Culture & Management

Why Corporate Playbooks Fall Short in Tackling Organizational Trauma

min read on
Culture & Management
Alba Villamil, Karen Eisenhauer, and Vivianne Castillo; Visuals by Thumy Phan
January 7, 2022

The American workplace is a traumatized workplace.

From the everyday dysfunction of work, to the devastation of COVID-19, many employees are feeling overwhelmed, disillusioned, and even unsafe. Trauma–any event or experience that leads to distress, impairment, or emotional, physical, spiritual, or psychological harm—is often seen as something that only happens to individuals. But organizations can also experience trauma, and with employee resignation rates at an all time high, organization leaders are recognizing that conversations around burnout and stress aren’t quite cutting it.

And so it’s time to address one of the most commonly overlooked conversations in the workplace: the realities of organizational trauma and healthier ways of supporting individuals in the midst of it.

In this survey study run on dscout, we asked design professionals living in the U.S. to share how their workplaces navigated the traumatic experiences of this past year. We focused on the experiences of design professionals because of the unique ways trauma can emerge in design settings; in these roles, the work often resides at the intersection of being human-centered in profit-driven environments. However, our findings are likely applicable to other fields where extending empathy is a key aspect of their role and responsibilities.

We found that workplaces responded to org-level trauma with one of four “playbooks,” a set of go-to tactics meant to keep the organization afloat while navigating employee trauma and hardship:

  1. The DIY-er
  2. The Empty Empathizer
  3. The Minimizer
  4. The Performer

We also found that these playbooks, frequently celebrated by organization leaders as support for employees, were just as harmful as the problems they were meant to address. They prioritized efficiency and productivity over the care of individuals.

In doing so, these playbooks exacerbated the traumatizing dynamics within organizations, contributing to a painful collective of emotional injury that builds up overtime without a legitimate plan for relief in sight.

Cue the conversation around resilience.

Most resources on workplace trauma recommend employees build up their personal resilience or their ability to “bounce back.” Doing so not only shifts the burden of healing to individual employees but also hides how organizational responses can be traumatic, even those meant to help employees.

Something needs to change and in order to begin holding organizations accountable, we need to put all of them under the microscope–not just those with abusive reputations.

We hope this study will be a starting point for organization leaders to recognize the harm of their own playbooks.

Content Notice

Because of the seriousness of this research, we’d like to provide some context for why we chose this topic and to share some insights into our approach before jumping into what the research surfaced.

First and foremost, we recognize that there are a lot of people who are suffering in silence — but we believe that it doesn’t have to be that way.

We see this as an opportunity for employees to trust themselves and their perceptions of how organizations inflict harm on their well-being.Second, we recognize that there is a chance that some employers might retaliate against the design professionals we surveyed for sharing damaging information. To protect the people who courageously shared their stories with us, we have anonymized responses, removed identifying details that could expose individuals, and have given each person a pseudonym.

Lastly, although we purposefully focused on organizational responses to trauma rather than individual experiences of that trauma, these playbooks touch on topics like workplace abuse, racism, suicidal ideation, and more. Reading about these topics might be difficult, so please listen to your body and prioritize your self-care while reading. We’ve included in this report a couple of moments to help you take a break, breathe, and to honor your experiences and emotions.

It’s time to bring our stories into the light so that we can begin to live more from a place of freedom instead of fear.

Thank you for choosing to join us on this journey.

Trauma and the UX Professional

"Overall, I wanted to be treated like a human, like somebody's daughter or partner. Someone worth care."  ANNA

There are many potential sources of organizational trauma. In their book Organizational Trauma and Healing, researchers Pat Vivian and Shana Hormann explain how organizational trauma can emerge from “a single devastating event, from the effects of many deleterious events over time, or from the impact of cumulative trauma that comes from the compassionate or redemptive nature of the work.”

We recruited 17 designers and 12 researchers who worked in organizations that had experienced at least one of those three issues in the last year. The sheer scale and repetitiveness of these organization-wide challenges created workplaces that can only be described as traumatized.

Gender: Woman 70% (21) Man 23% (7) Genderfluid / non-binary 7% (2) // Ethnicity: Asian 20% (9) Black 27% (8) Latinx 3% (1) White 37% (11) Middle Eastern 3% (1) Unknown 3% (1) // Neurodivergence:	Yes 33% No 47% Not sure 13% Prefer not to answer 7% // Disability: Yes 30% No 53% Not sure 3% Prefer not to answer 13%

While all participants discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and how the sudden shift to remote work completely disrupted their organizations and individual work lives, some folks also shared the devastating impact of major events like mass layoffs and re-organizations.

