Healing the organisation’s wounds – saying goodbye to the past

perspectives Jul 19, 2017

In our work supporting the evolution of organisational cultures, old wounds often emerge as significant psychological barriers to transformation.

Old wounds can cast long shadows – a previously tyrannical CEO, the near death experience of the organisation, fraud or other scandals can haunt an organisation for years after the event has been dealt with.

Business person looking at wall with light tunnel opening concept

Even though the tyrannical CEO has long since left the organisation, the balance sheet has returned to health and fraud is no longer part of the culture, many still think and behave as if these events continue to live.

One way of describing the challenges and legacy of significant events is the organisation’s wounds that have yet to heal. Like post traumatic stress disorder, while the trauma no longer exists in the present moment, the organisation and its people continue to suffer.

When this phenomenon exists, it elicits a range of strong responses including:

  • “it’s over, can’t we just move on?”
  • continuing to use the legacy experience to justify current behaviour
  • the need to continue to crucify the perpetrators

In between moving on and persecution is a middle ground that can help the organisation to heal. Where we believe an organisation must focus its attention, is to clearly discuss and ensure organisational learning in relation to past events and do so in a way that helps the organisation to heal and ultimately to move on.

People start to heal the moment they feel heard. If people continue to tell the same story over and over, it is likely that they have not yet felt heard. A key question we ask ourselves as culture practitioners is:

What can the organisation do to ensure people do feel heard and how can we then help the organisation to move into a new story?

Without a process to do this, an organisation can talk adapting and evolving until the cows come home, but the past will remain a major thorn in its side. The following are practices that we have found make a profound difference in the organisational healing process:

  • Allowing the voices of fear and concern to be heard in a respectful and constructive way
  • Expressing deep vulnerability – for example, those at the most senior levels in the organisation who may have contributed to past challenges and narratives (often unintentionally) share their part of the challenge
  • Identifying what it looks look and sounds like as we let go of the past and move into a brighter future
  • Highlighting the organisation’s progress in moving forward
  • Building alternative (constructive) narratives – reinforcing what good looks like, celebrating the pockets or areas it exists in, and building forums and ways of allowing it to live
  • Having rituals to allow the past to be honoured and the bits of the past that no longer serve the organisation to be farewelled
  • Practising compassion and forgiveness – even the most senior and experienced people get it wrong from time to time or have their fallibilities. Seek the positive intention that may sit behind a behaviour

We may wear our working armour of suits and ties and uniforms, but underneath, we are all human. When we ignore the human aspects of an organisation, we are ignoring a major part of the organisational system. The resistance and bad will that get created when this happens have a crushing effect on productivity, engagement and turnover. Healing isn’t just good for the soul – it’s good for business.

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