Power, Harm and Institutional Trauma: The Underlying Dynamics of a Dysfunctional Organization

Understand the impact of power imbalances and institutional trauma on organizations and discover ways to address them.

Siena Beacham, Storytelling & Content CatalystJun 17, 2024 2:03 PM
Power, Harm and Institutional Trauma: The Underlying Dynamics of a Dysfunctional Organization
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Millions are silently enduring institutional trauma within the very organizations they work for, large or small. The first crucial step in addressing this widespread issue is to unravel the complex interplay of power, harm, and institutional trauma that shapes the way people interact within their work environment.

This blog post is notably longer than our typical articles. We believe the complexity and critical importance of this topic warrant a comprehensive exploration. We aim to educate our readers about the intricate dynamics of power imbalances and institutional trauma. By deepening our understanding, we can collectively work towards dismantling the structures that perpetuate harm and abuse of power.

Unbalanced Power in Organizations

Virtually every organization that has ever existed has certain power dynamics in play that everyone within the organization understands. A simple definition of power dynamics can be helpful to understand why they exist in the first place. The global career search website Indeed offers this definition:

Power dynamics are the balance — or lack of balance — between two or more people. Power dictates the structure of all personal and professional relationships. In the workplace, there are often clear power dynamics. For example, supervisors have more power than their subordinates, while the company's CEO has more power than any other employee.

While power dynamics can help create a certain level of structure within a productive organization, there are times when those power dynamics can get out of hand and cause problems. When that happens, everyone within and connected to the organization eventually suffers.

Where Does Power Come From?

Power doesn't just appear out of thin air, it originates from specific sources that need to be understood. Let's talk about two key types of power that exist within organizations.

Formal Power

A type of power that many are familiar with, formal power, stems from job titles and roles. These titles and positions hold a distinct significance within the organization and are understood by everyone within it. Though this type of power is important to acknowledge, it's not the only type of power that exists.

Informal Power

Informal power is a more dynamic and complex form of power compared to formal power. It might be harder to spot or utilize, but when used negatively, it can be even more influential than formal power, becoming a potent tool for harm.

Different forms of informal power can be utilized within an organization, including:

  • Relational Power - There is an old saying that "It's not about who you are, it's about who you know". That saying remains true in many situations, and there is often a lot of power in who you know on a personal level. When you have connections in high places, you can reliably "pull some strings" when necessary to get things to work out in your favor. Knowing people in high-ranking positions is particularly valuable, and not everyone has that same level of power. It all depends on who they know.
  • Systemic Power - This is a type of power that comes from the laws, customs, culture, and institutions that make up society as a whole. In other words, how has a particular society been set up and who benefits from the way that the society has been set up? This is a topic that we will be exploring in greater detail later in this piece.
  • Experiential Power - When you get injured by doing something that you shouldn't have been doing, you tend to learn from that experience and swear off doing that activity again. Experience is a wonderful teacher, and it is also a great source of power as a whole.
  • Collective Power - This form of power comes from a shared identity within a certain group. When that group has something in common that they can connect on deeply, they can harness that shared identity and use it to leverage their collective power to get the results that they want. This shared identity might be their racial identity, their gender, their culture, or some other piece of shared identity that they can all relate to.

At OF/BY/FOR ALL we practice and uphold a community protocol which is: To know that transparency collectivizes power.

We believe that transparency honors agency. By telling those we’re working with the truth from our perspective, our place of contribution to the relationship and lived experience, they are empowered to make wholly informed decisions, even if those decisions lead them away from working with us.

When information is shared freely and decisions are made transparently, it fosters a sense of trust and empowerment among members. This collective power, resulting from transparency, can significantly enhance the unity and strength of the group, enabling it to effectively address challenges and achieve common goals.

These forms of power, wielded by anyone in an organization, can be used for good or ill. If misused, they can perpetuate a culture of institutional trauma, leading to power imbalances.

How is Power Used Within Organizations?

