How Do You Address Organizational Trauma?

This week's Friday Study is the final chapter in our series covering Organizational Trauma. This material is from the National Sexual Assault Coalition's Resource Sharing Project, and was adapted from Organizational Trauma and Healing by Pat Vivian and Shana Hormann (2013).

The article shines a light on the issues that frequently hinder either the accomplishment of the mission or sustainability of an organization.  These elements become a part of the culture, eventually being incorporated into value statements, policies, and standards of practice - often times resulting in organizational trauma.  Today's study includes recommendations for organizations addressing organizational trauma. 


There are things we can do to build our resilience against organizational trauma and cope with it when it occurs. A strong core identity, organizational esteem, facilitating structures and processes, hopeful and energetic leadership, and positive connection to peer agencies can all help to protect an organization. We can:

  • Recognize and acknowledge trauma: trauma heals best when we name it and begin to talk about it. Give people time to grieve and process the trauma. Then we can work towards integrating the trauma in affirming and meaningful ways.
  • Ensure safety, contain anxiety, and normalize experience: trust and safety are built on information and consistency. Transparency and communication can do much to contain anxiety. When organizational trauma is the result of cumulative vicarious trauma, providing education and structures to cope with vicarious trauma normalizes the experience and helps employees feel safe and supported.
  • Act as an example: model kindness and compassion in interactions with staff members and other outside organizations.
  • Remember history and interrupt amnesia: in traumatized systems, we often deny or forget the source of trauma, as well as our organizational history and identity.
  • Strengthen organizational identity and esteem: help all employees reconnect to the good in the coalition and the mission. Celebrate victories, however small, and give positive reinforcement to productive communication and interpersonal exchanges.
  • Institute facilitating structures and processes: set expectations for ethical and direct communication. Set time aside and institute systems for dealing with the trauma as a whole organization, such as focused staff meetings (clearly set aside from regular staff meetings), or making counseling available to employees. Ask for outside help when necessary, including perhaps hiring a consultant to help process the trauma.
  • Making meaning: assist the staff in understanding the trauma and making sense out of it. This often can start with having discussions about what we each mean by terms relevant to the trauma and healing. For example, does everyone agree on what “transparent communication” is and what it connotes? Making meaning of the trauma also includes helping staff grieve and understand what the trauma means to them personally and organizationally.
  • Open system to new energy and information: traumatized organizations typically close boundaries, thus blinding themselves to the trends in the outside community and limiting opportunities for learning. Connecting to sister coalitions, TA providers, and other systems in the state/territory can help us get new perspective and renewed energy. 
  • Offer optimism, confidence, and energy: champion organizational strengths and help employees reconnect to the mission of the coalition. In trauma, we can lose sight of our basic vision and skills. Part of the healing and confidence-building is remembering who we are.
  • Set priorities to move forward: how we move forward will vary greatly based on the trauma experienced. It’s important to note that setting a plan for the future is the last step here. Many of the others will happen in various orders or simultaneously, but moving forward only happens successfully after we work to address the trauma itself.

Every organization faces some risk for trauma, and with the nature of our work, it is particularly important for us to be vigilant.  But though we all face the risk of organizational trauma, we all also have resilience and great capacity to prevent organizational trauma and heal from it.

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