Additionally, all those surveyed named ongoing issues in their organizations, chief among them being ineffective divisions of labor, a lack of transparency and accountability from leadership, and unrealistic performance expectations. 73% percent of folks also mentioned having experienced identity-based discrimination, harassment, or microaggressions.

“I have been recovering from a hostile work environment from my previous job….In short, my manager was racist against Asians and once told me that ‘Communism made my family poor.’ She enlisted the whole team to turn against me and I was let go. The collective gaslighting took a toll on me and I had to take a few months off.” - XIAOLIN

Most striking was how many design professionals focused on the emotional burdens inherent in their research and design work. These included challenges like:

  • Managing vicarious trauma, a negative reaction when exposed to someone else’s trauma (e.g., hearing research participants discuss traumatic experiences like financial struggle, family deaths, and institutional oppression)
  • Having to constantly advocate for the value of their job to leadership or peers
  • Bearing the torch for ethical research and design in a resistant organization
  • Being overscheduled and understaffed because leadership and/or stakeholders don’t appreciate the resources required for research and design

“The amount of creative freedom and time and space to truly ideate has been lacking. It's been incredibly demanding, and some of the work is very small, prescriptive, and unsatisfying. There's a lack of gratitude or empathy being expressed that's made it difficult for me to continue feeling motivated.” - CATHY 

Experiencing this ongoing emotional distress without the ability to process it safely has serious implications both for employees and their organizations.

Organizational trauma can be just as emotionally and cognitively overwhelming as individual trauma.

As psychologist Kerry Bernes notes: “Although employees (going through organizational change) may not meet diagnostic criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression or any other mental disorder, they may nevertheless display some generalized symptoms consistent with those who have experienced and/or perceived a traumatic event to have occurred.” The design professionals we surveyed were no strangers to these realities, as they reported feeling overwhelmed, disillusioned, unfocused, and isolated within their current roles.

Top words employees used to describe their roles: stressed, unfocused, overwhelmed, fragile, disillusioned, isolated, hopeful, bored, anxious, frustrated, apathetic, disappointed
Top words employees used to describe their roles

Organizations suffered for this too. An overwhelming number of folks reported that they noticed their teams also showed signs of burnout, reduced performance, and reduced creativity (93%). A close second was frustration and cynicism directed towards their company (79%). Of the professionals we surveyed, 93% reported that they had thought about quitting their job in the last year (or had already done so). 59% considered leaving the design industry altogether.

It took our C-Suite team 8 months just to notice half the org is feeling [down and unmotivated]. They still have not addressed it and say that they are working on it. We've had a higher turnover than in the past. My supervisor and I rant about the challenges each week during our 1:1 just to feel like at least someone else understands and we can get it out. I've pretty much determined a deadline [to leave] if the org doesn't have any changes soon. I'll start looking for new opportunities because my health is more important and I know I could be a value to another team. - DEVONTE

Common organizational playbooks for addressing workplace trauma

The rest of this report will focus on how these design professionals described their workplace’s response to these challenges and trauma. We noticed that organizations tended to group certain tactics with one another so we developed four playbooks to represent those different collections of tactics.

It’s important to note that these playbooks aren’t mutually exclusive and most of the organizations folks worked for showed elements of all four. These playbooks are also not meant to encapsulate all organizational approaches; they are four of many.

We picked the playbook metaphor to demonstrate how leaders approach organizational trauma like they would sports or corporate sales:

The four playbooks on employee trauma define the strategy and set of actionable plays that will “win” the game — in this case, that will neutralize the disruptiveness of organizational trauma. Yet our research shows that the playbook approach most organizations adopt are rooted in an inaccurate understanding of employee needs or incentive to safely address those needs.

Alone, some of these tactics aren’t harmful, and the leaders, managers, and support staff deploying them don’t necessarily have ill intentions. But as we’ll show at the end of each playbook, these tactics can have serious consequences for employees and their psychological and physical health.

