Home All How Would Your Organization React to a Traumatic Event?

How Would Your Organization React to a Traumatic Event?

written by Kathryn Britton 9 January 2010

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

How would you react if an unexpected traumatic event happened at your company, university, religious group, or other organization? How would everyone around you react? How strong is the organizational resilience?

(Editorial Note: Some content below from the described research is graphic about an actual traumatic event).

Organizational resilience is both the ability to absorb strain and the ability to bounce back from negative events. Edward Powley, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, defines organizational resilience as a latent capacity that can be activated when the organization meets setbacks or traumas. This resilience capacity is built up over time through numerous social interactions.

Resilient or Rigid Response?

All Hands Meeting

All Hands Meeting

Kathleen Sutcliffe at the Ross School of Business and Timothy Vogus at the Owen Graduate School of Management have studied organizational resilience. Organizations can have a resilient response to a threat — or a rigid response:

  • The resilient response helps create structures that can help transfer expertise and resources flexibly. Some aspects of an organization are more likely to increase a resilience response: individual competence, good rapport among employees, and a collective belief in the team’s ability to meet the challenge. When a group meets a challenge, each member of the team can notice more ways to contribute, control is loosened, resources are used rather than conserved, and decisions shift from formal leaders to the people with the greatest expertise relative to the particular problem.
  • The rigid response is characterized by a tightening of control, narrowed availability of information, and conserving resources.

For some minor threats, a rigid response may be effective, but for large or novel threats it can lead to negative outcomes. Sutcliffe and Vogus find that your company will show resilience based on all its past accumulated collective experiences. This resilience may or may not be built during normal times to be available when need arises. To a large degree, resilience is dependent on the social connections that tie the organization together.

A Man Walked into a Business School with Two Guns

Powley at the Naval Graduate School describes a model of resilience activation that emerged from his qualitative studies of group responses to an unexpected traumatic event. Powley followed an actual traumatic event: a man entered the building of a business school with two semi-automatic weapons, killed one person, wounded two others, and forced 95 people into hiding for a multi-hour standoff with police. Research included interviews and in-depth analysis of responses during and after the event. His paper describes a model with three mechanisms that activate resilience:

Clouded Puddle

Clouded Puddle

1) “Liminal suspension”: Formal relationships are temporarily undone or disrupted, opening up space for new relationships to form. The word, liminal, refers to a transitional state, being in-between. Powley describes this time as a “holding space for pain.” Normal work activities are suspended, making time for people to help each other. People have opportunities to form new relationships and strengthen existing ones. Thus liminal suspension is similar to the loosening of control described by Sutcliffe and Vogus, and it enables the other two mechanisms by opening up space for them to occur.

  • “Individuals reflect on the importance of their relationships during the shooting realize that upholding differences are not worth the effort”
  • “A group of staff members found a closet and waited until late in the night and without knowing what was happening outside, these individuals supported one another throughout the incident”

Compassionate Witnessing

Compassionate Witnessing

2) “Compassionate witnessing”: Mindful caring, sharing, and connecting. Instead of turning inwards and dealing with the trauma individually, mindful caring led many people to look around for others who needed help. Many events occurred where people got together to talk about the event and to take action together. Powley cites J. Herman, who states “sharing the traumatic experience with others is a precondition for the restitution of a sense of a meaningful world” and “the response of the community has a powerful influence on the ultimate resolution of the trauma.”

  • “A faculty member disturbed because he could not rescue the fatal victim is contacted by the university president and hospital indicating that nothing more could have been done for the slain student”
  • “A police officer on an adjacent building afterward seeks out university building specific individuals to let them know he was watching over them”

Working Together

Working Together

3) “Relational redundancy”: People share and connect in new ways, with interpersonal connections intersecting and spanning beyond immediate social reference groups. The examples included in the paper involve various ways that people shared information during the trauma, connected with people outside their own close groups, and encouraged each other to recover afterwards, such as the professor who encouraged students to celebrate during their subsequent graduations. Relational redundancy made me think of informal networks within organizations, where information and assistance follow different paths than the ones that show up in organization charts. Exercising relational redundancy during and after the crisis increases the social interconnectedness in the organizations.

