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.5 PTG reflects the human capacity to adapt and think expansively following horrific experiences, rather than to regress and turn inward.6 It is a long-term process of development and change over time. In contrast to trauma, which is fast and forced on those who experience it, PTG is slow and trauma survivors are in control.

In contrast to trauma, which is fast and forced on those who experience it, PTG is slow and trauma survivors are in control.

PTG is distinct, though it is related to organizational resilience and crisis management. A resilient organization perseveres in the face of adversity, absorbing the trauma and then returning to, or restoring, the status quo before the trauma: It bounces back.7 However, an organization that experiences PTG bounces forward; it follows “a trajectory of increased positive functioning,” in the words of organizational psychologist Sally Maitlis.8 Resilience may be an outcome of PTG. Compared with crisis management, a tactical reaction to acute, threatening circumstances, PTG involves constructing new positive assumptions about safety and stability, after trauma has demolished old core beliefs. Like kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending pottery with molten gold, it acknowledges our history and our strength to put ourselves back together.

How Organizational Trauma Affects Individuals

For leaders to understand how to facilitate organizational growth after trauma, they first need to understand the psychological impact of trauma. Research has long demonstrated that in the aftermath of trauma, individuals experience adverse effects on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They become hypervigilant, and experience intrusive thoughts and high levels of emotional arousal, involving intense anger, anxiety, depression, and fear. These emotions may trigger involuntary fight, flight, or freeze responses. People have difficulty focusing on work and thinking deeply; they often cannot control outsize emotional reactions to everyday situations and interactions; and they may be exhausted as nightmares or insomnia rob them of sleep. They may become isolated by believing that no one external to the traumatic event can understand what they are going through. They may engage in catastrophic thinking and expect only the worst to happen. They may cope with new beliefs that they are helpless or powerless to change their present reality by dissociating from it.

Following a traumatic event in an organization, people are likely to feel overwhelmed with doubts about their safety on the job, to question the meaning of their work and their commitment to the organization, and to withdraw from others.9 These responses are a function of how trauma destroys what Janoff-Bulman calls assumptive worlds, or three core assumptions we have about the world and ourselves:

  1. We are safe. We believe the world is benevolent and a safe place, that good things happen more than bad things, and that most people have good intentions and can be trusted.
  2. We have control. The world is meaningful and is ordered along just and logical principles. We can maximize control over outcomes and prevent misfortune.
  3. We are deserving. We as individuals are worthy, fortunate, and deserve good things. We know bad things happen, but we don’t expect these bad things to happen to us.

As long as nothing disrupts these assumptions, they are strongly held and confirmed by our experiences. Trauma has such a devastating impact on our psyches because it shatters these beliefs that kept us feeling safe, in control, and protected. At the collective level, the shattering of organizational members’ assumptive worlds may manifest in their feeling distracted from the work and overwhelmed with thoughts about insecurity, risk, and instability in their work lives and identities. What then can leaders do to encourage their organization to recover, heal, and grow?

Because our assumptive worlds reflect simple and generalized views, growth after trauma entails moving away from such absolutist views and building new core beliefs that are more nuanced.10 These evolved understandings — termed schema changes — serve as cognitive toolkits to help us effectively navigate life and work. Thus, in the aftermath of trauma, leaders can facilitate their organization’s growth through the collective construction of revised beliefs that are more complex and concrete about safety, control, and protection. The goal is to create a rebuilt assumptive world that integrates the trauma, including an accompanying collective sense of vulnerability and disillusionment — but allows the group to move forward and cease fully defining itself by the trauma.11 This is also the path from seeing oneself as a victim to seeing oneself as a survivor.

How Can Leaders Facilitate PTG?

Research into PTG in individuals has found three pathways for growth.12 The first, seeing strength through suffering, is recognizing that one has sufficient strength to tolerate and continue on despite pain and suffering. The second pathway, generating psychological preparedness, can be seen as building the capacity to face future traumatic events with equanimity. The third pathway, crafting greater meaning and purpose, arises as survivors of trauma often experience a change in perspective and reprioritize what they most value; they stop taking what’s important for granted. Below, I’ll discuss how each of these can be activated in an organizational context.

Define our organization by our collective strength. Just as individuals can realize they possess courage, confidence, new competencies, and abilities after trauma — all of which create pathways toward seeing new possibilities in their lives — so can organizations. At the individual level, the research describes tendencies people have initially to avoid thinking about a traumatic event, given its overwhelming nature. However, and it can take a long, long time, individuals can start to use what is called approach oriented coping. In doing so, they realize that the trauma was incredibly painful, and they can see their own strength as they navigate its aftermath and accept that it happened.

