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Waiting, Watching

August 5, 2009

Most students of disaster have discovered that people generally respond adaptively, if not always successfully, to unexpected and unwelcome events. Contrary to popular opinion, human beings are, it seems, hardwired not to panic.

When things go wrong, especially when they go terribly wrong, inaction, rather than inappropriate or even irrational action, is usually the root cause of disaster, or at least its worst side-effects.  In his recent book, Flirting with Disaster, Michael Gerstein, identifies five factors that turn event participants into bystanders:

  1. Ambiguous precipitating events;
  2. A large number of observers;
  3. Failure of others to act;
  4. Uncertainty regarding one’s ability to help; and
  5. The presence of formal authority or experts.

The first thing to recognize about these factors is the important difference between ambiguity and uncertainty.  The former implies the information needed to appreciate or interpret events is available, but the correct meaning is difficult to infer.  The latter suggests that the needed information is either unavailable or simply unknowable.  In both cases, the sequence and context of events makes a big difference in how people perceive them.

Ambiguity attends almost every situation that involves significant complexity due to scope or scale.  This alone gives rise to the second item on the list: The more people witness an event, the more apt they are individually and collectively to infer someone among them, other than themselves, is responsible for taking action.

As they say, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.”  Because we plan to succeed, we often overlook the necessity of planning or preparing for failure.  Consequently, no one really is in charge, at least not in charge of whatever is going wrong when disaster strikes.

When those accountable for an event do not accept immediate and unambiguous responsibility for its failure, especially by planning or preparing for it, crowds do not overlook their presence.  As such, their presence can have an unintended and sadly paradoxical effect on others by chilling the urge to step up and stop the carnage.

If the supposed leaders are neither prepared nor equipped to act, others will usually question their own ability to make a difference.  Even if they know the right answer, they may be reluctant to raise their hands out of fear their self-confidence will be mistaken for ambition, accusation, or worse yet acknowledgement of responsibility.

All five of Gerstein’s observations point to the need for leaders to democratize decision-making, devolve action, and encourage collective ownership of both problems and solutions.  Convincing people to identify and fix problems requires them to communicate openly and collaborate freely.  Practicing these skills both requires and reinforces trust.

The message here is clear: If you want to avoid disaster, worry less about what people will think or do than whether they will act at all.  Encourage action by rewarding people with your time and attention when they actively seek out and correct flawed impressions, intentions, decisions, and actions.

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