Understanding power dynamics within an organization is pivotal, and recognizing how these dynamics are utilized is even more crucial. Let's delve into the two main ways individuals wield power within an organization.

Coercive Power: This form of power is typically employed by those who occupy higher positions in an organization. They leverage their status to dictate actions and decisions, often without regard for the morality or consequences of these actions. The use of coercive power can be destructive and unpleasant, depending on how it is applied. Reflect on this: Have you ever felt pressured to act against your better judgment due to the influence of someone in a higher position?

Distributive Power: This is a more constructive approach to power use. Distributive power invites the voices and opinions of all individuals within the organization. It values everyone's contribution towards the ideas and concepts that propel the organization forward. The collective wisdom within an organization is a powerful tool. This form of power avoids the negative implications of coercive power. Ideally, every organization would use distributive power over coercive power when making decisions and policy changes. Ask yourself: Do you feel your voice is heard and valued within your organization?

While distributive power ultimately leads to more equitable and morally sound outcomes, it can be tempting for some individuals to resort to coercive power for quick results. This tendency can contribute to the prevalence of power imbalances within an organization.

Which brings us to the question: Why do power imbalances exist in organizations?

At first glance, the existence of power imbalances within organizations might seem to make sense. There's a need for some individuals to report to others, allowing those with more authority to make informed decisions. However, when power imbalances are exploited for personal gain, they can cause significant harm.

Power imbalances stem from historical patterns that persist in today's organizations. Often, there's a strong momentum to maintain the status quo. The fear of causing upheaval or disruption allows these imbalances to persist, even when they're clearly unfair. Consider this: Have you witnessed or experienced situations where maintaining the status quo has perpetuated power imbalances?

What is Institutional Trauma and How Does it Impact Various Groups?

Institutional trauma is a pervasive issue that's often not fully understood by most people. It signifies the harm that can be inflicted upon an entire community due to their association with an institution. This harm can be a direct result of toxic organizational culture or policies. However, the impact of institutional trauma isn't just confined to those directly associated with the institution - it can ripple out, causing distress and harm in the broader community as well.

Entire industries can perpetrate institutional trauma at a large scale. Consider the case of the healthcare industry, where disparities in care and outcomes have been well-documented. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, minority groups in the U.S. are less likely to receive preventive health services and often receive lower-quality care. They also have worse health outcomes for certain conditions. For instance, African Americans have higher death rates than white Americans for heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS.

In the field of education, systemic biases and institutional structures can also perpetuate harm. According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), students of color face disparities in disciplinary actions, academic opportunities, and achievement. For instance, Black students are disproportionately represented in disciplinary actions, and Hispanic students are more likely to attend high-poverty schools compared to their white peers.

These examples illustrate how institutional harm can extend beyond an organization's walls to inflict trauma on entire communities. The impact of these disparities is not limited to the individuals directly involved but extends to families and entire communities. Lower-quality healthcare outcomes can lead to premature death, causing emotional trauma and financial hardship for families. Similarly, disparities in education can limit career opportunities and earning potential, perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality.

In essence, institutional trauma, fueled by power imbalances and systemic biases, is not an isolated problem confined to the walls of an organization. Instead, its ripple effects can reach far and wide, inflicting profound harm and trauma on broader communities.

Detecting the Symptoms of Institutional Trauma

Are you equipped to identify the telltale signs of institutional trauma within your organization? Understanding these symptoms is the first step toward rectifying the issue. Let's explore some effective strategies that can help you spot institutional trauma:

Harness the Power of Active Listening

Have you ever felt genuinely heard? Active listening, as recognized by the Harvard Business Review, goes beyond merely hearing the words that are spoken. It involves understanding the emotions and the underlying meaning behind those words. Consider this: Is your organization truly listening to its team members, or is it merely going through the motions? Active listening is a skill that requires practice and intentionality. So, start honing this skill and make it an integral part of your organizational culture.