1. The DIY-er

"They do offer a stipend of $100 per month that can be used for any type of well-being service. I can utilize this towards my therapist, medical costs, gym membership. It feels inadequate given the emotional depth of the work I do.”   LAURA
Drawing of a person falling while hold a booklet and other geometric shapes surround them

Organization leaders following the “Do-It-Yourself” Playbook recognize the mental health needs of their employees and provide funds and tools so those employees can take care of their emotional well-being on their own time. These resources are usually one-off or ask for minimal engagement from managers and support staff like Human Resources (HR).

The DIY Playbook

  • Deliver educational resources: Managers deliver resources about mental wellness to employees’ inboxes (e.g., newsletters, articles, or links to webinars).
  • Host events: HR occasionally invites speakers and workshop facilitators who are leaders (or celebrities) in the workplace wellness space.
  • Provide small stipends: Leaders give employees a small budget to use on themselves outside of work (e.g., gym memberships, therapy or meditation app subscriptions).
  • Provide floating mental health days: Managers encourage floating mental health days but ask employees to coordinate with their team when they want to take them.
  • Minimize intrusion: HR communicates when and how to use resources in mainly asynchronous ways (e.g., emails, wiki articles).
  • Leave resource use to employee discretion: Leadership assumes that employees are using mental health resources to the extent they want to, and don’t push further.

The harm of the DIY Playbook

"I wish it didn't happen this way. I was told ‘Well, why didn't you ask for support?’ And I said ‘I did, I wrote Slack messages of me asking for support, just how you told me I should. The fact that you are telling me that I didn't ask for support or that I didn't do it in the right way...It's incredibly frustrating’. When I actually showed them the Slack message, I was told I didn't ask in the right way even though I was asking for support in exactly the way they had described it. It was just a real moment of frustration — felt almost like being gaslit by admin." - EVAN

The problem with the DIY Playbook is that it allows leaders to implicitly shift the burden of care from organizations (a major source of trauma) to the individual employees already depleted by that trauma. Organizations technically provide resources, but obtaining them requires an unreasonable amount of insider knowledge, time, and effort.

Although some of the design professionals we surveyed found these mental health resources useful, not everyone used them. Many lacked the training for knowing when and how to access the resources while others lacked the energy or time to start a sign-up process with so many bureaucratic barriers (e.g., overly strict sign-up deadlines, complicated paperwork). These barriers were more likely to impact contractors who already had limited access to their managers and HR because of company policy.

"My workplace provides third party services that connect employees to mental health services. These services are provided to employees for free. I haven't had the bandwidth to try out the efficacy of these services so I can't speak to their adequacy. I don't hear of my fellow co-workers actively using these services, either." - ANDREW

Moreover, this gap between resource availability and access could be retraumatizing in itself. Some design professionals described their organization’s DIY response as isolating because it framed their mental health needs as a personal issue that they alone had interest in addressing.

This workplace neglect mimicked the organized abandonment folks felt during the pandemic when government institutions forced individuals to figure out how to navigate systemic failure and manage their own health needs.

Given that the people we surveyed named COVID-induced isolation as one of the most difficult experiences they had faced in the last year, organizations expecting those same individuals to also navigate needless complexity on their own was upsetting at best and triggered significant emotional distress at worst.

Finally, even those who were able to access resources sometimes felt isolated. After suffering major trauma, being offered mindfulness exercises or even a stipend for therapy felt like a band-aid on a bullet wound. Rather than seeing these initiatives as something helpful, folks saw it as a symbol of leadership being out of touch and not bothering to understand the actual scope of their problems.

"I did not see any way in which these [mental health] issues were addressed other than designating Friday past 1PM as [name of company-wide initiative] where no work was necessary. We also received extra paid time off for 20 days for COVID-related issues. Leaders showcased how folks used their time during COVID in our [all hands meeting], which to me was [ridiculous]...Showing people working on their gardens and side projects like COVID was this positive force of change while many others struggled with childcare, illness, loss, grief..." - FATIMAH

2. The Empty Empathizer

"They put out a survey for people to respond to but I don't see any direct link to actions that are being taken. It is ineffective because the action taken isn't transparent, so there's no way to hold leaders accountable." - CRYSTAL
Drawing of a person holding a lightbulb over a box

Unlike the DIY Playbook, which leaves employees to navigate their own mental health needs, the Empty Empathizer Playbook encourages candor and community. Organizations lean on employee resource groups (ERGs) and direct managers to create space for sensitive discussions and employee feedback.

