By Lucien G. Canton
When the first hijacked plane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Robert Scott, president and chief operating officer of Morgan Stanley-Dean Whittier, was at 3 World Trade Center addressing 400 members of the National Association of Business Economists. Scott evacuated the building just in time to watch a second aircraft slam into the South Tower, which he knew housed his company offices and several thousand employees.
By 9:30 a.m. he and his senior executives had convened at a backup site that became their command center. The decisions made by Scott and his team that day would make Morgan Stanley a case study in successful crisis management and would enhance Scotts reputation as a leader.
Whats the difference between a Morgan Stanley and less successful companies? Why do some organizations come out of crisis with enhanced reputations while others may not even survive as a business? While the reasons are many and varied, it frequently comes down to three main areas:
- Failure to consider the human factor
- Failure to gather adequate information to support decision-making
- Failure to act quickly and decisively
These failures are so common that they suggest the following three keys to successful crisis management.
Recognize You Are Your Own Worst Problem
Too often in preparing for crisis, people tend to ignore the human factor. Understanding human nature and how people react to crisis is one of the fundamental keys to crisis management. No matter how much information on risks theyre given, people dont believe a crisis will happen to them. They may understand it intellectually, but viscerally, they dont think it will happen. This hampers their willingness to prepare.
When confronted with a crisis, a persons first reaction is denial. They often dont recognize a disaster is occurring. This leads to a hesitation to act. Theres also a tendency to normalize crisis, that is, to see what one expects to see rather than whats actually occurring. Its easy to misinterpret or completely miss indicators that a crisis is imminent or occurring. These indicators may be obvious after the fact but are easily missed during the event.
Good Information Is Essential to Good Decision-Making
The second phase people experience when confronted with a crisis is deliberationthe need to seek corroboration about what has occurred or is occurring, and to consider courses of action. There are, however, problems inherent in this process. Most information available in the early stages of a crisis is fragmentary, contradictory and unreliable. There can also be a considerable volume of information available, most of it not really helpful. Sorting through this mess requires an understanding of what information is important and why its needed by decision-makers.
A common failing in crisis is the tendency to seek only information that confirms what the crisis team thinks is happening or expects to see happening. It, therefore, misses the true nature of the crisis and makes decisions that can be counterproductive or flat out wrong.
The paradox of information collection is decision-making is improved with the more information you have; however, there will never be a situation where you have all the information needed. At some point, youll have to make decisions based on incomplete information. So collection cannot become an end in itself that delays decision-making.
Overcoming denial and moving through deliberation leads to action. In most cases, the quicker youre seen to act and provide information on the crisis and your actions, the more likely you are to mitigate the effects of the catastrophe. Effective action depends on two elements:
- Create a crisis-management team. The first action is to isolate the crisis by identifying a crisis-management team and dedicate them solely to the event at hand. Other parts of your organization can be devoted to business as usual, but your crisis-management team must be focused exclusively on the disaster and have the authority and resources necessary to act.
- Act quickly. Speed is essential, particularly in crisis communications. Depending on the nature of your organization, you may have only minutes to get your story out. Even if its just acknowledging the crisis has occurred and that youre assessing the situation, its critical the public, your employees and your shareholders hear from you. Acting quickly, demonstrating empathy with anyone affected by the crisis and, above all, being honest can go a long way to countering the negative effects of a crisis.
Surviving a crisis requires you quickly recognize and accept its occurring, gather sufficient information to make decisions regarding the crisis, and move quickly to implement those decisions. Incorporating these three keys into your preparations for crisis may not guarantee success, but theyll certainly go a long way to preventing failures.
Lucien G. Canton is a consultant specializing in preparing managers to lead better in crisis by understanding the human factors often overlooked in crisis planning. A popular speaker and lecturer, hes the author of Emergency Management: Concepts and Strategies for Effective Programs. For more information, e-mail [email protected] ; visit www.luciencanton.com .