Definitions, Typologies, and Processes Involved in Organizational Trauma: A Literature Review

Definitions, Typologies, and Processes Involved in Organizational Trauma: A Literature Review

Pablo Alonso Pena (Royal Military Academy, Belgium), Stephan Van den Broucke (Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium), Michel Sylin (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium), Jan Leysen (Royal Military Academy, Belgium) and Erik de Soir (Royal Higher Institute of Defence, Belgium)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2021-4.ch001
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The phenomenon of organizational trauma (OT) is mentioned by an increasing number of researchers. However, there is a large heterogeneity of definitions and practices related to this notion. In view of developing a more consensual understanding of OT, this paper reviews the existing literature with regard to the subject focusing on three key elements: its definition, typology and the processes involved. For each element, the existing models are reviewed and an integrated conceptualization is introduced, providing a basis for further empirical research and enabling comparisons between existing studies. As such, the paper contributes to the consensus that is necessary to advance the research with regard to this subject.
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The economic crisis of 2008 and the austerity measures that followed, making many people redundant, the terrorist attacks of New-York, London, Madrid, Paris, or Brussels, and natural or man-made disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the nuclear disaster in Fukushima have changed our way of life. These events made many victims, and traumatized many more. However, the victims of these events were not only individuals. Organizations also were directly or indirectly impacted. How did organizations react to these events? How will they respond to future events? In this paper we will try to answer these question by developing a conceptualization of organizational trauma and its processes.

Etymologically, the word trauma comes from the Greek word τραυμα. As stated by De Soir, Daubechies, and Van den Steene (2012, p. 111), a “trauma” in fact means an “injury” that is inflicted by a confrontation with an event that is terrifying and/or life-threatening, difficult to manage on an emotional level for a “normal” human being, and which threatens to overwhelm and completely control that person. As such, a traumatic experience can change individual peoples’ perceptions of their environment, themselves, or the people surrounding them. Continued exposure to trauma will have repercussions on individuals’ biological, cognitive and emotional existences, and also on their social interactions and identities (De Clercq, 1999).

A potentially traumatising experience is generally considered to be an event that affects people who are confronted with a sudden situation that is potentially threatening, either physically or emotionally. That might be a serious accident or a natural catastrophe (Guiho-Bailly & Guillet, 2005). This individual-centred approach to trauma is the classic approach adopted in the literature. However, organisations, just like individuals, can also be confronted with trauma. Indeed, at the time of potentially traumatising events, organisations also undergo changes that affect their founding principles in such a way that they no longer operate as before.

Despite the various indications that highlight the existence of such an “organisational pathology” and the burgeoning interest in this concept, there are currently only a few publications dealing with organisational trauma (OT). In addition, the emerging literature on this topic, stemming from only a handful of researchers (Brown, 1997; Byron & Peterson, 2002; Vivian & Hormann, 2002; Kahn, 2003; Farragher & Yanosy, 2005; Hormann & Vivian, 2005; Hormann, 2007; Pross & Schweitzer, 2010; Klein & Alexander, 2011; Burke, 2012; Gantt & Hopper, 2012; Hopper, 2012; Vivian & Hormann, 2013), reveals such disparities that a consensual model of OT does not exist yet. Such a model would nevertheless be very useful, not only to study the phenomenon, but also to diagnose OT through organisational assessment or to develop and implement preventive interventions.

This chapter aims to provide the elements for such an analytic model of OT by reviewing the existing literature with regard to organisational trauma. While taking the divergent and convergent definitions of OT into account, it will propose a consensual model. Using this model, the characteristics of OT will be discussed and a typology of OTH will be established. Finally, the traumatising process will also be analysed and conceptualised.

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