Collectively, we’ve moved beyond stress and are now dealing with trauma. While stress can be intense and unbalancing, it’s temporary and doesn’t rob you of your sense of control. Trauma, however, takes away your sense of safety and security. It can leave not just individuals, but entire organizations, feeling helpless, unstable, and unsure of their survival.
Of course, the pandemic is not the only cause of organizational trauma. It can be triggered by workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, a terrible workplace injury, the unexpected death of a coworker, a cyber hack, or fraud committed by a trusted leader. (I personally experienced the effects of organizational trauma after a disgruntled employee shot and killed three people at the hospital I led in 2009.)
However trauma manifests, it impacts organizations in predictable and harmful ways. Your employees, culture, and productivity will all suffer, perhaps irreparably. Here are seven employee behaviors that indicate you’ve moved into trauma territory:
People start spreading rumors. Everyone’s talking about what happened, but there are almost as many narratives as there are employees. Each person’s opinions, experiences, and relationships shape the story they believe.
They play the blame game. Some people will speculate and point fingers. Why didn’t anyone see this coming? Couldn’t leaders have handled it better? You may find that blame is attached to people who were not causal agents, or who might have been victims themselves.
They beat themselves up. Instead of blaming others, some people will grapple with guilt. I should have noticed something wasn’t right. I could have come forward sooner. Why didn’t I lose my job too?
Leaders communicate poorly. They may not initially provide the clear, transparent information employees crave in times of uncertainty. (Sometimes this is due to confidentiality issues.) This communication vacuum allows the rumors that are arising to really catch fire.
People take sides. In the wake of organizational trauma, polarization naturally occurs. For instance, one faction might believe that leadership neglected safety training and is thus to blame for a workplace accident. Another group may be convinced that the injured worker was at fault.
You detect a sense of shame. Employees who were once proud of their company often feel that their work and accomplishments have been tarnished by what happened. They may seem ashamed of the organization’s new reputation, whether that’s internal or external.
Eventually, people get strangely quiet. No one seems to want to talk about what happened—maybe because it’s too painful or because they fear repercussions. But when trauma isn’t addressed, teamwork and collaboration break down. Trust disintegrates. Feelings of shame, guilt, and resentment silently grow.
If you recognize these signs of organizational trauma, act now. Unaddressed trauma can destroy your company. The good news is, it doesn’t have to happen. There are resources (including Trauma to Triumph, the book I coauthored with Mark Goulston, MD) that provide the tools to not only navigate trauma, but prepare for it before it happens.
With a good understanding of how organizational trauma manifests—and the right systems in place help people process it—your culture doesn’t have to be irreparably damaged. In fact, your company can emerge stronger and better than before.
Dr. Diana Hendel is the coauthor along with Mark Goulston, MD, FAPA of Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, March 2021) and Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020). She is an executive coach and leadership consultant, former hospital CEO, and the author of Responsible: A Memoir, a riveting and deeply personal account of leading during and through the aftermath of a deadly workplace trauma.
About the Book:
Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, March 2021, ISBN: 978-1-4002-2837-9, $17.99) is available from major online booksellers.