Conversation in workplace

How to Handle Trauma in Your Organization

Antioch professor Shana Hormann advises organizations and leaders on the collective experience of trauma—its impacts and how to build resilience.

Like humans, organizations can experience trauma—and its very real side effects. This trauma can be internal or external, and if it is left untreated, it can affect an organization for years to come. Antioch University professor Shana Hormann, PhD, MSW, is on the faculty of the Graduate School of Leadership and Change, where she also serves as the senior academic program developer. For the past 20 years, she has researched organizational trauma and consulted for numerous organizations that have experienced a traumatic event, including nonprofits, governmental organizations, and private companies.

In addition to her work on organizational trauma, Hormann also consults on leadership development, indigenous empowerment, and building organizational resilience. An expert on interpersonal violence, Hormann originally began working with victims of sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence, but became interested in organizational trauma after seeing how Seattle Rape Relief handled internal and external trauma. As the center was closing, Hormann and her future co-author, Pat Vivian, did a case study of the organization, and asked the vital question: “Do you think it’s possible for a whole organization to be traumatized?”

The answer, from the following 20 years of research, was a resounding “yes.” Since then, the pair has authored a book, Organizational Trauma and Healing. Both have consulting practices that have helped dozens of companies recover from trauma. By working closely with affected teams in the aftermath of a traumatic event, Hormann and Vivian help organizations make sense of their experiences, cope with and recover from, harmful dynamics. “The work on organization trauma shifted the focus for each of us and gave us the additional lens of organizational trauma when working with clients,” says Hormann.

What is organizational trauma?

According to Hormann, “organizational trauma is an injury to the body of the organization.” This can be a single devastating event, such as a school shooting or the sudden death of a client, or a longer-term toxicity problem, such as abusive leadership or an on-going negative community response to the work and/or mission of an organization.

Hormann also notes that trauma can develop from the nature of an organization’s work in and of itself. “Cumulative trauma builds in an organization from the empathic nature of the work that they do. For example, at most mental health clinics and homeless shelters, staff members are tasked with being empathetic with clients,” she says. “They are exposed to a lot of traumatic material and may develop compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. Anxiety and trauma are contagious and contribute to devastating dynamics among the staff of some organizations.”

What are the effects of trauma?

Though every organization is unique, there are patterns that many companies facing organizational trauma fall into. “One thing you see is closed boundaries, between the organization and the outside community, and sometimes there is fracturing within those closed boundaries,” says Hormann. Team members will be tempted to focus primarily on insider relationships because they will feel that only others who have been through this trauma can truly understand it. However, warns Hormann, “anxiety and stress are contagious, and if you are focused only on insider relations, that stress and anxiety builds and builds.”

Some teams will also develop depression or a distorted sense of self. “Teams will believe that how they thought about themselves is inaccurate,” says Hormann. “They’ll think, we did everything we could, followed our policies and worked hard, and now our client believes we have failed them and are going to the press. They believe that how they thought about themselves is inaccurate.” With this distorted sense of self can come hopelessness and depression. “I listen to how leaders and staff members describe their organization’s culture,” says Hormann. “I listen for words like, ‘afraid’ and ‘angry,’ and also for words of hope, like ‘excited’ and ‘challenging.’” By listening for these patterns, organizations can discover what most needs healing.

How can organizations heal?

Strong leadership is key to helping an organization find its way through a traumatic event. “You need energetic leadership that keeps its eye on the vision and mission,” says Hormann. “That kind of leadership can take a team through a lot. It can help a team come back when money has been cut, or when there’s been a death.” A strong leader understands how to champion the organization’s strengths, and models both compassion for what was lost and the will to move forward.

The good news is there are many leaders who are very committed to the work they do and Hormann says she has worked with them across industries. “Whether it’s a principal in a school, an executive director of a nonprofit, or a team lead in a large for-profit,” she says, “many people are very committed to their work and their employees.” However, she recommends that all leaders learn as much as they can about organizational trauma, before the need arises. “You don’t see many leaders fail, but you do see many who make the work harder because they don’t know what to do,” says Hormann. “Leaders who know something about organizational trauma know how to contain the impact and know how to help their team move forward.” Interested leaders will want to read Organizational Trauma and Healing, of course, and Hormann also suggests the work of Charles Figley, Howard Stein, William Kahn, and John Violanti.

Telling the story of the trauma is key for team members at all levels. “They need to name their trauma,” says Hormann. “We just lost someone we love and it was too soon. We just had a board member fire our executive director and we know what that person was doing and the board member didn’t, and now we are suffering. When you name that trauma, you normalize it.” At any level, Hormann encourages teammates not to close off their borders. “I encourage people not to shut down. Teams want to hunker down and wrap themselves around each other to take care of each other, but you don’t want to close your borders solidly for too long. Create some openness. Trauma creates isolation; healing requires a connection. ”

Moreover, Hormann suggests that most organizations can survive trauma. “Not every organization that experiences trauma will become traumatized,” says Hormann. “Leaders may avoid embedding trauma and making it a part of their organization’s process by responding quickly. Organizations, like people, can move through trauma and can build and strengthen resilience.”