This is my current professional obsession: organizational trauma and how organizations heal.
For all the management workshops and institutes and retreats out there, how often does anyone in librarianship talk about organizational trauma, and figure out how to identify it and resolve it? All leadership talk I’ve heard starts from the presumption that entering a new role or a new org is all about starting fresh, setting expectations, building these new relationships that are all full of equal potential. The most I’ve seen is the sort of throwaway admonition to “build trust”. It’s all about looking forward, as if everyone just stepped out of the library factory shiny and brand new and ready to give each other the benefit of the doubt. But the one thing I know so far about organizational trauma is being new doesn’t make it go away.
Organizational trauma won’t go away until we address it and resolve it. So there are plenty of libraries out there with workplaces that are incomprehensibly bonkers, and it’s not clear what’s going wrong or who is causing the problems, and no matter how many new people join the org or how many disgruntled people leave it, the culture remains incomprehensibly bonkers, and it damages everyone who goes near it like a piñata made of knives. That’s organizational trauma, and passes down from generation to generation of library staff.
I’m tired of organizational trauma, and I’m heartbroken at the damage it causes to some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. I’m frustrated by the lost productivity, the zapped creativity, and the absence of joy and workplace satisfaction that’s so infinitely possible in our daily work. Why should we give up all that? I’m interested in exploring how we can stop ignoring organizational trauma as if that will make it fade and start addressing it so that an organization can heal and move forward in a healthier, happier, and more productive way.
We should know how to do this. There should be a checklist, or something. This work should be bog standard, it should be part of the basic toolkit of anyone entering a leadership role. We should know what the qualities of a leader who is capable of successfully resolving an organization’s trauma are. Can you name those qualities? I can’t. We should recognize the people who do this work successfully and have them keynote, I need to hear from them. Have you ever seen a leadership position that was posted with the goal of finding someone capable of doing the work of healing organizational trauma? Does anyone ask interview questions about experience addressing organizational trauma? Is there a rubric for evaluating a leadership candidate as more or less experienced and capable of this work? If so, please share. I’d love to see it.
I don’t think we hire for these qualities. We often hire for vision, as if bringing in a person with a vision will distract all the traumatized library workers from their past experiences and draw them toward this new light source. Maybe that works sometimes. But I think more often it sets up good people with great ideas about the future of libraries to fail, because it’s impossible to implement grand ideas in organizations that are too full of trauma to act on them.
So I’m reaching out for resources, digging into new disciplines and areas of research, and exploring these questions. I have some ideas about it and experiences to draw from, but I still feel under-educated about this, and that feels like a gaping hole in my knowledge.
What I know so far is that stewarding the healing of organizational trauma requires empathy, enough humility to admit when you’re wrong, respect for the expertise of others in all parts of an organization, the confidence to not be threatened by the brilliance of others, and to hang back and let people who know their work shape our collective direction forward. But I know there’s more to it. I want to know all that. More to come.