Organisational Trauma

The word ‘trauma’ is synonymous to unprocessed emotions that gets stored in the system and we believe that we don’t have access to them. When we encounter a similar experience as in the past, these emotions get active, our beliefs and assumptions around such a similar experience of the past are triggered and that guides our thoughts and actions in the current situation.

While we are so much action driven and not aware that we are being governed by these emotions.  At times, these emotions take over us completely and we are triggered to get into action which might have untasteful consequences. Without diving deep into the inner world and addressing the deep-seated invisible issues in an entity- be it an organization or an individual, any kind of change is impossible. We may carry out work at a tactical level by addressing and shifting a few things on the surface. They might look to us as the immediate cause to be addressed for the effect to be minimized or eradicated. But that’s only a superficial way to deal which fades away with the passage of time

The question here is- Why don’t we access these emotions and where are they hidden? Can organisations have traumatic experiences?

The emotions are hidden in various parts of our body and get triggered when we experience a situation similar to a traumatic experience of the past. Organizations do have traumatic experiences like an individual. If we consider the organization as a living system, and parts of it as the parts of the body, the emotions related to the traumatic experiences get repressed and stored in the parts of organization (structure, systems, processes, policies etc). Organisational trauma is defined as any dysfunctional change in the behavioural patterns at the organisational level. Since the organization holds groups of people, the organisational trauma is like a collective ball of fire holding all the individual traumas, which not only impacts the day to day functioning but also long-term decision making. It impacts the image and identity of the organization and takes it away from the true purpose by impacting the overall growth and development of the organization.

How can we access and process this trauma? All the traumatic experiences can be processed by getting down to the organization’s unconscious because that is where they slip in, in the form of repressed emotions. That is their safe place to hide but they keep running in the background and spoil the work in the foreground. Now all this might sound really confusing. It may put one into thinking…

What’s this unconscious thing all about and how can we reach there?

All that, which is not in our awareness is what is unconscious. We all need to feel safe and protected, organizations also have the need to do so. Over the years and with passing time, the organization starts finding ways to protect and defend itself from any kind of threat or attack (not in the literal sense but anything that questions its identity and makes it feel threatened). These defences are nothing but ways to deal with setbacks, failures, humiliation, disappointment and may be some profound realizations. These defences show up in the forms of:

Repression- Stories about immoral, illegal, or unwanted behaviour are repressed so much so that forgetting the past leads to repetition.

Denial- Refusal of acknowledgement of external realities and internal feelings and emotions.

Projection: Attributing the unaccepted and unacknowledged parts of self to others.

Reaction-formation: This is a way to turn unacceptable feelings and emotions into their opposites. This means the organization may be promoting something as a practice or policy which it actually does not accept or believe in.

Rationalisation: Justifying the act which creates unacceptable feelings of guilt, shame etc.

Displacement: Shifting the burden of unacceptable feelings (like anger) from the person who triggered it to the other. Might be shifting the burden of anger from top management on to the customers.

Regression: This is behaving in a way which is not in sync with the developmental stage. We often use the term, behaving immature.

These defences get live and activated in times of adversity when a trauma is experienced. Considering , a case of lay off , where trauma gets transmitted from people who are laid off to people who remain in organizations. They become secondary victims of trauma. Consequently, the trauma is followed by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and detachment from the common objective, and reduced sense of accomplishment and commitment at the workplace resulting into burn out and dissatisfaction at the workplace, loss of trust and loyalty, transforming an open culture to that of stress and anxiety which further impacts the behaviour.

Crisis are pathways to change . While crisis is disruptive, uncertain and create anxiety, we can work through them to reflect and become aware of our organisational needs, strengths and functioning to be able to access the opportunities that they bring along. The only way to work with trauma is to provide a safe space and compassionate support to grief fully and heal. Healing breaks the dysfunctional behaviour pattern and drives the overall well-being of the organization.


Picture of Ellora Rath

Ellora Rath

Ellora looks at Art as an interdisciplinary subject and is passionate about its application in bringing the creative aspect to the mainstream. She designs and facilitates creative exploration through the aesthetic lens. Motivated by lifelong learning, she identifies herself as an artist at heart and finds her expression as a poet and storyteller.

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