August, 2011

TRAUMA AND ORGANIZATIONS

My Dutch colleague Jan Jacob Stam, author of Fields of Connection, a book about organizations from a systemic perspective, has recently begun to explore the topic of organizational trauma. In a recent article published in the June 2011edition of The Knowing Field: International Constellations Journal, he asks if organizations as well as people can be traumatized. According to a recent highly controversial remark by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, “Organizations are people” at least according to the corporate friendly Supreme Court Justices. Jan Jacob however, is more interested in system than politics and the question of “what exactly is traumatization”? Can a department be traumatized? An organization does not have a body, but can an organization have symptoms as if it were a body? Is there such as thing as a traumatic field?

In this exploration Jan Jacob is working with a definition of trauma as something that can happen as a result of shock, fragmentation and “broken connections”, and when a system is so overwhelmed that it is not able to bounce back to its original strength. Symptoms mentioned by people in his organizational workshops include a rigidity (freezing?) of the organization when proposing change or a new direction, as though it was stuck somewhere in time, a gulf between older and newer employees, lack of flow between various divisions or between the organization and the outside world. A case like this presented in Holland. During a serious agricultural epidemic, thousands of animals had to be killed so that their virus would not spread. Afterward, there remained a deep gap between the agricultural ministry and a large part of the farming communities.
One also suspects trauma when a majority of members are focused on the past rather than the present or future. His next questions therefore are “what helps” and “how to restore resiliency”? Following my research which indicates that people who are most connected to their roots are less likely to be traumatized and also more likely to rebound in situations of adversity, Jan Jacob put this to the test during work with an organization Mexico City. In this case with “roots”, the issue is the original purpose of the organization, the social and historical issues contributing to the distress, and the history of place where the business is located. His client was the manager of a Mexican bank where the resistance to having a call center appeared to be a racial issue. The lowest paid employees there are usually of Indian origin, and the challenge became to find ways for them to connect with their roots within a commercial context. Jan Jacob also wonders “what happens when a company is “uprooted” and moves to another location’? What happens when you outsource production to a lower wage country? Is there something like survivor guilt that happens with employees remaining after massive layoffs and abrupt terminations? As he makes clear, at this point, he has more questions than answers and his international explorations are ongoing.

While organizational trauma is not my specialty, I have also been wondering about this topic with questions such as “what is going on with the France Telecom Company that 23 employees have committed suicide within an18 month period?” What will be the consequences of the lies, cover ups and public health hazards promulgated by Tokyo Electric Power Company during and after their Fukushima nuclear disaster? And, how will this ongoing global disaster impact the corporate owned nuclear power industries? What will be the impact of telephone hacking allegations within Rupert Murdoch’s family owned publishing empire? Many more of these kinds of questions remain to be explored and I look forward to learning more from Jan Jacob Stam’s ongoing experiences. A copy of his article is also available on his web site: www.hellingerinstituut.nl

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