However, these organizations put more effort into collecting employee information than doing anything with it, creating that trademark feeling of “emptiness” within these empathetic spaces.

The Empty Empathizer Playbook

  • Set up communication channels: Organization sets up a structure of repeating 1-on-1s or office hours with employees’ direct report managers and HR.
  • Create ERGs: Organization allows employees with similar backgrounds or interests to meet up and build connections. Leaders give permission to create these groups, but give little financial or institutional support. These groups also often serve aspiring allies, not just the groups they were originally made for.
  • Ask employees to document their opinions: HR periodically sends out employee satisfaction surveys. Departments ask employees to document their emotional well-being and log it with the company.
  • Focus on data collection: Managers, ERGs, and HR take care to collect data and feedback but don’t create an explicit plan of action based on that information.
  • Prioritize feedback loops between middle management and employees: Organization has strong channels of feedback between employees and middle management, and relies on managers to relay concerns to higher-up leadership, often in a less structured or consistent manner.

The harm of the Empty Empathizer Playbook

"Within view, I think management universally adopts this ‘If you need support, just let me know’ messaging around mitigating issues, but not every manager is going to act in your favor once they know." - MICHELLE

The design professionals we surveyed acknowledged that organizations holding space for employee concerns was an important first step in addressing workplace dysfunction. People who didn’t have this kind of safe space at their organization desired it strongly (see The Minimizer Playbook).

However, empathy without the support of higher-up leadership could quickly produce solutions that were psychological and emotional burdens on employees. While direct managers and other support roles may come from a place of care, their inability to advocate for employees can manifest frustrating and traumatizing experiences of betrayal.

Because of the hierarchical distance between leaders and individual employees, managers are key players in organizations that follow the Empty Empathizer Playbook. Although folks in this type of organization saw their direct managers as people they could confide in, many of those managers struggled to elevate employee concerns to leadership, often lacking the support, training, or strategies to successfully advocate for their teams.

"There is a Director who I have scheduled 1-on-1s with, but nothing really comes out of it other than a listening, sympathizing ear. Structurally, [the organization] is too top-down, roles are very prescriptive, and nothing gets escalated because those who I speak to on the issues also tell me they feel helpless." - PHUONG

Managers who were successful at advocating for their reports often left within a few years, burnt out. The emotional labor required to manage absentee leaders was often invisible, and when these managers left, the chronic issues became even more invisible.

Our research also surfaced how designated safe spaces can turn surveillant and coercive. To employees, the dark side of being invited to give feedback was the risk of not knowing how that data would be used afterward.

Several of the design professionals we surveyed saw town halls and ERGs as a way for leadership to identify dissenters.

"Employee resource groups and task forces do valuable work and they create organizational homes for people. But they can also be damaging and identify you as being a leader in an area that is not truly deeply valued." - LEAH

Employees called out manager calibration sessions for a similar reason. These sessions, which combine managers across different teams to discuss employee performance, were described as breeding grounds for surveillance because they made it easier for managers to access information about their reports that could later be used as retaliation.

Empty Empathizer organizations created spaces for employees to share personal and sensitive information but weren’t transparent about an employee’s privacy rights.

The ineffectiveness and misuse of these safe spaces made some design professionals experience what psychologist Jennifer Freyd calls institutional betrayal.

Institutional betrayal occurs “when an institution causes harm to an individual who trusts or depends upon that institution.”

Successful employee supports like empathetic managers, HR, or ERGs foster a sense of trust so when those safe spaces are then used by leadership to harm those who sought help from them, employees feel betrayed.

Drawing of lightly colored waves and wavy-like shapes

Moment of mindfulness | Grounding exercise

Whew. We recognize that this report may have started to spark some intense feelings within you. You don’t have to focus on enduring these feelings; you can choose to take a moment to breathe and care for yourself if needed:

Find a comfortable sitting position and close your eyes. Listen to your breathing while you slowly inhale and exhale in an even and controlled manner. Concentrate on your breath and notice how you feel and what your breath feels like as you breathe in and breath out:

Breathe In: I am enough in this moment.

Breathe Out: I am more than what I can produce.

Breathe In: My story deserves to be honored.

Breathe Out: My pain requires no apology or explanation.

Breathe In: My voice is worthy of being heard.

