How to Recognize Moral Injury at Work

Remember a time when you felt deep disappointment in how a leader acted. Perhaps they made a decision that valued efficiency over humanity. Maybe they protected themself instead of staying true to the shared purpose of your work together.

Consider a time when you made a choice that went against your values. Perhaps you were pressured by the systems and people around you to rationalize the decision. Perhaps you didn’t know what else to do, you felt afraid or isolated or alone. Perhaps you felt stuck and there was no “good” answer.

When people with power, authority, and choice take action that betrays the purpose or ethic that they espouse, it can cause a deep moral wound for them and for those who work with them. This wound is often called, moral injury. In institutions, organizations, and systems that are organized based on shared purpose and values (most are), there is a particular risk in leadership for this kind of moral betrayal and the fragmentation, mistrust, and misalignment that can result from it. This risk is heightened further in organizations with a shared purpose of service, justice, or healing.

Moral injury is a term popularized in post-Vietnam America by Dr. Jonathan Shay and others who saw the impact of war on the moral fiber of soldiers’ sense of selfhood as they returned home. I believe it is an important concept to understand in 2021 as our global society contends with “re-entry” from COVID-19 pandemic lockdown alongside a year of global reckoning with issues of racial and economic injustice and inequity.

I appreciate the definition of the concept that the Shay Moral Injury Center at Volunteers of America uses on their website as it encompasses the many nuances of circumstances and experiences in times of crisis that can cause moral injury:


“Moral injury is the suffering people experience when we are in high stakes situations, things go wrong, and harm results that challenges our deepest moral codes and ability to trust in others or ourselves. The harm may be something we did, something we witnessed, or something that was done to us. It results in moral emotions such as shame, guilt, self-condemnation, outrage, and sorrow.”

Moral injury involves a moral judgement about what we ourselves have done, what we have witnessed, or what has been done to us. As morality and values are so often culturally and communally shared, moral injury is most often experienced in relationship with others, in connection to our work, in community, or in society at large.

Why do leaders of social change need to know about and learn to navigate moral injury?
Our healthcare, government, and social change organizations are all fundamentally built upon a moral contract with staff and society. There is a set of values that the institution or organization commits to upholding. People join organizations with an expectation that the purpose and values they believe in will be upheld. What is the moral contract that your organization promotes? What are people expecting to be part of and see from your organization as it relates to purpose, values, and impact?

More often than not, our purpose and values are both aspirational and practical. We will not always live up to our values. We will have to make hard decisions and discern compromises at times. Inevitably things will go wrong, mistakes will be made, and harm will occur in the pursuit of social change or social service. BUT how do we make sure that we don’t use the aspirational nature of our purpose or the inevitably of mistakes to lead us into lack of accountability to the collective moral agreement that engages people in our work? What are the practices, rituals, and ways of leading that can support us all in tending to our purpose and values both when it is relatively easy and also when it is incredibly hard?

On their podcast, Finding Our Way, Prentis Hemphill recently asked, “What do we do when the people and institutions in which we’ve given trust fail us? What opportunities are presented in rupture? And in these times, what can we choose to embody?” These are the questions of leadership for social change right now.


How does moral injury manifest in organizations?

Below I’ve highlighted some (not all) of the most common tendencies and markers that I’ve seen in organizations where values-based wounds have not been well tended to or transformed. They often show up together or feed each other. None of these tendencies exists in a silo or in only one person: they are experienced in context and experienced in the collective.

Reactive environment
People and groups are emotionally and spiritually ungrounded, quick to react from a place of preserving one’s personal sense of security. Psychiatrist D.L Nathanson published what he calls the compass of shame to describe four common reactions to shame: withdraw, avoid, attack self, and attack others. We are all predisposed to some or all of these reactions as ways of trying to keep ourselves safe. Sometimes organizational environments that don’t tend to their moral wounds begin to be built upon a foundation of these compass points, making any attempt to find center not only dizzy-ing but also deeply threatening and counter-cultural within the institutional setting.

