How to Come Back Stronger From Organizational Trauma

Traumatic events are destabilizing. In their aftermath, leaders can help individuals and teams recover and grow.

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It is a sobering reality of life today that many organizations across sectors and industries will face trauma. My institution, the Lee Business School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), became one of them on Dec. 6, 2023, when a shooting on campus profoundly changed our community.

Trauma is extraordinary, uncontrollable, and overwhelming to those who experience it.1 Its impact is devastating, and it leaves survivors with ongoing pain and loss that cannot be overstated. When we experience trauma, it shatters our belief that the world makes sense, and we consequently feel less safe, less in control, and more vulnerable.2 However, psychology research has also found that as they recover from trauma, individual survivors can experience post-traumatic growth (PTG).3 This process doesn’t minimize the suffering or psychological challenges that survivors encounter but rather taps the “rich and remarkable resources, creativity, and success of the human spirit to adapt, cope, and survive,” in the words of psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman.

While research into PTG has focused on individuals, the possibility that organizations might experience similar effects after a traumatic event is intriguing. This article aims to provide an overview of current thinking about organizational trauma and explores the question: In the aftermath of trauma, how might leaders help their organization move forward to collectively survive — and even engage in learning and growth that surpasses its pretrauma state?

Understanding Organizational Trauma and PTG

Events that cause trauma for organizations are catastrophic, life-threatening, or life-altering, and disrupt core functions; their causes can be either internal or external.4 They include incidents such as workplace violence, natural disasters, and terrorism. Organizational trauma is both distinct from and related to what we define as a crisis: Many traumatic events are crises, but not all crises are traumatic events. An organizational crisis — such as a financial scandal, major product recall, or consumer boycott — may challenge members’ beliefs about the organization and its mission, but trauma is akin to an earthquake that displaces members’ sense of the world and their collective place in it.

As referenced above, research over the past two decades has found an emergent pattern in survivors’ stories: transformative psychological changes as a result of struggles in the aftermath of trauma.



1. R.M. Vogel and M.C. Bolino, “Recurring Nightmares and Silver Linings: Understanding How Past Abusive Supervision May Lead to Post-Traumatic Stress and Post-Traumatic Growth,” Academy of Management Review 45, no. 3 (July 2020): 549-569.

2. R. Janoff-Bulman, “Assumptive Worlds and the Stress of Traumatic Events: Applications of the Schema Construct,” Social Cognition 7, no. 2 (June 1989): 113-136.

3. R.G. Tedeschi and L.G. Calhoun, “Post-Traumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence,” Psychological Inquiry 15, no. 1 (2004): 1-18.

4. M.R. Kramer, L. Page, and G. Klemic, “Post-Traumatic Growth in Organizations: Leadership’s Role in Deploying Organizational Energy Beyond Survival,” Organization Development Review 54, no. 3 (2022): 18-26; and B.N. Alexander, B.E. Greenbaum, A.B. (Rami) Shani, et al., “Organizational Post-Traumatic Growth: Thriving After Adversity,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 57, no. 1 (March 2021): 30-56.

5. A. Ehlers, R.A. Mayou, and B. Bryant, “Psychological Predictors of Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder After Motor Vehicle Accidents,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 107, no. 3 (August 1998): 508-519; R.F. Hanson, D.G. Kilpatrick, J.R. Freedy, et al., “Los Angeles County After the 1992 Civil Disturbances: Degree of Exposure and Impact on Mental Health,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 63, no. 6 (December 1995): 987-996; H.S. Resnick, D.G. Kilpatrick, B.S. Dansky, et al., “Prevalence of Civilian Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in a Representative National Sample of Women,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 61, no. 6 (December 1993): 984-991; P.B. Sutker, J.M. Davis, M. Uddo, et al., “War Zone Stress, Personal Resources, and PTSD in Persian Gulf War Returnees,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 104, no. 3 (August 1995): 444-452; and R.G. Tedeschi, J. Shakespeare-Finch, K. Taku, et al., “Post-Traumatic Growth: Theory, Research, and Applications” (New York: Routledge, 2018).

6. R. Janoff-Bulman, “Schema-Change Perspectives on Post-Traumatic Growth,” in “Handbook of Post-Traumatic Growth: Research & Practice,” eds. L.G. Calhoun and R.G. Tedeschi (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2006): 81-99.

7. T.A. Williams, D.A. Gruber, K.M. Sutcliffe, et al., “Organizational Response to Adversity: Fusing Crisis Management and Resilience Research Streams,” Academy of Management Annals 11, no. 2 (June 2017): 733-769; and A.D. Meyer, “Adapting to Environmental Jolts,” Administrative Science Quarterly 27, no. 4 (December 1982): 515-537.

8. Tedeschi and Calhoun, “Post-Traumatic Growth,” 1-18; and S. Maitlis, “Post-Traumatic Growth at Work,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 7 (2020): 395-419.

9. P.N. Sharma and M.J. Pearsall, “Leading Under Adversity: Interactive Effects of Acute Stressors and Upper-Level Supportive Leadership Climate on Lower-Level Supportive Leadership Climate,” Leadership Quarterly 27, no. 6 (December 2016): 856-868.

10. Sharma and Pearsall, “Leading Under Adversity,” 856-868.

11. R. Janoff-Bulman, “Post-Traumatic Growth: Three Explanatory Models,” Psychological Inquiry 15, no. 1 (2004): 30-34.

12. R.G. Tedeschi, “Growth After Trauma,” Harvard Business Review 98 no. 4 (July-August 2020).

13. C. Morell, “Reflecting on ‘Vegas Strong’ One Year Later,” Nevada Public Radio, Oct. 1, 2018,

14. Tedeschi, “Growth After Trauma.”

i. P.N. Sharma, J.M. Silvas, and M. Guadagnoli, “Attention Leaders: Are You Losing the Battle With Stress? Arm Yourself With Proactive Coping,” Organizational Dynamics 51, no. 2 (April-June 2022).

ii. K. Olson, T. Shanafelt, and S. Southwick, “Pandemic-Driven Post-Traumatic Growth for Organizations and Individuals,” Journal of the American Medical Association 324, no. 18 (2020): 1829-1830.

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