Organizational Trauma: The Unacknowledged Trauma That May Be Impacting Your Organization More Than You Realize

Trauma is an occupational reality in high human impact (HHI) organizations: primary trauma, vicarious trauma, critical incident stress, and moral injury just to name a few.

Just as these traumas impact individuals, there’s another trauma we rarely mention. A pervasive trauma that impacts organizations across HHI sectors. An unrecognized trauma.

Organizational trauma.

What is organizational trauma, and why aren’t we talking about it?

Many HHI organizations are (generally unwittingly) contributing to the trauma experienced by their workforce.

And we aren’t talking about it enough.

Which I understand. I do. It can be hard for mission-driven organizations that are charged with serving and protecting vulnerable human beings to get on board with the idea that existing policies or practices, or the demanding nature of the organization’s work itself, might be traumatizing the organization as whole and causing their people and culture to suffer.

Leaders in HHI organizations may even feel resentful, wondering why their employees insist on complaining when the organization is providing wellness programs and other “perks” and opportunities that employees in the organization don’t seem to be taking advantage of. But all the perks and programs and opportunities can’t have the desired impact as long as root issues continue to remain unacknowledged and unresolved within the organization.

Even with the best of intentions, organizational trauma can take root.

Whether it’s a lack of transparency, which leaves people guessing. Top-down issues that don’t take account of the workforce and its needs. Perceptions of inequity or unfairness in the workplace. Or outdated policies and procedures. The impact of this cumulative trauma, which often goes unaddressed, results in the entire system becoming traumatized.

And often we’re simply so busy working to meet the mission — that we stop noticing that things aren’t right within the organization itself. Over time organizational trauma is woven into the fabric of the culture until it simply becomes the norm.

Redesigning cultures of organizational trauma.

That’s the not-so-great news. The better news is that, using principles of equity-centered culture design, we can reset and redesign once traumatized cultures, transforming them into resilient cultures steeped in psychological safety and well-being.

Here’s how to get started:

Figure out where the organization is right now.

Not where you think it is, but where it really, truly is when it comes to organizational trauma. You have to have the facts and understand the current lay of the land before you can devise an effective plan.

Acknowledge organizational history.

This can be hard; organizational amnesia is common. And naturally none of us like to think about times when we could have done better but haven’t.

However, acknowledging the mistakes of the past is an integral step to healing and the key to creating a more compassionate future.

Strengthen the core identity and align organizational values.

Revisit the organization’s core identity — not just in relation to the people you serve but in relation to the people who serve as well — and use it as a foundation for aligning back to organizational values.

Create processes that serve the people in your organization.

Start creating scaffolding and structure to support new processes that will serve the people working for your organization. And don’t forget to get buy-in from the whole team, not just the person in charge of implementing any new processes.

Promote organizational spirit.

Find ways to nurture organizational spirit, and foster a sense of belonging among your team. You’re all working towards the same mission and experiencing many of the same challenges and stresses along the way; you truly are all in it together. So do what you can to create a sense of equity, belonging and connection that makes everyone feel seen, heard and valued.

Remember: Designing a culture that moves away from organizational trauma towards psychological safety starts from the top down.

Finally — and crucially — make sure that the entire leadership team is on board and understands the role they can play in supporting their people. When you have leadership buy-in, when the people at the top understand how organizational trauma impacts not just the workforce, but the bottom line, it becomes infinitely easier to introduce lasting change.

So encourage all leaders to model kindness, gratitude, compassion, and healthy boundaries.

Organizational trauma is common, particularly across HHI sectors, but it isn’t inevitable or permanent. Recognizing it and acknowledging it can be hard, but it can also be the most significant way to improve not just the lives of your workforce, but of the people your organization is designed to serve, too.

What is your organization doing to create a more compassionate, human-centered culture? I’d love to hear about it. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Visual Storyteller, Culture Designer, Writer, and Founder of Roots in the Clouds, LLC