  • “A staff members’ neighbors expressed concern as they came to visit and she realized what they had done for her family while she was trapped in the building.
  • “A university auditorium became a central meeting place for family and friends of those in the building; it represented a meeting place for anyone seeking information about the shooting”

In his summary, Powley comments that his study “answers the question: how do organizations as social collectives enable positive responses to rupture in organizational life?”

The answer seems to have a lot to do with social connectedness and heightened awareness of each other.


Powley, E. H. (2009). Reclaiming resilience and safety: Resilience activation in the critical period of crisis. Human Relations, 62(9), 1289-1326. See p. 1294 for the definition of organizational resilience as a latent capacity.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books, 1997. Both quotations from page 70.

Sutcliffe, K. & Vogus, T. (2003). Organizing for resilience. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, and R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 296-308. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Hands On USA: All Hands Meeting courtesy of laffy4k
Chuck, Bill, Donnie, Sherry, and Matt’s Mom (Compassionate Witnessing) courtesy of David Hudson Floyd
Working Together Teamwork Puzzle Concept courtesy of lumaxart
A Clouded Puddle in Blue courtesy of Edgar Zuniga Jr.

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Iris Marie Bloom 9 January 2010 - 6:13 pm

Great article, Kathryn! I also think Judith Herman’s work is a great resource and it’s excellent to see it cited. Your focus on informal social interconnectedness and safety reminded me of the statistic that in neighborhoods of otherwise similar (socioeconomic, urban/suburban, etc.) circumstances, a good predictor of safety is how often neighbors visit in each others’ kitchens. If neighbors visit inside each other’s kitchens at least once a year, crime in that neighborhood will be measurably less than in a comparable non-visiting neighborhood…. and I bet resilient recoveries to trauma are greater, too.
What would be the office equivalent of visiting inside one another’s kitchens? Whatever it is, it should be encouraged, to enhance safety and organizational resilience!

Jeff 9 January 2010 - 6:14 pm

Pithy summary of a dense technical subject, Kathryn.

Kathryn Britton 10 January 2010 - 3:07 pm

Iris Marie,

Thanks for the interesting connection to neighborhoods. I was thinking about all sorts of groups when I wrote this — not just place of work, but also place of study, place of worship, place of play, place of exercise… You added place of residence, which may or may not be linked with lots of social connections.

Thanks for the recommendation for Jane Herman’s book. I’ve touched it only secondhand, through Dr. Powley’s article. I’ll check it out.


Ned Powley 9 February 2011 - 6:15 pm

Hello interested readers:

One of my extensions to this work is organizational healing. I examine the question: How do organizations heal when faced with major disruption? I see resilience activation as really a first step in the process. Organizational healing involves this and more. We’ve written a few things on healing based on this shooting incident, and we’re developing an integrative model of healing for organizations experiencing disruption (forthcoming).

Healing really involves both external and internal resources to enable the kinds of social interactions need to restore trust and organizational functioning. A forthcoming chapter in the Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship by Oxford Press describes these resources in more detail.


Powley, Edward H., & Sandy K. Piderit. 2008. Tending wounds: Elements of the organizational healing process. Journal of Applied Behavioral Sciences, 44 (1): 134-149.

Powley, Edward H., & Kim S. Cameron. 2006. Organizational healing: Lived virtuousness amidst organizational crisis. Journal of Management, Spirituality, & Religion, 3(1): 13-33.

Powley, Edward H., & Scott N. Taylor. 2006. Values and leadership in organizational crisis. In E. Hess & K. Cameron (Eds.), Leading with Values: Values, Virtues and High Performance: 194-212. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kathryn Britton 9 February 2011 - 6:24 pm

Many thanks for bringing these to our awareness, Ned.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com