Breathe Out: I will not hide, I belong here.

Drawing of lightly colored waves and wavy-like shapes

3. The Minimizer

"It's really exhausting to witness people act like everything is ok when it is not and expect you to perform the same sad little stage play. Couple that with being blocked from being able to do work that feels meaningful because ‘it's not what we usually do’ and it's left me feeling very detached and uninvested from work. It's very hard to care."  JOCELYN
Drawing of a person holding money with other people-like figures surrounding them

Organizations using the Minimizer Playbook tend to have company cultures that value speed, competition, and resilience. All levels of the organization discourage any thoughts that might “distract” employees from what the organization believes is their most productive selves.

The Minimizer Playbook

  • Ship projects quickly: Organizations set aggressive timelines and goals for all employees, leaving little room for slowing down—even in the case of traumatic events or emotional challenges.
  • Prioritize an “optimistic” work environment: Organizations promote positivity and encourage employees to share positive news and optimistic opinions.
  • Reward resilience and productivity: Organizations promote and otherwise reward employees who show “resilience” (i.e. who keep producing regardless of circumstances).
  • Minimize panic and negativity: Leadership hesitates sharing news that might negatively impact employees or cause them to panic (e.g. mass layoffs, reorganization, etc.) and/or obscures communication channels that let employees communicate with one another about such news.
  • Let employees handle themselves: Employees are encouraged, implicitly or explicitly, to be autonomous and self-sufficient (i.e., keep their private life to themselves when it comes to handling their mental health).

The harm of the Minimizer Playbook

"I am still often the only Black woman on my teams so it is “damned if you do or don't.” Sometimes I feel like being the only Black person in the classroom when reading to Kill a Mockingbird and everyone is looking at me for my take on racism in the world. OR it feels incredibly lonely watching people move business as usual when I am struggling to keep tears back from watching Black people be murdered, hung out to dry in court, and White people roam free." - JACKIE 

The majority of design professionals we surveyed worked in organizations that used elements of the Minimizer Playbook.

What makes this playbook particularly insidious in comparison to the first two playbooks is the way it manipulates employees into seeing themselves (and others) as only “workers.”

Organizations that followed the Minimizer Playbook relied on their hustle culture to detract employee criticism of unsustainable workloads and performance expectations. Cultures like this are breeding grounds for burnout, especially for creative and empathic roles like design, where many battle the temptation to neglect their self-care in service of caring and advocating for others.

Many of the design professionals we surveyed noted how little respect and consideration their organizations gave design roles. Already strapped for time and support, the COVID-19 pandemic further burdened peoples’ workload. This was especially likely among design professionals working in industries hit hard by the pandemic (e.g., remote conferencing, healthcare, civic tech).

Several folks shared how their managers expected team members to take on the work of those who had already quit while also onboarding and training new employees. Design professionals working in these conditions saw themselves playing a constant and exhausting game of catch-up.

Non-design stakeholders also used the empathetic nature of design roles to guilt people into taking on more responsibilities and performing past their limits. Some folks shared how organizations would use the argument of “being the voice of the user” to justify last-minute research and design requests.

Employees who slowed down or raised concerns about workloads were often criticized as being sub-par or unprofessional and were even bullied for asking for more support in their work.

"Zero [support]. And they'd probably make fun of you for asking." - SAMANTHA 

This weaponized professionalism had a particularly big impact on those who are women, people of color, or disabled. When employees burned out and left their organization, some organizations rationalized these employee departures with discriminatory beliefs about ability and motivation. Others glossed over how societal inequality around child care and healthcare access pushed certain groups of employees to work past reasonable limits.

"I reached out to HR about work-life balance issues related to a new VP coming on and how that affected employees with responsibilities to care for others. I was struggling so much that I fell into depression and inquired about accommodations at work.
I felt that it would be safe to talk to another woman with children in HR but I regret it 100%. I was basically told my job couldn't be accommodated because if it was I would no longer be able to meet the minimum requirements for it." - GABRIELLA

For example, almost every Black design professional in our sample shared examples of how their organizations preyed on their imposter syndrome and need to outperform their white colleagues because of racist performance evaluations.

Some reported being hyper-aware of how their race would influence how managers receiving the complaint would see them.