Persistent mistrust
People don’t trust themselves, others, or the system
. There are often very good reasons for mistrust, and yet when it becomes a chronic mindset, it can get in the way of connection and impact. Mistrust reveals some kind of relational fracture. These fractures may exist at multiple levels within the team and organization: systemic, cultural, interpersonal, and personal. When mistrust is ignored over time, the fractures will likely deepen, making them much more difficult to heal and transform without rupture.

Culture of blame
People are quick to blame, to find the person, place, or thing that is wrong. Rather than conversations about learning, values, decision-making, and shared purpose, you might hear a drive to simple stories of problems/conflicts and who or what caused them. Whether or not the blame is acted upon with dismissals doesn’t actually matter as much as how it is felt within the organization and team. With culture of blame present, often hierarchies become rigid, agency is regularly stripped from folks, and people interact more fearfully, hesitating to speak, act, or do anything other than the basic level requirements of their job. In a culture of blame, there is often very little systemic tolerance for mistakes or failure and yet a lot of denial of failures at the highest levels of leadership.

Chronic Hopelessness
People are quick to feel inadequate, helpless, overwhelmed by the needs and demands of the work. Sometimes this manifests in a degree of checking-out, giving up on the bigger changes needed, or turning away from the shared purpose. These are all super normal responses when feeling despair or sorrow or hurt. When these become ingrained in organizational culture, however, there can be a cynicism and disengagement that can manifest related to change initiatives, learning, and evolution in the organizational setting. You might hear things like, “what difference will it make” or “it won’t change” or “the problems are bigger than this.” In organizations with this kind of energy present, there can be a sense of stuck-in-place-ness.

When we notice these patterns are present in ourselves and others, I often invite clients to consider the practice of turning to inquiry with tender curiosity:

  • “Where is the wound?” “Where are the wounds?”
  • “How might I/we approach this situation with care and compassion?”
  • “What mission, purpose, or values might need to be ritually recovered or claimed?”

How do I recognize moral injury in myself or others?
The patterns of interaction listed above may seem very familiar and recognizable. Those patterns often spring forth from emotions: their source material is in our emotional bodies. As such, working with recognizing, allowing and investigating our emotions can be a helpful in road to understanding where we are carrying values-based betrayal or wounding. In working with clients, I am particularly attuned to making space for the often difficult emotions that show up with moral injury. As you read this list below, consider how we might make room for these emotions to be present, to speak their wisdom, and to offer insight that opens pathways to healing.

Rage: When anger is driving, how can we get curious about moral wounds?
Anger and rage are beautiful, important emotions. They often arise from self-compassion and self-protection, offering what is often a momentary reprieve from the despair that can be experienced in suffering. When anger becomes a destructive or chronic bypass of the felt experience of what hurts us, however, it can actually work against healing by distancing us from self-compassion.

Guilt: When guilt is overwhelming, how can we get curious moral wounds?
Guilt can be a feeling that serves us well in identifying beliefs and behaviors that we would like to change in order to live in better alignment with our values or who we know ourselves to be. Fundamentally, guilt invites us to grapple with essential questions about why bad things happen to some and not others, about why inequities and injustices persist, about how we want to live in a world where people can harm each other, and about how we respond knowing we enjoy some privileges that others do not? And when guilt overwhelms, it can cause us to freeze in the face of these questions, to flee from the emotional upheaval or existential rupture of bearing witness to the truth of the answers that emerge, and to fight what’s needed for change.

Shame: When shame is persistent, how can we get curious moral wounds?
Some degree of shame is a healthy experience for society. Experiencing some self-consciousness and self-evaluation when we betray values we believe in is important for us as interdependent, social beings. And yet toxic shame is incredibly dangerous for our health, relationships, and systems. Toxic shame tells the story that something inherently, persistently, and unendingly wrong with who we are. It is often exacerbated by behaviors that seek to temporarily discharge the toxic shame onto those with the least power, authority, and choice.

