Embracing Organizational Trauma: Positive Effects of Death Experiences on Organizational Culture – Three Short Case Studies

Embracing Organizational Trauma: Positive Effects of Death Experiences on Organizational Culture – Three Short Case Studies

Mike Szymanski (University of Victoria, Canada) and Erik Schindler (University of Victoria, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2021-4.ch010
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Organizational trauma is traditionally associated with negative effects on organizational behavior and performance. In this chapter the authors seek to answer the question how organizational trauma, and in particular near-death experiences, can positively influence organizational culture in the long term. In doing so, the authors briefly review the recent literature on organizational trauma and near death experiences, and discuss how these negative traumatic experiences can turn into prosocial organizational behaviour. The authors then present three case studies to illustrate how an organization can manage to incorporate near death experiences into its organizational culture in a positive way.
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In the organizational literature, trauma is traditionally associated with significant change in the organization, which bears negative consequences for an employee (Weick, 1988; D’Aveni & MacMillan, 1990). Stein (1991) found that members of an organization perceive sudden unpleasant changes to organizations, such as layoffs, as an equivalent negative emotional load as physical injuries and suggested that in crisis situations the role of a manager is to facilitate the grieving process. Hilton Brown (1997) researched measures organizations might take to deal with challenges to organizational health stemming from organizational trauma. Stuart (1996) elaborated on different types of trauma-causing events in organizations, pointing to organizational change as a significant source of trauma. Amabile and Conti (1999) also suggested that organizations undergoing severe change caused by an unexpected crisis might suffer from trauma. Kahn (2003) compared organizational trauma to individual trauma, suggesting that both constitute a serious threat to the life and integrity of the individual and/or the organization. DeKlerk (2007) proposed that since unresolved emotional trauma might interfere with members’ ability to perform, organizational development programs might be instrumental in the healing process within the organization. Driver (2007) suggested that while suffering in organizations has been explored in the literature, its link to existential meaning making is unclear, and proposed that organizational suffering could be a pathway to finding new meaning and fostering positive change. Valikangas, Hoegl, and Gibbert (2009) found that organizations might suffer trauma not only from sudden, unexpected changes, but also from negative results of their intended changes, such as innovation projects. Driver (2009) examined cases of unsuccessful organizational change, suggesting that failed projects lead to negative consequences. Fischer (2012) argued that while turbulence in an organization’s environment and its internal dynamics might cause dysfunction and crisis, skilful management of trouble might mobilize resources and lead to productive action. In conclusion, organizational trauma research is gaining significant traction in the organizational behaviour and management literatures. While most scholars focus on negative consequences of unexpected changes in the internal and external environments of organizations, potential positive effects for organizations have also been recognized (e.g. Driver, 2007; Fischer, 2012). In this chapter the authors build on the potential for positive change to organizational culture stemming from near death experiences within the organization.

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