“I was the only Black designer. The company did not have an organized UX process and I was often blamed by my manager for this, even though I was, at the time, a junior and needed guidance. My manager also accused me of my portfolio being not mine, that I did not do the projects on my portfolio.
He insulted my work and every day I felt anxious and angry at the situation…I was responsible for a B2B product that had no UX in place, no user research, testing, etc. It was frustrating to be blamed for the quality of the work.” - RAVEN

We all have felt the pain of going through personal and professional hardships, experiences that require us to acknowledge that everything is not okay and to grapple with a complex range of emotions. Yet several employees noted how their organizations, in an effort to curb low team morale, encouraged staff to over-index on positivity. There was a subtextual message to not share negative news that could be interpreted by leadership as an attack on the organization.

"I don't feel that the culture of my work incentivizes the things they say they want from their employees. Leadership says they value candor but everyone is still afraid [to] say what they really feel. The company is obsessed with hearing 'good news' all of the time." - NICK

This toxic positivity was one of many abusive tactics the design professionals we surveyed named. Others recalled moments of minimization and invalidation. Many folks recounted how their organization completely ignored the collective anxiety and grief felt in the wake of events like the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, or the pervasive racist and xenophobic violence against Black and Asian communities.

Even those who disclosed suicidal ideation and other serious mental health needs were told to “Suck it up, you’re resilient, you’ll be OK” or were forced to go through back channels to receive support.

"Turning point for me was when one of my peers became suicidal. He made a comment about being so depressed he was starting to worry about hurting himself in a team meeting, and business continued as usual. I raised a flag to the other design managers about it and we decided to address it and help him get some help without involving HR (we didn't trust them). It brought the design leadership team together but we had to handle it all on the dl. Nothing changed in the workplace." - GABRIELLA

4. The Performer

"Best place to work? We laid off a thousand people the same day we reported record profit. Tell me how that's ethical. Best place to work for women? Tell me, where was [company leader] when Georgia and again in Texas was threatening abortion care for women? [Company leader had to be argued into] caring about Georgia at ALL and offering the crumb of helping people move out of the state. And at the time, we sold "FEMINIST" shirts in the [company] store. Optics vs reality.”  CRYSTAL
Drawing of a person holding masks and handing a mask to another person that is slightly floating above them

Some organizations are deeply invested in being seen as inclusive and ethical. Leaders using the Performer Playbook make public statements to indicate their support for certain social issues or political movements. These leaders also encourage employees to put on events or start internal initiatives that reflect those values.

This can be a positive thing—words matter, and public declarations of support can go a long way in making employees feel safer at work. However, Performers rarely follow up on these flashier shows of support with more institutional change, nor do they protect employees pushing for internal change from backlash.

The Performer Playbook

  • Publicly state political or ethical commitments: Leadership makes public statements or press releases committing to social equality and ethical practices, which may or may not reflect the internal reality of the organization.
  • Create one-time solutions: Leaders make a show of greenlighting one-time events (e.g. workshop, guest celebrity, hackathon) or providing one-time relief (e.g. a day off, a meeting-free day).
  • Rush to kick-off large-scale initiatives: Leaders make promises to employees and support internal initiatives (e.g., diversity and inclusion committees, large-scale internal surveys) in response to current events. Projects often fizzle out because they rely on the emotional labor of volunteers and don’t secure follow-up action plans.
  • Let advocates take the reins of change: Organization creates a space for passionate employees to speak up about internal issues they’re facing, and often asks them to help with any follow-up work (and deal with any fall out). Organization relies on individual actors rather than institutionalized programs to change company culture.
  • Prioritize company-wide image overbuilding employee trust: Organization invests in company-wide branding around openness and wellbeing, but does not invest in ways to hold direct report managers accountable for cultivating trustworthy relationships with employees.

The harm of the Performer Playbook

“I was assigned to a project early that was very callous and harmful towards me. And just for bringing up equitable and human-centered practices—such as asking for consent, paying the participants their true worth—it was a fight to get [my lead] to even treat me with respect and empathy. And the kicker was that she was the champion for accessibility in research—she's had several speaking engagements on those topics. So it was just the realization that people are positioning themselves to be industry leaders and are really causing harm and nobody cares…We claim to be human-centered, but we can't even take care of each other, like within the profession.” - KEENYA

The Performer Playbook communicates that organizations care more about looking good than being good.

We found that this duplicity not only eroded employees’ trust in their organization but seriously harmed their sense of self.

