Releasing Organizational Scar Tissue

In a previous post, I mentioned how “scar tissue” begins to form in organizations. This scar tissue forms over time as a workforce becomes numbed or even wounded from negative experiences with leaders and co-workers.

Organizational scar tissue is very similar to physical scar tissue as it…

Can be long-lasting. Just as a simple scar from a childhood accident to major surgery can have a lifelong effect both physically and mentally, the same can be said for incidents at the workplace. A damaging or hurtful experience will stay in the memory of those who are affected and can be carried with them throughout their career.

Will be evolving. When an organization has been recently “injured” (staff reductions, change initiatives, or office closings, for example) or a person is consistently being negatively impacted by the words of their boss or a peer the evidence is usually raw and easily visible just like new physical wounds. Over time the scar tissue evolves, matures and will heal over the wound.

Has the potential to spread. Scar tissue has the potential to spread in any direction including internally throughout the body. If damaging behavior and burdensome process and procedures are not removed or allowed to heal properly the entire organization can be affected.

Can cause immobility. Scar tissue can also restrict movement or function anywhere in the body from a joint to an organ. Sounds like many organizations I have seen with such a damaged workforce or leadership team where no one can make decisions and nothing meaningful or valuable can get done.

How do you know if scar tissue has set in with your organization? I’m sure there are more but here are a few symptoms I have witnessed and experienced:

An extremely quiet workforce. There is a certain sound a team or organization makes when it is healthy…there is a buzz of excitement and energy. As immobility sets in the lack of movement creates a tangible silence.

An excluded workforce. People are not allowed to speak up and voice their thoughts and opinions. Only a select few have all the say and the others just follow along.

A heavily governed workforce. The overuse of “governance” has set in. Rigid process and “toll gates” has made even the smallest of projects a grueling endeavor.

A checked-out workforce. People are no longer engaged and are just going through the motions. They are racing each other to get out of the building everyday. Last week as I was leaving an office complex a gentleman who was also leaving entered the elevator so I asked how he was doing. He said, “Heading in the right direction.” Hmmm, definitely checked out.

A fleeing workforce. Ultimately, if scar tissue is not released, your best people will start leaving the company and with them probably your best chance to turn things around.

If you are leading an organization with deep issues or are responsible for improving things, how do you start releasing it. It may feel like a daunting task but scar tissue can only be released through movement…and left on its own, scar tissue does not want to move.

Scar tissue remodeling occurs as you start to stretch and pull on it.

At the highest and simplest level and recognizing just how complex a problem this is, here are a couple of steps to begin thinking about releasing the scar tissue in your team or company:

Foster healing first. For fresh or immature wounds, start with gentleness. Listen intently to those who have been hurt or affected. Trust must be restored before healing can begin and this can only happen by listening and empathizing.

Pull and stretch. Once trust is in place, we can start pulling and stretching the organization to begin to bring mobility and functionality back. This may require “therapy” with organizational development coaches, experts, or consultants. Initially, this stretching will be painful but with patience and persistence the pain will begin to dissipate. For organizations with severe dysfunction a disciplined and vigorous approach may be required.

Then Strengthen. With trust and mobility restored, we can begin to rebuild organizational muscle. Establish values and principles and hold each other accountable to them. Give your leaders a model for how to engage with teams and other leaders. Build communities of practice where people know they have a safe place to speak up and contribute. Create lightweight processes such as Agile or Lean to keep the teams nimble, adapting and collaborating.



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4 thoughts on “Releasing Organizational Scar Tissue

  1. As always, great content Len! The following line sticks out as the most important in here to me…

    Trust must be restored before healing can begin…

    It’s all about trust. Unfortunately restoring trust can be a lengthy process.