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How to identify organisational trauma and a strategy to address it

By Shandel McAuliffe | |8 minute read
How To Identify Organisational Trauma And A Strategy To Address It

While most people have an understanding of what trauma is, the term 'organisational trauma' is less well known. Sue Sumskis, the director of professional education programs and the head of mental health at the Nan Tien Institute, explained to HR Leader what organisational trauma is all about.

Ms Sumskis shared on an episode of HR Leader her insights on organisational trauma.

"Organisational trauma is a relational disorder in the form of an organisation. So, it's easy to see that the individuals that are public facing are becoming traumatised, but the relationship between that and the transfer and the contagion back into the organisation, it's just not known about. If organisations knew about it, they could do something about it, but I don't think they know about it," she said.


Explaining how organisational trauma occurs, Ms Sumskis shared "Just as an experience might overwhelm an individual's defensive structure, it can also overwhelm the defensive structure of an organisation, and often in a way for which the organisation is emotionally unprepared. So, it causes the protective emotional membrane to be violated, and that affects trust and affects sense of safety in the organisation. It renders staff feeling temporarily — or maybe longer than temporarily — vulnerable, and certainly helpless."

Highlighting some of the symptoms of a business with organisational trauma, Ms Sumskis said "When the organisation becomes traumatised, it overwhelms the organisation. It wipes out control. The people who had control no longer have control. There's a subversion going on. It wipes out connections between teams, between people, and it also erodes the meaning of the organisation, so the organisation's mission starts to get eroded because the focus is on safety."

"People become anxious and it builds, so the culture becomes wary and distrustful and becomes hypervigilant. So, there's this frozen energy sitting in the organisation. The staff become discontent, they disconnect from the organisation. The organisation is no longer a safe place, and so they disconnect. They criticise the management. It turns around back on the management because they're the ones who should be helping us to feel safe, and they're not. They might not have even seen what's going on. Quarrels start, and this is where you get increasing gossip in areas where people accumulate, making coffee, etc. The conversation will no longer be creatively about the organisation's processes and missions and products; it will be about people and staff," she added.

There is, however, a way to address organisational trauma. Ms Sumskis shared the colourful analogy of dealing with a boil: "The festering boil needs to be lanced, the whole thing, the whole organisation."

Ms Sumskis went on to reveal her own experience dealing with organisational trauma. "There's not a lot of literature at the moment on how to address this, but I have been in a traumatised organisation and I have driven the organisation through the process of recovery ... What we did was we brought in a restorative intervention, a restorative circle, like they use in justice, like restorative justice. So, the principles from restorative justice, we brought in restorative conversations. It was organisation-wide. That organisation at the time was a very small organisation, so we were able to do it. Those that are the most affected come into the circle, into a restorative circle, and a qualified restorative practitioner holds the energy in the circle and facilitates and guides the process, because you've got a powder keg sitting in a room. Conversations are had, each person gets the chance to speak, to empty out, to say what they need to say. It's almost like handing the talking stick around the room."

"I can only speak from experience, but for the next couple of days after that, I was completely wiped out. It was like the bus had run over me, but it was no longer sitting on my chest. Whereas a week before that, the bus had run over me and was still sitting on my chest. The bus was gone, but I was just flat. Then about 7 to 10 days after that, I felt this strange energy in my body. 'Wow,' I thought, 'Oh my God, there's happiness. It's joy.' I noticed a surge in my creativity at work, and I noticed in my colleagues — when I'd sit in the corner and look around — I would see smiles," she elaborated.

"It was like someone had just pulled the plug, and the relief was palpable. The organisation was able to reshape itself, reform itself, and move together in a new direction. But until that [intervention] happened, that was not going to happen. It was going to remain marooned. There may be other approaches out there in literature, but that was one that worked, and it's also based on recovery, and mental health recovery from a mental illness looks very similar as well," Ms Sumskis concluded.

If you suspect your organisation may be affected by organisational trauma, or would like to hear about how you can be trauma responsive, listen to Ms Sumskis's podcast below for more on this important issue.

The transcript of this podcast episode, when quoted above, was slightly edited for publishing purposes. The full conversation with Sue Sumskis is below.

Ms Sumskis shared the below references for listeners who would like to do further reading on this topic:

  • Brown, EH 1997, ‘Improving organisational health by addressing organisational trauma’, Journal of Organisation Change Management, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 175-178.
  • Hormann, S 2007, ‘Organizational Trauma: A phenomenological study of leaders in traumatised organisations’, Dissertations & Theses. https://aura.antioch.edu/etds/184/
  • Hormann, S & Vivian, P 2005, ‘Toward an understanding of traumatised organisations and how to intervene in them,’ Traumatology, vol. 11, no. 3, pp.159-169.
  • Long, S 2012, ‘Trauma as cause and effect of perverse organisational process’, in E Hopper, Ed., Trauma and organisations, New International Library of Group Analysis, Karnac, London, UK
  • Ryan, KD & Oestreich, DK 1998. Driving fear out of the workplace: Creating the high-trust, high-performance organisation, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, USA.



Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel has recently returned to Australia after working in the UK for eight years. Shandel's experience in the UK included over three years at the CIPD in their marketing, marcomms and events teams, followed by two plus years with The Adecco Group UK&I in marketing, PR, internal comms and project management. Cementing Shandel's experience in the HR industry, she was the head of content for Cezanne HR, a full-lifecycle HR software solution, for the two years prior to her return to Australia.

Shandel has previous experience as a copy writer, proofreader and copy editor, and a keen interest in HR, leadership and psychology. She's excited to be at the helm of HR Leader as its editor, bringing new and innovative ideas to the publication's audience, drawing on her time overseas and learning from experts closer to home in Australia.

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