Despair: When despair is lingering, how can we get curious moral wounds?
Despair is an important feeling to experience as living beings who will inevitably encounter loss. Tapping into the depths of sorrow that can show up when we experience the vulnerability of life or understand the scope of pain in the world around us is not something to try to rid ourselves of entirely. But when emotions like despair gets stuck, floods us, or pushes out space for other emotions, there may be wounds that we are not aware of or not tending to with compassion. This kind of chronic despair in leadership can show up as hopelessness, lack of inspiration or motivation or creativity, isolation, negativity, and resistance to change.

When we feel that rage, guilt, shame, and despair are present in ourselves and others, how can we build awareness of the feelings, allow space for the feelings, and turn to compassionate inquiry:

  • “Where is the wound?” “Where are the wounds?”
  • “How might I/we approach this situation with care and compassion?”
  • “What mission, purpose, or values might need to be ritually recovered or claimed?”
[[For resources and practices to support you in reclaiming and living into your values, check out the Rootwise Hub.]]

Practicing Play

As children, play is both how we learn and how we build relationships. Play supports us in connecting with others, experimenting with ideas, and finding our place in the world.

Too many of us lose our ability to play along the way: whether we forget how, get embarrassed about it, or just can’t find the time. Our athletic games turn into health and weight loss activities with metrics and goals; the time for imagination and story-telling disappears in pursuit of work; we turn to substances to “have fun” rather than exploring other ways of embracing our free time; or perhaps we reserve play for vacations only.

Experiencing the light-heartedness of play, even for a short time, frees up our energy, shifts our perspective, and offers space for seeing ourselves as whole beings. Play often invites us into a celebration or savoring of the ordinary and small joys of life.

Leaders need to make time for real play to take themselves less seriously and loosen up every now and then.

Hopefully we all know the people in our lives with whom we can play. Maybe you find time to play with the kids in your life, with friends with whom you feel the kind of safety and trust that you can let down your guard, with your family members, or with your partner.

When’s the last time you really played?

If you find yourself searching back to months or years ago, what might you do to be more intentional about play in your life? Play can mean all sorts of activities. Consider carving out time for:

  • Creating art for enjoyment alone in the process of playful creation not for the perfect product (making a painting, drawing, collage, music, etc).
  • Playing cards, board games, or outdoor games (go fish, tag, chase, kickball, etc).
  • Creating skits or telling made-up stories just for fun.
  • Playing anything with kids to bring out your inner child: bubbles, drawing, hide and seek, dress-up.
  • Playing in nature (swimming, fishing, hiking, flying a kite, dancing on a beach, etc).
A regular play practice or hobby will help you:
  • Loosen up.
  • Break out of stuck-ness.
  • Feel joy.
  • Tap creativity.
  • Reconnect with childlike wonder.
  • Gain fresh perspective.
  • Learn about yourself.
  • Have fun in a healthy way!
Set an intention for yourself today. What will you do to play this week? Notice how it feels (and if it is awkward at first or someone makes fun of you, work through it by grounding in your intention or by finding the kind of play that opens you up).

What is authentic leadership?

Most people know authentic leadership when they see it but have a hard time figuring out what makes up the authenticity factor we trust.

We’ve found that it comes down to representing your beliefs and values in action. What’s nice is that this definition can apply to an individual as well as to an entire organization. And it offers a clear pathway for development!

Half of the development work is the inner work of figuring out what you believe and value. The other half is about bringing those beliefs and values in action and being accountable for when you go astray.

In a way, leading authentically means being an author of your life, bringing the stories and stuff inside out. This metaphor needs a bit of unpacking, though. At first pass, authoring your life might seem devoid of the self-inquiry that authentic leadership calls us to do. It might sound more like creating and selling an image or a story, which might actually be the opposite of what we’re looking for in leaders. But if we really look at authors who are successfully generating ongoing original work that is trusted and engaged by their readers, they are immersed in this cycle of turning their lived experiences or understandings into ideas and then turning the stories birthed within them into words. Authentic leadership relies on a similar cycle of making meaning of experiences inwardly and then putting that meaning out into the world in order to have another experience and begin again.

