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The Survivor Syndrome: Overcoming Organizational Trauma in Times of Crisis
by Fred Kofman

There's an amazing medical phenomenon that serves as a metaphor for organizational traumas. If a fracture heals properly, the point of union is even stronger than the rest of the bone. If, at a later time, the bone is subject to a new breaking pressure, it will fracture elsewhere, not where it broke previously.

For the same reason, if an organizational trauma is well managed, it is possible to transform the crisis into a healing opportunity, a growth experience that leaves the system stronger than before. The key is to follow the proper treatment.

This is similar to what happened to concentration camp survivors. Once the joy of liberation subsided, they realized that their psychological scars were much deeper than their physical ailments, and that they would take much longer to heal. Once the joy of returning subsided, Vietnam veterans realized that their "inner battleground" had come home with them, and that the memories of war would plague their nightmare for years - perhaps even for the rest of their lives. Beyond the exhilaration of deliverance, the horror and the loss endured.

One of the biggest emotional weights that those who made it through similar ordeals had and have to bear is the guilt of surviving. "Why me?" "Why am I alive when so many of my loved ones, my friends, my family, so many of them perished?" "Do I have the right to live when so many more worthy than me are dead?" A great number of suicides underline the seriousness of these questions.

The organizational environment is nowhere near as dramatic as war. For one's identity and self-image, however, the loss of a job - especially if it is due to no fault of one's own is a serious blow. Companies with humane concerns invest in psychological and skilled advisers to counsel those that have been "downsized." But what about the "survivors?" What about those who now have to shoulder greater responsibilities in a "leaner and meaner" organization? Who helps them cope with the guilt and stress of remaining when some of their best friends have gone?

One of the biggest emotional weights that those who made it through similar ordeals had and have to bear is the guilt of surviving.

In the midst of a U.S. crisis and at the onset of its global impact, it's important to take these work-force survivors into consideration. While it's true that many people have lost their jobs, many more have kept them in the face of massive layoffs. These are the workers that will carry us through the crisis, and their needs must be met as they face their situations, often displaying symptoms of guilt, sorrow, stress, resentment, lethargy, hopelessness and fear. Of course and adding to the stress, there is no guarantee that layoffs and cutbacks won't happen again, and nobody can blame employees for worrying if the next time it might be their own heads laying on the block of execution.

At Axialent, a consulting company that has been dealing with organizational learning and performance issues for quite some time, the severe crisis now shaking all organizations revealed that it is no surprise that people do not respond to leadership and management development programs as they used to. There's a layer of "emotional dark matter" that blocks the learning, and unless this can be sliced open, recovering programs will never take off. This layer has been identified as "The Survivor's Syndrome".

In order to overcome this blockade against learning and an improved performance, several strategies must be followed, targeting all major components of the prevailing mood of resignation. What follows is a summary, by way of prescription, on the approach strategies required to help those who need to deal with this problem:
 
1.    Bring the situation out into the open. What remains in the dark, infests. lt is imperative to create a "safe space" where people can talk about their feelings and engage in dialogue.

2.    Acknowledge and accept all these feelings as healthy expressions of care for others and for oneself. Compassion and non-judgment are the beginning of a "healing process" that can restore the lost emotional flexibility.

3.    Find out if there is some practical action that needs to be put into practice in order to end the grief process and move on. Sometimes, writing letters (even if they are never sent) or role-playing conversations can bring open issues to an end for good.

4.    Explain the underlying principle for what happened. What were the challenges the company faced? What was the justification for choosing the actions taken? lt is necessary to re-establish a sense of loyalty and mutual commitment as a foundation for moving forward. It will be impossible to restore it if the employees remaining believe that the company's actions were arbitrary or unfair.

5.    Start a conversation about the future. What are the prospects? Will there be more downsizing episodes? What are the steps required to overcome the crisis? Develop a very concrete plan of action and encourage the responsibility to materialize it. Make sure people have a renewed sense of purpose.

6.    Keep an open route to deal with emotional issues. The "organizational healing" is a process, not an event. Although it is critical to get started, it is even more important to maintain an ongoing dialogue about typical "untouchable" issues.

By following above procedures it is possible, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, to transform the crisis into a chance to cure, a growth experience that leaves the system stronger than before.

Note: Fred Kofman is the President and Chief Academic Officer of a consulting company that helps organizations to achieve their goals with effectiveness. As a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, he previously taught at MIT's Sloan School of Management, and published several articles, including the highly-acclaimed book "Conscious Business". He developed above strategy of organizational reconstruction and, on a personal level, promoted the publication of philosopher Ayn Rand's works in Spanish language.
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