For example, design professionals who were invested in equitable design were often drawn to mission-driven organizations. But when these same professionals participated in initiatives like inclusive product task forces and faced constant false starts, team disbandments, and resource scarcity, they became disillusioned with their work.

“My managers were like ‘Oh, Diwa is a DEI advocate. We would love for you to conduct a study with the research team on how to improve diversity and inclusion because we scored the lowest on this in our department’s DEI scores and we want to understand why.’...As a researcher, it's very important that we're not biased. It's literally part of our job description, like we don't try to lead our users into answering in any type of way. I'm very cognizant of that. And so I was very [offended] actually, when the director of UX for our studio said something to me along the lines of, ‘Well, we know that you speak up about issues, but we don't want that to bias the results of the study.’ And I was just like, ‘Do you not trust me as a researcher, just because I spoke up about a DEI issue?" - DIWA 

Working in these performative organizations also caused moral injury, the violation of one’s beliefs or sense of ethics. Employees who had gained a reputation for producing inclusive and equitable work were sometimes moved to teams engaged in less ethical work to garner internal goodwill and even cover up malpractice.

It was also morally injurious to spend time and labor on something employees knew wouldn’t change their users’ lives for the better.

"As for the violation of trust, ethics and personal beliefs, [leadership] have been very quiet. Pushing for police technology is part of the business model, so they're being extremely vague about ‘watching closely and attentively to any new technologies developed for policing,’ while at the same time trying to silo teams they force to work on these projects from everyone else unofficially." - SIMON

Folks working in performative organizations experienced other forms of harm as well. Employees walked us through how organizations would cultivate a positive reputation through high profile mental health campaigns and DEI initiatives (e.g., by paying to be considered for “best place to work” awards from organizations like Fortune), and how abusive managers would then use that reputation to cover up systemic toxicity and gaslight employees into not trusting their own perceptions of a workplace’s culture.

"You know, it was like boiling a frog. You don't start out on the hottest water, you slowly turn the temperature up so the frog doesn't realize he's being cooked…I thought I was fine. Sure, there was another horrible thing happening every couple months that totally went against everything I believed in, but those were isolated events.
The way my friends in other areas of the business were being treated was because of that manager, not because of the systemic toxicity. That wasn't the real [Company Name].
If we were treated horribly, it's because that just wasn't the REAL company. I was at the best place in the world to work, there was nothing else out there for me. I wouldn't find anything as good as this. ‘It's not as bad as some OTHER places,’ I'd be told.
That kind of gaslighting and manipulation may have been the absolute worst thing, because it's insidious and it's ongoing. It worms its way into your brain in a way that's hard to describe unless you've experienced it before and have healed from it."

Organizations also used access to decision-makers to intimidate and detract criticism. Several design professionals noted how in a supposed gesture of goodwill they were given access to higher-ranking leaders to provide feedback but with no preparation or liaison present.

Some described these interactions as intimidating while others saw them as signals of possible danger. These organizations neither prioritized employee safety nor transparency about the impact of these meetings.

Drawing of lightly colored waves and wavy-like shapes

Moment of mindfulness | Grounding exercise

We’re about to pivot into some into something more hopeful, but before we do, we want to provide you with another moment to choose you and care for yourself if needed:

Find a comfortable sitting position and close your eyes. Listen to your breathing while you slowly inhale and exhale in an even and controlled manner. Concentrate on your breath and notice how you feel and what your breath feels like as you breathe in and breath out:

Breathe In: My grief is worthy of being honored.

Breathe Out: I don’t have to grieve alone.

Breathe In: My “no” is enough.

Breathe Out: I will honor my limits and rest.

Breathe In: Critique is a signal of hope.

Breathe Out: Hope is not a scarcity.

Drawing of lightly colored waves and wavy-like shapes

5. The Trauma-Informed Organization

Drawing of our people walking forward with geometric shapes and other symbols floating next to them.

The fifth and final playbook we want to share isn’t a playbook at all: it’s about adopting mindset shifts.

Organizational trauma isn’t an issue that can be waved away with a few employee resources, toxic positivity, or press releases. As seen in the four playbooks we developed, if left unaddressed, organizational trauma can compound and have lasting effects.