The more you embrace life and leadership as an ever unfolding story, the more this praxis (cycle of reflection and action) becomes intuitive and natural. Often the biggest stumbling blocks are either not taking the time to figure out what you believe and value or expecting to arrive at a time when you get to stop engaging the praxis.

A robust authentic leadership development program (whether formal or informal) must support leaders in developing the “muscle” needed to engage this cycle as a matter of both ritual and instinct.

Authenticity is not something that you can develop on your own: it requires relationships with others and the world. It is only through relationship that your beliefs and values are turned into action. It is also not you can develop without failing at it. As human beings, we are all unreflective or inauthentic sometimes. It is your awareness and willingness to receive feedback from the world and others in those moments of misalignment that will allow you to begin again .

How can you seek greater alignment, honesty, and clarity between your inner and outer lives? Leading in this way is as simple as meeting yourself and others right where you are in any given moment. Leading in this way is also as radically aspirational as actively living into the ideals of an ever-emerging sense of self and offering others space to do the same. There is freedom in this orientation to leadership if we are willing to dive into the reflection, the action, and the relationships.

On Building Trust

Google study on what makes certain teams work better than others showed that the number one factor that makes teams effective is simple: psychological and emotional safety. So, how do you establish more emotional safety and TRUST in your workplace?

1) Create small reminders that you work with humans, not robots:
The notion that we need to separate personal life from work life is proving ineffective and false. When people like their colleagues, they work harder and smarter. A simple exercise like sharing one thing from your weekend, or a one word mood check in during team meetings, can open the door for deeper bonds to form and emotional safety to be created over time.

2) Be honest about fears and failures, without shame:
If you tell a colleague you’re struggling with a project, do you believe you’ll receive support or reprimand and judgment? Create a culture where vulnerability is affirmed and even celebrated. Make it fun! Some teams use a “I was wrong Gong” or “Failure Hall of Fame” to create shared humor and openness around failure and struggle, rather than a culture based on the pressure to be perfect or on shame when mistakes are made.

3) Appreciate, appreciate, appreciate:
Simply put, we are more likely to trust others when we feel seen and appreciated ourselves. When was the last time you appreciated someone at work? Take a minute right now to write down three people you will show appreciation this week. And then do it… be specific. Trust me, it will make you feel great too.

Get coaching and training on building trust and the other conditions needed for collective leadership to thrive by enrolling in The Collective Leadership Certificate Program today!

The Path to Resilience

Having to integrate and heal following challenge, stress, tragedy, or loss is naturally an emotionally painful process. Each of us must discover our own ways to move through distress to resilience, and yet, life calls us to resilience if we listen.

Resilience is not simply about about getting rid of the pain we experience quickly (though many may want you to confuse this kind of psychological toughness with resilience). The movement toward resilience is a movement toward wholeness through understanding.

Sources of resilience

Our intuitive ability to move towards wholeness is strengthened and renewed by:
  1. RELATIONSHIP: Loving, supportive, and trusting relationships and communities.
  2. FAITH (PURPOSE): Confidence and trust in ourselves, others, and life itself.
  3. ACTION: Our ability to communicate our feelings and needs, to take action, to ask for help, and to set boundaries appropriately as needed.
These are renewable sources of resilience that can be sought out, cultivated, learned, and practiced every day. You might begin by reflecting on your sources (no matter how big or small they might be):
  • I have… Who are the people, places, and communities that nourish me?
  • I am… What are the beliefs, values, and mindsets that give me strength and hope and connection?
  • I can… What are the choices, actions, words, and skills that help me navigate difficulty?
Organizations, communities, and institutions can tap into these sources of resilience just as individuals can: “We have…” “We are…” “We can…” That said, our dominant culture, by and large, does not focus on promoting these renewable sources of resilience for everyone and certainly does not include everyone in defining the “we” of collective resilience.

