Leading during a disaster
Karl E Weick is one of the most profound psychological writers of all time but is a tough read. An expert on dangerous work environments, he wrote out advice for leaders after 9/11. His advice is relevant today and I’ve tried to render it below in simpler language and a more straightforward order.
Tragedy that leaves us confused and speechless
Karl E Weick writes about massive accidents where it is not quite clear what happened or whether it should have happened at all. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an example. The financial crash of 2008 is another. Though hardly having the same consequences, England’s dismal performance at the 2010 World Cup is in the same class of bewilderment. Let me try to explain.
We hate what we cannot explain
When the unexpected happens, we are at a loss to explain, and we hate that. We like to be able to explain. After a disaster, somewhat illogically, we have a strong impetus to explain. Explaining won’t help us clean up but it will help us feel in control again.
Leading during mass bewilderment
In these cases of mass bewilderment, a leader has a double task – sorting out the mess, which is task enough, and helping us get a grip on what has happened and stop panicking.
This is Weick’s advice for leaders when we are startled by tragedies and the unthinkable.
Our three tasks following a disaster
- Accept that you are startled too and that you have three tasks:
- to do the practical things that need to get done
- to console those who are hurt and hurting and
- to help people start to make sense even though little makes sense to you either.
Watch for the fight/flight response
- Also accept that our initial reaction is to rely on what we know. We will use yesterday’s explanations and when those don’t make sense, we’ll use very simple ideas to feel in control. Basically we will run (flight) or we will blame (fight). We will take on the mantle of blamer or victim.
Once we start to think, we’ll over complicate solutions
- As soon as we collectively realize that the problem is not going away, or that the people we blame cannot solve the problem anyway, we will start thinking. At this point, we are likely to swing from the oversimplified (blame or be a victim) to the other extreme and over-complicate the solution. Importantly, you need to remember that you are a member of your group and will share their ideas and its ways of thinking. So, you too will make this radical swing from fight/flight to overcomplicated! None of us are thinking clearly but over-complication is a good sign because we have moved away from “just wanting the problem to go away”.
Think aloud to model how to involve everyone in finding a way forward that we all support
- Your role now as leader is to think aloud. I remember seeing a manual advising young officers in the Army not to think aloud. Weick says we should think aloud for two reasons. The rest of the group will think more clearly when they feel that we are all in this together and don’t have to worry if “it is just me”. We’ll realize that there are no experts, no answers, and no guarantees. And so we may as well pool our ideas, make a joint decision about what to do, take responsibility for collective actions.
As people start to grapple with understanding what happened, feed in resources for collective decision making
- Once we begin working together to figure out what we are going to do and the price that we will pay collectively to solve our problems, the leader has the next task of feeding resources, not necessarily to solve the problem, but to help us figure out how to solve the problem.
Remember your role is to help the group think things out together
- Above all else, the leader’s role is
- to avoid personal paralysis
- to ‘hold’ the confusions of others and let them know it is both OK
- to reassure us that they we will come through this together and
- to provide resources to keep the recovery moving.
Weick gives us a useful 7 point acronym to think about leadership in bad times and good. It’s rather aptly named SIR COPE
Sense is social
Sense isn’t there for the finding. We create sense. By talking to and with each other, we find out what meanings are possible and come to both shared understandings and agreements. We aren’t wasting time when we are chatting. We are working things out.
A wise leader encourage us to talk to each other.
Identity is remodeled
Our first reaction when we are shocked and confused is to run or fight – to be a “victim” or “fighter”.
When we mishandle our reactions to bad events, we can be locked into to these simple flight or fight reactions. We have a lot more to us, though. We are sounding boards, witnesses, source of support and resilience, information hubs, story-tellers, companions, care-givers and historians.
As we tell our stories from slighly different perspectives and for slightly different purposes, we move away from the simple roles of victim and fighter and develop an understanding of context that aids the explanations and understanding that allow us to move forward wisely and considerately.
We, and all the leaders in the group, will be helping people have these multi-level, yet slightly confused conversations that are essential to move forward to the essential state of overcomplicated confusion that we need before we can move on.
Retrospect provides a path to resilience
One of the oddest features of human thought is that we don’t know what we think until we hear what we say.
We begin to understand ourselves,when we hear what we say, when we hear the reactions of others, and when we hear the words they use when they are repeating our views.
Leaders help people talk their way into resilience by listening to the words people are saying and helping them find other words that connect with human strengths rather than with darkness and evil.
We repeat what they are saying so that they can see and hear themselves finding purpose and connection in an otherwise distressing situation.
Cues need to be considered and incorporated
We understand situations by creating a story from a handful of cues. And we look for cues that confirm our analysis.
Sadly, we ignore a great deal.
As a leader, we can help people incorporate more salient cues their stories and support them in those early moments when our stories get more complicated and more confusing.
By considering the facts and alternative explanations more fully, we will find a better solution and way forward than if we jump prematurely to an early conclusion.
Ongoing work on plausible stories aids recovery
Even once we have a reasonable sense of what has happened and what we are going to do together to move on, we will still have to check, update and even revise our sense of events as we take collective action.
As a leader, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels or allow other to languish in a half-finished story and the feeling, “Now we have it figured out.”
Recovery is about workable, plausible stories of what we face and what we can do. As we act, the situation will change again and we should take into account new inputs and new opportunities and new setbacks.
Part of the leader’s job is to keep summarizing how far we have come, what has happened, where we are at, how we feel now and the distance we have yet to travel.
Plausibility about what happened and what will happen is our goal
When the world appears to fall apart, we are desperate for an account of what happened. We are less interested in what is accurate than feeling a gaping void of meaning. We want a plausible account quickly.
That plausible account is not the end story though. It is only the first point from which we work to build the fuller story like a grain of sand in the oyster becomes a pearl.
A leaders helps people get that first story and then helps them revise it, enrich it, replace it.
Enactment allows us to think
Most of all, in inexplicable times, we have to keep moving.
Recovery lies not in thinking then doing, but in thinking while doing and in thinking by doing.
None of us has the answer. Instead, all we have going for us is the tactic of stumbling into explanations that work, and talking with others to see whether what we have stumbled into is in fact part of an answer.
As a leader, we help people keep moving and pay attention to everyone around them.
When people are animated, their actions are small experiments that help make sense of perilous times.
Wise leaders protect those constant little experiments that help us find wisdow in our dismaying situation.
Weick made clearer?
This is still a complicated rendition but Weick’s ideas are worth thinking through because frequently, it seems, we are in the middle of groups who’ve had the proverbial rug pulled out beneath them.
Obama seems to be a master of the group recovery process. I couldn’t help run Radio 5 commentary about our World Cup performance through this list. They make the Social level but don’t seem to go much further. We emote but don’t go very much further in developing a clear idea of what WE will do next. There is no call to action even and no demand for us to be out there supporting the team next time. No sense of action follows the phone-in periods.
I think we could still make a simpler acronym without closing what Weick is trying to say. Want to have a go?