If organizations want to improve their employee experience, they must invest in healing organizations as a whole. Such healing requires a commitment to identifying and naming the sources of organizational traumatization, investing in developing more self-aware leaders, holding leaders accountable for harmful behaviors, and investing in outside help from experts in trauma-informed and equity-centered support.

Trauma can be acute, complex, and historical, and organizations need to recognize that they can’t solve it with a checklist of actions and initiatives that they’ve applied to other large organizational problems.

It’s an ongoing process of healing where, first and foremost, leaders need to prioritize the adoption of mindset shifts before implementing programs that prioritize its scalability and the use of free emotional and volunteer labor of their workforce.

Here are a few mindset shifts organizations can begin to make.

The Trauma-Informed Organization Playbook

From: Trauma is an individual issue; To: Organizational trauma is a systemic issue, not just an individual issue.

From our survey, it was clear that many organizations don’t know how to navigate trauma, whether that’s at the individual, organizational, or even societal level. Organizations must begin to acknowledge the presence of these different levels of trauma in the workplace.

At the minimum, this means examining how internal dynamics like workload (e.g., timelines, staff numbers) and performance evaluation (e.g., standards) can be traumatizing. It also means carving out time in the schedule for purposeful moments of rest (e.g., less penalizing PTO policies).

From: "We need to prioritize communicating information in scalable, efficient ways." // To: "We need to prioritize communicating information in psychologically safe and trauma-informed ways."

Leadership and management need to dismantle surveillant processes in employee performance reviews and reporting. They need to be transparent about how organizations will use any employee information collected in ERGs or manager 1-on-1s.

They should also provide transparency and insight into timelines for when employees can expect to hear next steps or updates.

From: "We need to sponsor employee-led efforts made up of volunteers.” // To: "We need to hire external support from entities with expertise (not to be confused with passion or interest) in trauma-informed and equity-centered practices."

Although motivated employee volunteer efforts are important, organizations need to recognize that the responsibility of protecting workplaces from traumatization should fall on leadership instead of individual employees, especially those coming from historically marginalized backgrounds.

Leadership cannot assume that all minoritized groups want to do this work and are equipped to do it. Organizations should elevate these experts and equip them with resources.

From: "The lack of equitable and trauma-informed behaviors is a personality issue." // To: "The lack of equitable and trauma-informed behaviors is a performance issue."

Make healing organizational trauma part of leadership performance standards. For organizational healing to take place, organizations must put value on it. It needs to be considered part of performance reviews and pay and bonus structures.


Breathe In: Critique is a signal of hope.
Breathe Out: Hope is not a scarcity.

As we shared earlier in this report, we recognize that there are a lot of people who are suffering in silence—but we believe that it doesn’t have to be that way.

We see this as an opportunity to help people find the language and the courage necessary to engage in self-advocacy, boundaries, and self-care. We see this as an opportunity to challenge the status quo on the role of care in the workplace and an opportunity for organizations to recognize that the future of work is trauma-informed and deeply human.

And these opportunities cannot be given the permission to become realities until we understand some incredibly painful truths and experiences.

It is imperative that we acknowledge how organizational cultures and the systems that uphold them can encourage us to diminish or hide our pain. More importantly, it’s important to understand that avoidance is a common and natural reaction to trauma.

It’s painful to think about the workplace hardships we’ve experienced. It’s painful to allow ourselves to feel emotions related to a traumatic experience. It’s painful to confront the behaviors and mindsets that insidiously corrode our teams and organizations.

So we avoid the pain and the dysfunction—but in doing so we rob ourselves of the opportunity to heal and experience what we all deserve: better.

Let us continue to choose courage over comfort in the ways we advocate for what we need and deserve in both our personal and professional lives.

And perhaps more importantly, let us continue to remember to breathe:

Breathe In: I am enough in this moment.

Breathe Out: I am more than what I can produce.

Breathe In: My story deserves to be honored.

Breathe Out: My pain requires no apology or explanation.

Breathe In: My voice is worthy of being heard.

Breathe Out: I will not hide, I belong here.

Breathe In: My grief is worthy of being honored.

Breathe Out: I don’t have to grieve alone.

Breathe In: My “no” is enough.

Breathe Out: I will honor my limits and rest.

Breathe In: Critique is a signal of hope.

Breathe Out: Hope is not a scarcity.


Many thanks to Matt Bernius, Sarah Fathallah, and Danny Spitzberg for reading and giving feedback on a draft of this report.

quotation mark