We’d been grappling with it for weeks, this nagging question about the nature of change and the sharp emotions that it evokes in everyone.  As we sat in the office together, him at the desk reading through his assignment for his masters program in cybersecurity and me sitting on the soft carpet in front of his desk, we couldn’t help but enter into one of our well-established kitchen talks. For us, kitchen talks are those intimate conversations at the end of a long week where we grapple with situations or issues that we’ve  encountered and things we’ve learned about ourselves. This time our conversation was particularly ripe and ever present. I could not stop talking about how the complexity of systems-level impact necessitates change. We understand this, but when change is upon us we experience a range of emotions. We either lean in and embrace it, or conversely resist, challenge, or stop it. He could not stop talking about the complexity of changing technology and how the competitive global marketplace necessities change. We understand it. We either lean in and embrace it, or conversely resist, challenge, or stop it. How could two individuals working in two vastly different sectors arrive at the same conclusion? How could change evoke similar challenges and opportunities in the social sector and the field of technology?  The answer was buried deep in a case study that he was reading for his class assignment. The author called it, transformation trauma.

Transformation trauma refers to significant and rapid change that is introduced within an organization or complex issue that significantly disrupts, affects, and reorganizes long-standing practices with the goal of greater innovation or deeper impact (Munro & Khan, 2013).

This sparked a more intense conversation that continued into the next morning as we were getting ready for the day. As I brushed my teeth and he put in his contacts, we discussed those powerful words . . . transformation trauma.  It felt like such an oxymoron. The word transformation is defined as a thorough or dramatic change in form, or an act, process, or instance of transforming. Every definition of transformation is perceived as good and positive, euphonious, and something everyone should want or desire.  In many beloved self-help books of this generation, we see titles such as transform your life, changing insights, education for self-transformation, digital transformation, challenge and transformation, and the list goes on and on.  Transformation is seen as revolutionary, elevating, and readying you for the next level of something magnificent. Trauma, on the other hand, is defined as an injury or a behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress, or physical injury, or an agent, force or mechanism that causes trauma. Trauma is seen as scary, something you should fear and avoid at all cost, and something that is forced on you and meant to cause you harm or injury.

If this is how we see change in the context of solving the world’s complex challenges, it’s no wonder we all have such a sharp range of responses to embrace, resist, challenge, or stop it. This raises challenges to ponder: How do we create enough healthy tension to embrace transformation and change without it being traumatic? How can we unpack this phenomenon in a way that facilitates practices, grace, and support that enables us all to to reach and grow new markets and address deeply entrenched social issues that will impact generations to come?

Here are some insights on how to introduce transformational change that propels organizations and sectors forward with a shared state and vision which can be uncomfortable but not traumatic.

#1: First, name what individuals are feeling and experiencing. Create the necessary safe space for everyone to acknowledge and process their feelings without judgement.
#2: Allow everyone to grapple with how changes will impact them and their work. Provide transparency and information that will assist individuals with understanding the goals, timelines, and support needed throughout the change process.
#3: Create a shared vision through group/team structures designed in partnership with the team. These structures will create a shared understanding of past efforts through a retrospective review of key bodies of work, facilitated dialogue, and analysis. The results are lessons towards crafting a different or evolved vision for the future.
#4: Build team-based practices and structures, in partnership with the team, that encourages others to utilize and align existing and untapped skills, talents, and resources towards a shared vision for the future. These practices and structures should also build organizational culture and practices that are healthy and positive as a means to ground and center collective efforts in the midst of change.
#5: Create familiarity and comfortableness with the changes by grounding the conversation in visuals that repeat the decision points that have been made. Allow the team the opportunity to  identify blind spots, on-going concerns, solutions, and places for innovation. This creates ownership, buy-in in  the process, and utilizes the skills and perspectives of each team member while giving space for individual voices to be heard and for concerns to be acknowledged and documented while continuing to move the group forward.
The integration of these shared practices, through a parallel change process, have the potential to provide the necessary support to propel everyone forward in organizations and companies. I look forward to everyone supporting other game changers this year. Look for the next series topic titled: “ Transformation Activators.”


Tracey Greene-Washington is the founder of CoThinkk and Nexus Point Consulting. NC Early Childhood Foundation board member, and former board chair of the Center for Leadership Innovation. She has over 18 years experience in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector working on initiatives focused on leadership development, community economic development, health and wellbeing, and education.