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What is Organizational Trauma?

This week's Friday Study comes from the National Sexual Assault Coalition's Resource Sharing Project, and is adapted from Organizational Trauma and Healing by Pat Vivian and Shana Hormann (2013).

Many of our member organizations provide services to, and advocate for, traumatized individuals, families and/or communities. This work requires deep empathy, and "compassion fatigue" is a topic deservedly getting increased attention (a Google search yields 14.8 million results. "Self care" returns 2.26 billion hits). The issues that arise from deep integration with traumatized communities are often viewed as interpersonal or intra-personal, however, trauma can be deeply embedded within an organization's culture. 

We offer the following information as a conversation starting point for your organization. Next week, we'll share more information about the symptoms of organizational trauma and what you can do to address it. You can read ahead with the full article here. 

Trauma can affect organizations just as it affects individuals, families, and communities. And just as silence and lack of understanding about trauma hurts individuals, so too does it hurt organizations. Looking at trauma from an organizational perspective helps in a few ways. It complements individual experience by exposing the systems and structures that influence individuals. Organizational self-care enhances individual self-care, by creating a healthy environment for individuals. Organizational self-knowledge helps with survival in tough times, as we can draw on knowledge of our strengths, resources, and patterns, to assess and strategize. 

Organizations are simply groups of people organized for a common purpose. As we form organizations, we form unique culture and habits that shape—and is shaped by—the emotional experience of each member. Organizational culture is made of our stated values (like the mission statement), mental models (the habits and assumptions we make about our work, communication, and each other), and artifacts (such as the policy and procedure manual). All organizations form habits, and habits greatly influence the organizational culture. If we don’t intentionally create good habits, bad habits will naturally form.

Organizational culture is reinforced when newcomers learn and adopt the prevailing
values, beliefs, and language of the culture. Organizational culture gives us:

  • Core character and uniqueness
  • Collective identity and home for members
  • Shared knowledge and language
  • Norms, values and standards
  • Personality and spirit
  • Creation story and rationale for organization’s existence
  • Relationship of the organization to society
  • Guidance on the way the work is done

Organizational culture is bigger than any one person, and the culture (and trauma) lives on through agency transitions and staff changes. In all organizations, there are lifecycles, crises, and potential for trauma. Lifecycles are normal developmental stages of organizational growth and change, such as expansion of staff or transition from a membership-based to community-based board of directors. Crises are disruptive
occurrences that create anxiety, uncertainty, and opportunity, like the departure of a longterm executive director or loss of a funding stream. Traumas debilitate an organization, temporarily or long term. Organizational trauma may come from one of four sources:

  • Single catastrophic event: Sudden events like a natural disaster that damages the office, financial embezzlement, or the unexpected death of a colleague can destabilize the organizational culture and its coping strategies.
  • Ongoing wounding: When there is racism or other oppression happening within the organization, some employees are harmed on a daily basis. A hostile relationship with the community can leave an organization feeling hyper-vigilant and constantly under attack.
  • Redemptive nature of the work: this work is about changing society and ending sexual violence. This can often feel overwhelming and can become demoralizing.
  • Empathic nature of the work: our work demands that we open up our hearts to the pain of sexual violence survivors. The cumulative experience of vicarious trauma can affect organizational culture and aggravate both personal and organizational trauma.

What might be a normal life cycle for one agency can become a trauma for another,
particularly if there is unaddressed trauma or other stressors present.

Anti-violence organizations like coalitions are at particular risk for organizational trauma caused by the redemptive and empathic nature of our work. Our daily work activities create an intense environment, and the fact that passionate advocates are drawn to coalition work or tends to heighten that intensity. Often, the organizational culture adds to the intensity, through the demands of our workload and the way we communicate with one another. The intensity of our organizational culture is part of our strength, but it also creates risk for organizational trauma.

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