to create a safe environment or work with a more heterogeneous group of people when a mutual acknowledgment is necessary to support healing. Healing seems to be more of a relational process than an individual process.
Start by explaining what you plan to do. Giving a clear structure helps to avoid feelings of unsafety, shame, or fear. Exactly those emotions will activate coping-mechanisms instead of opening the space for vulnerability.
Choose a long, clear wall to work on, or free up the floor. It helps to make the timeline visible with a long strip of tape. Then give clear instructions so that people feel solid and supported. Use the questions that best suit the situation:
Were there significant events, reorganizations, relocations, mergers, etc.? Are they still having an effect today?
How has the organization changed or evolved over the years? Did everyone grow and develop together or did some people get stuck?
What or who have you lost on the way? What or who is still missing today?
Have any people, goals, products, departments, functions or values been let go, or did any join? What effect did either ‘movement’ have?
Do you still have your first customers? Or did the target group change? Was that a conscious decision? How did this happen?
Were there products, services or activities that were harmful and, possibly, caused accidents?
Where in the past was there any severe accident, crime or injustice?
Who or what was insufficiently acknowledged, honored, rewarded or compensated?
Then let people form pairs – a safe intermediate step – and share what they have found to be impressive or overwhelming during their time in the organization. Use large post-it notes or colored A4 paper to write it down.
Then place all the different moments on the timeline. Start at the beginning and work forward to the present moment. People will bring in what they feel ready for or feel safe with. Maybe not everything will come up. This is not something you can force.
You can add some balance by asking about events in the organization’s history that people are proud of. This is a way to manage emotions. But take care though, that you do not use this to gloss over or nuance the unhealed history. Sometimes people must face up to the stark reality of a situation in order to fully take in its impact. It helps if you consciously limit the opportunity for nuance. By doing this, you will notice when a certain moment (from the past) is still alive or at what stage of healing it is.
The healing work starts there and then …
Anthony, S., Cobban, P. & Painchaud N.: “Breaking down the Barriers to Innovation” in Harvard Business Review - Nov/Dec 2019
Bailleur, Philippe: “Stuck? Dealing with Organizational Trauma.”
Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D: “Now Discover your Strengths.”
Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D. & Stavros, J.: “Appreciative Inquiry Handbook”
Gallup - 2017 - “State of the American Workplace Report”
Gibson, L. C.: “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents.”
Heath, Dan: "Upstream. The Quest to Solve Problems before they Happen."
Heidari-Robinson, S. & H. Suzanne: “Getting Reorgs Right.” in Harvard Business Review - Nov/Dec 2016
Pfeffer, Jeffrey: “Dying for a Paycheck.”
Plett, Heather: "The Art of Holding Space."
Tate, William: "The Search for Leadership."