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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Briefing - The Hidden Toll: How Organizational Trauma Stifles Productivity and Sabotages the Mission

CEO Briefing

The Hidden Toll: How Organizational Trauma Stifles Productivity and Sabotages the Mission

Dimple Dhabalia

In the quest for higher profits and increased productivity, organizations often review market trends, optimize efficiencies, and fine-tune operations. Yet, behind every profit margin and productivity metric lies an often overlooked factor: organizational trauma–silently draining resources, stifling potential, and sabotaging the organization’s ability to effectively meet its mission.

As human beings operating in a world filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, we’ve come to understand that trauma is an inevitable part of the human experience. It is an embodiment of the challenging and painful experiences we encounter at the individual, team, organizational, and community levels that wound our body, mind, or spirit. Now imagine an organization as a living entity. When trauma strikes an organization, it’s akin to a severe injury—a fracture to underlying systems that may not be immediately visible but profoundly affects the organization’s overall health.

Noticing the Water We Swim In

Organizational trauma isn’t a visible wound or a quantifiable metric on a financial report. Instead, it’s an accumulation of unresolved conflicts, dysfunctional leadership, real or perceived inequities, or the lingering aftermath of unacknowledged events like layoffs, furloughs, scandals, workplace violence, or other severe workplace setbacks that wound the body of the organization at the systemic level and contribute to the creation and perpetuation of toxic workplace cultures.

In organizational trauma work we often share a story in which two young fishes are swimming along and as they pass an older fish he asks, “how’s the water?” The two fishes continue swimming until one looks at the other and asks: “what the heck is water?”

In traumatized environments employees struggle to focus, fear, anxiety, mistrust, and a pervasive sense of uncertainty are often palpable, and perfectionism is the standard to which employees are held, with no tolerance for mistakes. Any one of these things could negatively impact workplace culture; however, what makes this way of operating particularly insidious is that over time it becomes the “water” within which the workforce is swimming–often without even realizing it–hindering collaboration, innovation, and engagement.

Understanding the Costs of Organizational Trauma  

Consider a scenario where an organization downsizes abruptly, leaving a trail of fear and uncertainty among the remaining employees. If leadership fails to acknowledge the emotional fallout, communicate transparently, or provide adequate support, the resulting trauma lingers, breeding resentment, disengagement and fodder for the rumor mill.

As employees spend valuable time navigating the uncertainty and office politics, and managing the stress, shame and moral injury common in these types of situations, they struggle to perform at their best as their attention is diverted from their actual work, leading to a domino effect on overall productivity. One critical aspect of organizational trauma is silence. It festers when unresolved issues are swept under the rug in the name of maintaining appearances or ignored to avoid uncomfortable conversations.

The unaddressed trauma and lack of transparency perpetuate a cycle of dysfunction, eating away at morale and stifling growth. Moreover, traumatized work environments often drive talented individuals away, leading to a high turnover rate. The financial cost of hiring and training replacements, coupled with the loss of institutional knowledge, deals a hefty blow to the company’s bottom line.

Making a Strategic Investment

Addressing organizational trauma isn’t just a moral imperative; it’s a long-term strategic investment in the company’s success. Organizations that create human-centered cultures and prioritize healing and fostering a healthy work environment, witness tangible improvements in performance metrics over time.

While organizational trauma is often rooted in systemic issues, human-centered leadership grounded in transparent communication, curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths, is essential for navigating through, and healing these wounds. Leaders can do this by creating brave spaces to build trust and psychological safety through open dialogue, acknowledging past trauma, and normalizing support systems like counseling, mentorship programs, or regular check-ins into their team culture.

It’s important for individuals and organizations to remember that healing organizational trauma isn’t a quick fix. It requires sufficient time and resources to foster a culture of transparency and courageous communication, where employees feel seen, heard, and valued. But this cannot be accomplished as long organizations believe that simply checking a box or providing one-off well-being initiatives or training programs is enough.

Without a willingness to address root issues or acknowledge the human element, organizational culture will remain toxic and perpetually stuck in trauma. It’s only by acknowledging and actively healing organizational trauma, that companies can pave the way for a healthier, more resilient workforce that is able to more effectively meet the organization’s mission and secure a sustainable future for the organization over the long term.

Written by Dimple Dhabalia.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Briefing - The Hidden Toll: How Organizational Trauma Stifles Productivity and Sabotages the Mission
Dimple Dhabalia
Dimple Dhabalia is a human-centered leadership coach and Roots in the Clouds founder. Dimple is also the author of the #1 bestselling workplace culture book Tell Me My Story: Challenging The Narrative of Service Before Self.

Dimple Dhabalia is an Executive Council member at the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn, for more information, visit the author’s website CLICK HERE.