Spot Behavioral Changes

People are creatures of habit. So, when someone you interact with regularly starts behaving differently, it's a signal that something's amiss. Think about it: Have you noticed any of your colleagues demonstrating a decline in work performance or taking more days off? Perhaps they're showing emotional volatility, struggling to get along with others, or losing motivation. These could be warning signals of institutional trauma, highlighting the urgent need for intervention.

Monitor Turnover Rates

Does your organization have a revolving door? High employee turnover rates can be a glaring red flag indicating institutional trauma. Ask yourself: Is your organization losing valuable talent at an alarming rate? People enduring institutional trauma might ultimately decide to seek greener pastures, even if they don't explicitly state that as their reason for leaving. By keeping an eye on turnover trends, you can proactively address potential issues before they escalate.

Harm Can be Embedded in Institutional Culture

Much of society tries to send us the same message: Tradition and institutions are noble things that shouldn't be questioned. However, this is exactly the kind of thinking that can (and often does) lead to larger and more damaging problems than before. Harm can emerge out of organizations that refuse to change their cultures at all.

The first thing to understand is that trauma absolutely exists in workplaces. In fact, in our present day, there is less of a question about whether institutional harm exists in the workplace and more of a question about what those organizations can do about it. Chief.com laid out this vision in the following terms:

There are the obvious forms of workplace trauma: Bullying, harassment, and microaggressions. Then there are the more common: Being passed over for a promotion, having superiors minimize your concerns, or peers questioning your work ethic or judgment. The question isn't whether workplace trauma exists (it does) but rather what leaders can do to build resilient, trauma-informed organizations.

Sadly, not only does workplace trauma and harm exist, but it is also experienced by a huge number of people within those workplaces. McKinsey & Company even conducted a report about the various groups of people who are most likely to experience various forms of harm in the workplace. What they found was that certain groups of people were far more likely to report experiencing microaggressions at work. Among the groups that were most likely to become the victims of this type of hostility include the following:

  • Women
  • Minorities
  • People with disabilities

Of course, some of those groups overlap. The McKinsey study found that 40% of women with disabilities reported experiencing microaggressions at work. Meanwhile, just 15% of men in their survey reported the same.

The Potential Impacts on Visitors

Any visitors to an organization that has a harmful or toxic atmosphere to it are likely to be repelled by what they see. They can feel the tension in the building, and they may opt not to interact with that organization.

Take the example of a non-profit struggling with issues related to institutional harm:

In this scenario, a visitor might decide not to contribute to the non-profit or partner with them because of the reputational damage that the visitor might suffer. They don't want to be associated with an organization that has issues with institutional harm. So, they withhold their funds or business and the people that the non-profit is supposed to serve are harmed as a result. They receive fewer resources and less of the mission is accomplished. All because of institutional harm.

Institutional Betrayal: The Impact of Harm Within an Organization

When people don't feel like they are being protected by their employer and when they are harmed as a result, they experience institutional betrayal. The organization that they work for has turned its back on them.

This situation can be incredibly intense and damaging. People seek to turn to institutions that they trust during times of chaos and crisis. When they feel like they can't trust those institutions, then they experience institutional betrayal and may never see the institutions that they once viewed with respect the same way ever again.

How to Build a Trauma-Informed Organization

Every organization has a crucial role: ensuring that all members understand what trauma looks like and how to prevent inflicting it on others. This responsibility is a non-negotiable part of fostering a healthy work environment.

Imagine the individuals who've experienced trauma within the organization. They often bear a strong desire to shield others from the same fate. However, before they can become protectors, they must first embark on their own healing journey. Organizations play an instrumental part in this process, providing the necessary space and support for healing.

But let's remember, the leaders in our companies and organizations aren't just responsible for creating a product or service. They're also responsible for nurturing an organization of people. Taking care of these individuals isn't just a task on a to-do list – it's an absolute priority. So, let's step up and ensure we're doing our part to foster a trauma-informed, people-first work environment.

