Survivor guilt, also in organisations

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Some time ago we were invited to work on a career issue of a driven manager. Her sabbatical was coming to an end and the ‘knot’ that had to be unravelled during that period had not been unravelled. ‘Back into business as a manager in an organisation or opting for a future as a coach, based on her intuitive qualities that had shown themselves in recent years’, that was what it was about. My colleague trainer and I decided to stretch this dilemma and turn it into a ‘tetralemma’ with four alternatives instead of two. After all, sometimes there are more choices than two extremes.

The following ‘floor anchors’ were laid down — in the form of a square :

A -> back into the business world as a manager, in paid employment
B -> to work as an independent coach
C -> both together (= working with those intuitive coaching skills but in paid employment)
D -> neither (= which could be an option that did not yet show up in the quest)

In a setup with floor anchors, we didn’t work with representatives but let the questioner explore for herself, mostly by standing on each of the floor anchors and experiencing how these different options felt. In doing so, we keep a close eye on what physical changes we saw in the various positions.

What immediately struck us was that the manager in question, constantly turned her back towards position A, which was the floor anchor that represented her old role. There seemed to be a kind of aversion to that position or choice. At least remarkable for someone with such a long and solid career as a manager. But also in position B — against expectations — we got a rather heavy, energy-lacking and jaded impression.
We asked her, after having explored all positions a few times, to turn around and look at position A. Her feeling of aversion grew. To the question ‘What do you see when you look at A?’ she answered: “I see all the people I have had to fire over the years, during several radical reorganisations. We decided to position all the other people in the course as ‘the dismissed employees’, so she could look them in the eye. Her tears flowed and an immense grief came to light.

We often encounter this phenomenon in organisations, but at the same time there is little awareness about it. From a systemic perspective, we are talking about a form of ‘survivor guilt’ here, which creates a great sense of guilt among those who ‘survived’ the reorganisation. Survivor guilt is often accompanied by an endless stream of thoughts that you could have done more or something else to prevent this ‘suffering’, even when that is not actually true. It is a form of deep loyalty to other people — usually victims — which hinders one’s own happiness or success. This often includes the unspoken promise not to become happier or more successful than those in the system who had to suffer (or in this case those who had to leave the organisation).

We see survivor’s guilt return in organisations in various forms:

· In the case of managers who — from their role — have to fire people several times, for example during reorganisations or mergers;

· In employees who, after the departure of colleagues — for example due to a large dismissal round — no longer fully embrace their job out of loyalty with their colleagues who had to leave;

· In employees who find out that a large part of the company’s profits is actually due to harrowing working conditions, at the front of the production chain (cf. sweat shops, child labour, …).

This negative loyalty ultimately showed — in this specific case — that the manager was not free to choose anything. Fortunately, constellations offer the opportunity to investigate what could help to untangle a knot. Important to know is that a negative loyalty is usually not rational and often arises through a pattern that originates from the family system. Such negative loyalty — which undermines someone’s own happiness or success — can be recognised by this:

· You quickly feel guilty about moments of happiness and success experiences;

· You do not celebrate successes, but immediately move on to the next objective to be achieved;

· You have trouble being in the centre or being admired;

· Your focus is on the negative, on what can be improved (instead of harvesting what is achieved);

· Through your identification with the suffering of others, you lose sight of the lightness of life.

How did this appear in the issue we had constellated?
The manager had a strong assumption that the dismissed employees could no longer be happy or successful. This irrational — but understandable — thought turned out to be wrong, which was clearly expressed by the representatives of the dismissed employees. This thought had become too predominant. In essence, a manager cannot possibly be responsible for the fate of these dismissed employees. As a manager you are — from your role — only partly responsible for the dismissal and largely responsible for how you handled this, but not for how people ultimately deal with it in their lives.

We gave her the following ‘healing sentences’ to feel through: ‘I saw you, as a person and as a professional with all your competencies’ followed by ‘I did what I could, but it was out of my reach to stop this’. By saying this she could physically experience what was her part and what she was responsible for. By then, the people in the constellation — including the manager herself — came to rest.

Of course the opposite can also be the case, especially when a manager pushes away all responsibility. Systems sense what is right and if it is not, something starts to falter. In that area, systems are flawless.

Finally, a next step was needed. We often see this occur, especially when there is trauma in organisations. At a deeper level it seemed as if a part of the manager’s soul was still attached to the employees who had to leave. Concretely, this means that this ‘soul piece’ is not yet available for the future. It is ‘stuck in time’. Hence the heavy, energy-lacking and jaded impression at the start of the constellation. We decided to perform a healing ritual in which we allowed her to retrieve the ‘split-off part’ of her soul. This became a very special exchange between the dismissed employees and the manager. The life energy could — or received permission — to flow and she could look clearly at the four different options again …

The question that remains — partly because this is not the first time we have experienced this — is: ‘How many people within the context of their work are stuck in a similar, negative loyalty? While this blog was being written, we were contacted by a large organisation where the energy was no longer flowing. After a few questions about the recent history of the organisation, a familiar pattern emerged …

This blog is a co-creation of Leanne Steeghs and Philippe Bailleur. Together they developed the Training ‘Systemic Leadership’ for experienced leaders and managers in Belgium and The Netherlands.

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