We lived this pathway at UNLV. For context, the campus shooting occurred six years after the city of Las Vegas experienced its own trauma when a gunman opened fire at a country music festival, killing 58 people and injuring more than 800 others. Within hours of what has been called the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history, visitors and locals in Las Vegas started using the hashtag #vegasstrong on social media. According to online reports, the hashtag honored both the horrific tragedy for the city and the fact that people did not want the city to be defined by it.13

Just as individuals can realize they possess courage, confidence, new competencies, and abilities after trauma, so can organizations.

In a similar vein, within days of the 2023 shooting, UNLV utilized the hashtag #UNLVstrong in its public messaging. This reflected our capacity to be strong collectively as we processed the aftereffects of such a devastating event. In subsequent communication sent both internally and externally to the university community, the school’s leadership consistently referred to our organizational strength.

What this does for organizational members is to help them integrate the trauma into their psyches and to recognize that they are not defined alone by the associated pain, but by their strength as well. Stated differently, when leaders take control of the narrative after a traumatizing experience for their communities and frame this in ways that do not speak to members as powerless or helpless, these members can start to heal and recover. We don’t have a choice when trauma happens to us in our work settings, but we can choose to see our ability to survive in its aftermath.

Leaders can encourage discussion and reflection by sharing a series of open-ended questions, such as, “What abilities, if any, do we now realize we have as an organization?” (See “Engaging the Organization in Post-Traumatic Growth.”) Open-ended questions can help support members as they consider new abilities and possibilities for the organization as it moves forward and heals. Further, on a day-to-day basis, leaders ideally can create time and space for employees to document and share how, as a collective, they are achieving healing-oriented small wins that make a big difference in recovering from trauma and feeling strong.

Generate organizational preparedness. A second process toward PTG involves moving from feeling stuck in a hypervigilant state to developing more resilient assumptive worlds. For leaders, this means acknowledging that future traumatic events are inevitable, they are part of our world, and we can survive them. Doing so helps to restore a sense of control that may have been obliterated by the trauma. We understand we are vulnerable, and we can preemptively feel prepared for what lies ahead.

This all speaks to the importance of leaders proactively managing expectations around the reality of trauma at work. While individuals may be most afraid of a catastrophic event occurring, I believe leaders can leverage that fear to help members focus on how they might feel prepared and not entirely caught off guard. Although we cannot predict when and in what form, we know we can expect trauma in our organizations; and such an understanding and acceptance enables us to build psychological “armor” — so that our assumptive worlds feel less destroyed by the trauma in the aftermath.

At UNLV, after the shooting happened, the leadership repeatedly acknowledged that workplace violence can and does happen, and we are not the last community that will be targeted. As sobering as these words were, they allowed us to integrate into our revised assumptive world the acceptance that other traumatic events are likely to happen in the future. Importantly, the purpose of this observation was not to keep our community in a fearful state. Rather, stating this reality allowed us collectively to rebuild our core beliefs about safety, control, and protection with more nuanced and less absolutist understandings about the world and ourselves.

Craft greater organizational meaning and purpose. According to Janoff-Bulman, building greater meaning and purpose — the third pathway of PTG — can help survivors focus less on the question of why the trauma happened to them. With an increased focus on their purpose moving forward, the “why us?” question starts to soften and no longer has control over people’s thinking. Within management research, it’s well understood that individuals and teams thrive when they feel that their work is meaningful and relevant, and they can influence key outcomes.

The goal here is to widen the aperture of our post-trauma understanding to include that we are connected to society at large and to others within our local community. Thus, our healing and recovery can be aided by nurturing and developing these connections in a variety of ways, such as to engage in service to others who similarly have experienced trauma.

After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a nonprofit organization called Sandy Hook Promise was formed by family members who lost loved ones in the devastating tragedy. As their website explains, “Our intent is to honor all victims of gun violence by turning our tragedy into a moment of transformation.” The organization seeks to educate and inform students and parents about preventing gun violence and identifying early preventive measures.

Leaders can likewise encourage this pathway with members in their organization. They can take time apart as a management team to think more broadly about how the narrative that emerges around a traumatic event informs their future vision. As part of that, considering how the organization might support and help others through similar traumatic experiences can, like Sandy Hook Promise, help rebuild a sense of purpose.14

No one is ever truly prepared for traumatic events, but by understanding how they impact individuals and organizations, leaders will be better positioned to facilitate healing, growth, and a new understanding of how to move forward. Processing the reality of the trauma while at the same time looking to the future as an organization powerfully enables more complex and concrete perceptions of safety, control, and protection. Then, we can focus actively on where we do have agency: creating renewed meaning and commitment in our work lives.



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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