Another OF/BY/FOR ALL protocol that we consistently work to uphold is: To know that healing is essential.

We intend healing in our work. Work without healing is harm. We commit to creating the greatest possibility for each of us to heal. We hold space for each other’s healing and our own. We know healing is a process not just an outcome. The norm in work related to constructs of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy is harmful. We seek what will draw us toward individual and collective healing in every relative moment we work together.

Ready for an eye-opening dive into a topic that's both crucial and often overlooked? Let's discuss "compassion fatigue."

What is Compassion Fatigue? The Unexpected Enemy

Defined by the Canadian Medical Association, compassion fatigue is like an emotional sponge that's soaked up just too much. It's what happens when you're on the front lines, battling the distress of others day in, and day out.

You're a caregiver, a helper, a fixer, always there to lend a hand or a shoulder to lean on. You're constantly absorbing the pain and trauma of those you're helping, and guess what? It takes a toll. The symptoms can hit hard, impacting your ability to provide effective care and fulfill other responsibilities.

Now, what's fascinating about compassion fatigue is that it can creep up in any organization, especially those actively warding off institutional trauma. Picture it like a sneaky, unexpected enemy on the battlefield.

You've been fighting institutional trauma, making strides, and creating a more supportive environment, and then out of nowhere, compassion fatigue strikes. It's a stark reminder that the fight against institutional trauma isn't a one-off event, but a continuous, ever-evolving effort.

What happens when institutional trauma is allowed to persist? Initially, an organization may be excused for not fully understanding this type of trauma. However, as time passes, it's vital to take steps to rectify past issues and improve the well-being of employees.

So, what if no action is taken, and institutional trauma continues to grow? Here are some consequences to consider:

Lower Employee Morale - A work environment where trauma thrives can damage morale and productivity. Employees sense the effects of trauma, which can impact their motivation and sense of purpose. If this continues, it can directly affect the organization's bottom line.

High Employee Turnover - High turnover is costly in terms of finances and time. Training new hires to fill the shoes of past employees is time-consuming and financially draining. Moreover, the organization loses valuable institutional knowledge. If trauma persists, expect a high turnover rate.

Lastly, unchecked trauma can tarnish the organization's reputation. Departing employees take their traumatic experiences with them and may share these stories, damaging the organization's image. This can make future recruitment challenging.

These risks can cause lasting damage to an organization. It's crucial to eliminate trauma from your organization for all employees' well-being.

Our Collective Journey: Shaping a Healthier Future

Understanding institutional trauma is tough, yet vital. It empowers us to create better organizations and a brighter future for all. This isn't just a mission—it needs to be our shared ethos.

Although no organization can be perfect for everyone, collectively, we can mold our environments into welcoming spaces filled with diversity and inclusivity. We have the power to combat toxicity and foster a culture of fairness and respect.

This is not just about improving our workplaces—it's about triggering a ripple effect of positive change that touches every individual and community. This isn't just a responsibility—it's our chance to shape the future.

Let's answer this call to action. Let's build institutions that value diversity, champion inclusivity, and uphold fairness. Let's work towards a future where everyone, regardless of their background or identity, can find their place and flourish. Our collective progress hinges on ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.


Here’s a Special Opportunity For You!

In our journey towards creating healthier, inclusive, and fair institutions, it's essential to equip ourselves with the right tools and knowledge. A fantastic resource that can guide us in this process is the OF/BY/FOR ALL Learning Hive's Values-Based Leadership Course. This 8-week program is an excellent opportunity for professionals at all levels to cultivate, refine, and practice leadership skills through a values-based lens. It provides invaluable insights and practical strategies to help leaders foster an environment that values diversity, promotes inclusivity, and champions fairness. By leveraging such learning opportunities, we can accelerate our progress toward building institutions that truly serve all. If this sparks your interest, make sure to sign up to receive information about our upcoming cohort registration today!

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