Therefore, practicing resilience in community or organizational settings requires embracing everyone’s experiences and seeking to transform the culture to cultivate sources of resilience for all and include all when defining “we”. This practice requires embracing the centrality of each individual experience in making up the collective experience AND the impact of the collective culture on each individual. No one else can tell you how to adapt towards wholeness AND you are not separate from the culture of systems and institutions you belong to.

The best ways to launch pathways to resilience as a leader both personally and within your organization is to focus on the work of cultivating connection, trust, communication (priorities, boundaries, needs), and agency.

Finding flexibility and balance

Resilience can be paradoxical. It’s built upon a balancing of honoring the complexity of human needs in the dynamic reality of our existence. Holding resilience work in gentle, flexible balance is essential to lovingly guiding yourself and your organizations on the path to resilience. Resilience as a priority asks us to listen, to be present, to meet the moment, honor the need, and to flow. How can you flow towards wholeness?

Consider this from the American Psychological Association:

“Resilience involves maintaining flexibility and balance in your life as you deal with stressful circumstances and traumatic events. This happens in several ways, including:

  • Letting yourself experience strong emotions, and also realizing when you may need to avoid experiencing them at times in order to continue functioning.
  • Stepping forward and taking action to deal with your problems and meet the demands of daily living, and also stepping back to rest and reenergize yourself.
  • Spending time with loved ones to gain support and encouragement, and also nurturing yourself.
  • Relying on others, and also relying on yourself.”

Consider the importance of nimble both/and strategies to meet yourself and others in your needs as you seek to bring intention to developing rivers of resilience that flow from deep sources of relationship, faith, and action.

15 Leadership Practices Worth Exploring

How do you communicate you authenticity and ability to lead to others effectively? Can you just show up and say, “I’m here. I’m a leader. Let’s go.”? Is there some badge you wear when you’re ready that says, “Certified Leader”, so that everyone knows we are capable of leading them? 

Not always that simple, right? That’s because we communicate our leadership to others by leading. 

Leadership is all about practice. Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t titles and roles that we might have or seek or be given that act as badges in a way. And yet, when any one of us steps into those roles, people are looking at the ways that we show up, the ways that we take action, the ways that we practice leadership in order to evaluate how they engage with or follow or collaborate with us. 

Practice, Practice, Practice

So what are those practices? We’ve developed a list of 15 leadership practices that when studied and learned and practiced effectively can truly transform any one of us into a leader who will be recognized as such through our actions. Here they are:

  1. Listening Deeply
  2. Engaging Joy & Humor
  3. Living Compassion & Kindness
  4. Being Present & Generous
  5. Practicing Observation & Non-Judgment
  6. Connecting to Higher-Purpose
  7. Communicating Values
  8. Identifying Feelings & Needs
  9. Hosting Conversations
  10. Holding & Honoring Boundaries
  11. Understanding Choice & Control
  12. Dealing with Dualities & Paradoxes
  13. Navigating Power Dynamics
  14. Being Accountable
  15. Practicing Forgiveness

Now, you have the list! Maybe you’re thinking, “This is my magic wand. I’ll review these tonight and tomorrow show up in a new or different way.” I hope you’re inspired and thinking that… truly. And the challenge here is to really dive into these practices as we would a workout regiment. Doing 15 pushups tonight will not radically shift our arm strength and core, and yet doing 15 pushups every night and getting feedback and support in refining our form will over time fundamentally change our arm strength and core.

So, if you want to take your practice to the next level, I’d say you have a few options:

  1. Conduct a rigorous self-assessment: How are you doing in each of these areas? Get out a pen and a journal and begin to reflect. After journaling on each of the areas, if you find yourself unsure or curious to learn more, ask people around you for feedback, do some research, and set up a workout routine of sorts for the practice areas that you need to hone better.
  2. Get a coach: An executive coach, leadership coach, mentor, advisor… someone who will listen deeply, challenge you, support your reflection, and leave the choices up to you!
  3. Find a training program: Sign up up for a leadership or personal development program in a community that will help you develop greater awareness and understanding of yourself in the particular practices that feel like a struggle to you. May I suggest The Rootwise Hub? 🙂

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