Back to the Nov-Dec 2022 issue

Promoting Resilience With Intention

By Aimee Gourlay

A tree on a rockFor many people, feelings of instability and uncertainty have replaced the steadiness and certainty they previously experienced in their work, homes, and community.

Perhaps you have had to deal with sudden changes in your work life due to the pandemic, social unrest, or natural disasters in your city? Or you may have experienced stress in an ugly exchange at a council or board meeting, or a meeting that goes on into the night with no final decision.

You’re not the only one feeling this in the public sector. The National League of Cities has documented an increase in harassment and threats against public officials in its 2021 report “On the Frontlines of Today’s Cities: Trauma, Challenges and Solutions.”

The business world has an acronym for this phenomenon: VUCA, which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. A VUCA environment can destabilize people and make them feel anxious, unmotivated, and overwhelmed. As a result, they are more likely to respond by fighting. And the likelihood of making bad decisions or getting stuck in decision paralysis increases.

VUCA effects are traumatic. Trauma is the shock and pain caused by an upsetting experience. Trauma effects can be harmful to you and your city. It can cause long-term turmoil.

How can city officials respond to a VUCA environment?

How do cities foster a culture that is resilient in the face of disruption? Can city management keep bad habits from forming? How can city leaders increase their capacity to meet uncertainty with understanding, react with clarity, acknowledge emotions, and, if a heated meeting occurs, draw on its strengths and resources to rebound?

Pat Vivian and Shan Hormann suggest in their book, Organizational Trauma and Healing, that organizational leaders be mindful of “disruptive occurrences that create anxiety, uncertainty, and opportunity.” A crisis in a city, for example, could be the retirement of a long-term city manager, budget cuts, layoffs, shifts to online communication, a flood, or a hostile relationship with a community group. Vivian and Hormann say that much like the trauma that individuals suffer, organizational trauma is emotionally and cognitively overwhelming. Crisis and the resulting trauma can have a lasting impact on an organization if the trauma is left unaddressed.

Managing fallout with intention

At the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, I’ve been working with cities experiencing conflict and I have noticed a recurring dynamic: most cities have experienced some type of traumatic event or crisis. As may be the same case with individuals, they may not have managed the fallout with intention.

Aimee Gourlay
Aimee Gourlay

Workplace stress and trauma can’t always be avoided. It’s how you respond that counts.

I have noticed this dynamic in my own life. My romantic partner and I have had our share of struggles: the death of a loved one, work stress, injury. On a busy evening, my brain swirled around my should-do list, the TV was on, my phone was in my hand. My partner was trying to get my attention without success. I was finding diversions to give myself a break from the intensity. However, the things that distracted me kept me from being fully present for my partner. I realized that unless I took time to intentionally create and maintain good habits, bad ones could easily form.

Breaking bad habits

Some cities have recurring problems that last many years. Much like individuals, organizational trauma responses can be handed down from generation to generation. Bad habits, beliefs, and behaviors become a part of the organizational culture and are reinforced. Newcomers are oriented to and adopt the bad habits. They accept assumptions about how work is done, follow existing communication channels, and adhere to formal and informal policies — thus perpetuating the trauma response.

From my experience, a traumatized city might display the following dynamics.

  • Communication is restricted and outreach shuts down. People often go inward after a crisis. Some consultants call this “closing boundaries.” Work gets done through personal relationships and becomes less transparent, which only increases mistrust in the larger community. There is often polarization or an “us/them” mentality.
  • Avenues for constructive conversation are restricted. Instead of addressing issues directly with each other, people talk with other people, which spreads anxiety and stress. Destructive communication leaps from inside city hall to the larger community.
  • Denial. Organization development professionals call this “organizational amnesia.” City leadership may recognize the crisis, yet deny it has any effect on employees, council members, or others. Those who express pain are shut down or shamed — “you don’t really feel that way” or “you are a pain for raising these issues and concerns.” These responses are a way of keeping pain unacknowledged.
  • Positionality, a win/lose mindset, and polarity reduce a team’s energy to work together. People find likeminded colleagues who reinforce their experience and then talk only within their group. Others’ motives are questioned, and people believe that those who have a different perspective cannot be trusted to have the city’s best interests at heart. Efforts to change feel hopeless.

How an organization can respond to trauma

There are things organizations can do to better cope with crisis and respond intentionally to trauma.

  • Communicate more, not less. Transparent communication, even of bad news, will reduce anxiety. If you must cut budgets, talk about the process the city council is using to gather information and make tough decisions. If you ask for input, practice active listening so that those sharing information know they are being heard, which is different from agreeing with them. Discuss the aspects of transparent communication, and develop shared definitions and expectations for how you will communicate with each other as an ongoing crisis unfolds.
  • Recognize and acknowledge it; remember it. Talk about stressors and traumas. Give people time to process. If the city is short-staffed due to layoffs, the administrator could acknowledge that people are working hard and ask them how they are feeling at a staff meeting. If there is a disrupted council meeting, check in with council members to find out how they are doing. If a community member is upset, ask questions to understand what they are thinking. If you think you don’t have the time, imagine how much more time it will take to undo bad habits formed by lack of acknowledgment.
  • Incorporate dealing with what happened or is happening into your processes. Report back at the next council meeting what the follow-up was to community comments from the past meeting. Set regular staff meetings. Include time on the agenda to check in.
  • Look forward. After acknowledging what happened, work together to plan an intentional path forward.

Your game plan

Some crises just happen — a natural disaster or death of a colleague — while others create an opportunity for self-reflection. There are actions you can take to strengthen your resilience as an organization, which will allow you to be ready to react and reinforce good habits when a crisis occurs. Here’s how you can prepare for all eventualities.

The best time to create your policies is before a crisis. Decide what you expect and what you will do, and then follow your own advice. You will maintain trust rather than need to rebuild it.

Set an example through your interactions

  • Even if it seems more efficient to say your point and get on with business, listen first. A side benefit is this will increase the odds that others will listen to you.
  • Pause when you are tempted to respond to angry emotions. Even a brief pause can help you get out of reactive mode and recognize the other person as hurt, scared, or anxious. It is difficult for someone to remain agitated in a calm environment. Make every effort to validate and connect with that person. The opposite is also true: if you react with equally strong emotion, you are likely to escalate the situation.
  • Practice empathy and tune into someone’s emotions with compassion. Asking for more information shows you care, and active listening demonstrates you hear.
  • Give positive reinforcement to others when they are kind and compassionate.
  • Follow the platinum rule: treat others the way they want to be treated.

Appreciate and connect

  • Before a crisis occurs, strengthen your organization and community identity by celebrating successes and making connections. You are building relationships, which will prepare you to deal with crises when they occur.
  • Remember your city’s strengths and offer optimism and confidence in your abilities.
  • Rather than shut out external forces, connect with people from other cities in your same role to get new perspectives.

Create your policies before a crisis

Review or collaboratively create expectations for positive and direct communication in your city through a standard of conduct, policies, and meeting protocols. Decide what you expect and what you will do, and then follow your own advice. You will maintain trust rather than need to rebuild it.

Note that the biggest benefit comes in the exercise of creating policies together. Input creates buy-in. Taking time to develop consensus builds relationships that may carry you through a challenging crisis. The League of Minnesota Cities has developed a variety of resources for meeting management, which you can find at

It takes a strong team — in cities and in life — to face an uncertain and complex world with resilience. I’m grateful to my wise partner, who is thankfully still talking with me, for improving this article with his insights from years as an organization development professional.

Written by Aimee Gourlay, collaboration services manager with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. Contact: or (651) 215-4147.