Organizational Healing

Re-opening and returning to some kind of post-COVID reality will require some healing. Where do we start? This post we look at laying the groundwork for designing a process for post-pandemic healing in your organization.

The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on us all in ways that are both shared and deeply personal. It’s been unlike any other global event in the past 50 years. We’re at a point where we can more fully attend to some healing, rehabilitation, and recovery.

Healing is a simultaneous parallel process of growth and repair. It is also something that we can do by design.

What will our workplaces look like if we undertook organizational healing seriously and designed for it? We have an opportunity to find out as many companies and teams head into a post-COVID transition period. (For now).

Acknowledging Trauma

To move into healing the first step is to recognize what we’ve been through. For many of us, this means dealing with a collection of feelings like guilt, confusion, anger, sadness, and grief. Many of us are grieving what we’ve lost, missed, or experienced over the past two years.

Dealing with this grief involves nurturing, expressing, and demonstrating compassion as a means of leading through trauma. Leadership in this case is shaping a vision with others and bringing them along a path toward that vision. But before we can lead, we have to acknowledge the trauma (hurt) first so we can heal.

Dr. Shana Hormann has worked extensively in the area of organizational trauma and describes the phenomenon as:

“organizational trauma is an injury to the body of the organization.” This can be a single devastating event, such as a school shooting or the sudden death of a client, or a longer-term toxicity problem, such as abusive leadership or an on-going negative community response to the work and/or mission of an organization.

COVID-19 and its myriad effects certainly will qualify as an organizational trauma in aggregate and by its effects. For many of us, our jobs, roles, and the function of both have been affected. This is made even more so for those working on the front lines of healthcare, service organizations, and retail.

Our first step is to acknowledge what we’ve been through. We can’t lead through trauma if we don’t acknowledge what has happened and how we feel. That will be different for everyone.

Leading With Compassion

Our second step is to show and nurture compassion for ourselves and others. When we lead through compassion, we promote healing by demonstrating its practice. Jane Dutton and colleagues describe the process of healing through compassion this way:

Unleashing compassion in the workplace not only lessens the immediate suffering of those directly affected by trauma, it enables them to recover from future setbacks more quickly and effectively, and it increases their attachment to their colleagues and hence to the company itself. 

To do this means going beyond empathy toward understanding context – both in meaning and in action. Dutton and colleagues go on to describe these contexts this way:

The first level is what we call a context for meaning—the leader creates an environment in which people can freely express and discuss the way they feel, which in turn helps them to make sense of their pain, seek or provide comfort, and imagine a more hopeful future. The second level is a context for action—the leader creates an environment in which those who experience or witness pain can find ways to alleviate their own and others’ suffering.

Care environments are those that are safe, supportive and allow people to draw connections. We can generate meaning through sensemaking while we create action through design.

Systems thinking can be a way to help people link their experience to that of others and the organization as a whole.

Acknowledgement Through Intention

Acknowledgement is important because it helps us to see commonalities between us. Principles for taking action is what we need next.

We can’t heal without means of growing and recovering and that involves rehabilitation. Rehabilitation involves movement, rest, repair, and building and when we build, we design. David Rock suggests that this rehabilitation process involves these steps:

  1. Don’t move too fast
  2. Value progress
  3. Remember we are all walking wounded.

This means, in the case of organizational healing, we tread lightly (don’t move too fast), we keep moving forward (value progress), and lead with compassion.

Good design practice means I’m intentional and clear about where I am, what I have, and what I want. That’s another part of healing organizations: figuring where we are, taking stock of what we have, and coming up with a strategy or plan.

We may not know where we are. We also might not know what we have. Lastly, we might not have the energy to find out about either of these things.

This provides us with a starting place. From here, we can begin to design. It is in design that we’ll pick up this conversation in a future post.

Thanks for reading. May your healing efforts be fruitful because we all could benefit from it right now.

If your organization could benefit from some help in its healing journey, reach out. Let’s grab a coffee.

Image Credits: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash and Jack Finnigan on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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