Blog, Crisis Management, Politics

Denial and the World of Trump

Originally published February 16, 2017 on The Huffington Post

Since the Tylenol poisonings in 1982, I’ve worked both as a researcher and consultant in the modern field of Crisis Management. Indeed, I am greatly honored that I’m regarded as one of the field’s principal founders.

One of the earliest findings of my colleagues and I was that there were direct organizational counterparts to each of the Freudian Defense Mechanisms. (If Freud had accomplished nothing more than his discovery of Defense Mechanisms, it would have been more than sufficient to assure his lasting fame.) For every one of the classic Defense Mechanisms that Freud discovered that individuals used to protect themselves from realities that were too painful to face, there was a corresponding form that organizations used to protect their collective psyches from unpleasant realities as well.

Most important of all was the finding that there was a powerful correlation between the numbers of Defense Mechanisms an organization used and the attention it devoted to Crisis Management. In brief, the more that an organization denied that something bad could happen to it, the far less money and time it gave to Crisis Management. As a result, it didn’t do nearly as well in responding to major crises, which were inevitable, than those organizations whose denial was significantly lower. Further, because they acknowledged the all-too-real possibility of major crises, those organizations that took Crisis Management seriously picked up problems and fixed them before they became major crises. As a result, they were significantly more profitable. In short, Proactive Crisis Management is not only the right, ethical thing to do to protect an organization, its employees and surrounding communities from harm, but it’s supremely good for business as well.

The point is that while Defense Mechanisms were originally discovered as a phenomenon that applied solely to individuals, they are not confined to individuals alone. They apply as much, if not more, to organizations and whole societies.

Seven basic types of Defense Mechanisms are as follows:
1. Denial
2. Disavowal
3. Idealization
4. Grandiosity
5. Projection
6. Intellectualization
7. Compartmentalization.

Denial most often occurs when people are subject to severe traumatic events such as the sudden and senseless death of a child, violent sexual attacks, war, etc. The event is typically so painful and threatening that the mind shuts down completely and refuses to acknowledge it at all. Disavowal is when the mind acknowledges a painful and threatening event but reduces its scope and magnitude such that it’s bearable. Thus, a large, threatening wildcat becomes a small, tame kitten. Idealization occurs when the mind convinces itself that good people don’t face serious threats. Therefore, the wildcat can’t really be there. Grandiosity is the feeling that one is superhuman and can meet any threat. Projection is when one blames others for something bad. Therefore, someone deliberately put the wildcat there. Intellectualization is when one believes that there are no valid reasons for the wildcat to be there. Compartmentalization is when one part of the mind sees the wildcat, and other parts smell and even feel it, but all of the various parts are not put together, for if they were then one would have to acknowledge a threat that one is powerless to overcome.

In organizations, Denial takes the form, “We’re invulnerable; nothing bad can happen to us.” Disavowal is, “Whatever happens, its impacts are negligible.” Idealization takes the form, “Good organizations don’t have major problems.” Grandiosity is the feeling, “We’re too big and powerful to be taken down by anything!” Projection is, “Someone else is to blame for our problems.” Intellectualization assumes the form, “The probabilities of something bad happening to us are too small to worry about.” Compartmentalization is the feeling, “Something bad cannot affect our whole system; in other words, it can be contained.”

In the case of Trump, the Defense Mechanisms are shared between him and his followers. Denial is prominent in Trump’s refusal to believe the assessments of the national intelligence agencies that the Russians hacked the Democratic Party and that it played a part, however small, in the election. Denial is also present in his supporters’ refusal to acknowledge that Trump is in every respect unfit to be president. It’s present as well in the persistent inability to accept that old-line manufacturing jobs and industries are not coming back. Disavowal is paramount when his followers minimize the dangers of a Trump presidency. Grandiosity and Idealization are prominent in Trump’s persistent claims that only he and he alone can fix our enormous problems. Projection is a persistent aspect of Trump’s character in that he blames everyone but himself for any problems. And, Intellectualization occurs when Trump and his followers explain away all of his awful comments as things not to be taken seriously.

This is not to say that Trump’s opponents didn’t engage in their own forms of Defense Mechanisms when all along they denied that he would ever get the nomination, let alone be elected. And, living as I do in California, we are in denial by believing that we somehow live in a protected bubble, even though we are greatly dependent on federal funds, which Trump could play a major role in cutting off.

But most of all, one is in deep denial if one believes that facts alone will cause someone to face reality. This is a prime case of Intellectualization.

No, impersonal facts alone cannot do the job. Instead, calm, trusted voices are needed to make unpleasant facts and realities palatable. Whether formally trained or not, trusted voices are in effect society’s therapists. We’ve never needed them more than we do now.

If not, then reality intrudes as it always does eventually. But the greater the denial, the more and the greater the unpleasant reality that’s needed to finally break through.

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Blog, Crisis Management, Politics

The Crisis Prone Presidency

Originally published 12/15/16 of the Huffington Post

Those of us who study corporate crises distinguish between Crisis Prone versus Crisis Prepared individuals and organizations. Crisis Prone individuals and organizations put their primary energies into all kinds of faulty rationalizations that allow them to persist in the false belief that they will never have a crisis: “we’re too big and powerful to have major crises;” “crises only happen to others;” “if a crisis happens, someone will come to our rescue,” “there’s no need to prepare for what’ll never happen.” They are prime cases of denial writ large.

In sharp contrast, Crisis Prepared individuals are constantly probing themselves and their organizations for dangerous rationalizations that keep them from preparing for worst-case scenarios. They accept that all crises are preceded by a steady stream of early warning signals that show that a major crisis is highly likely. As a result, they do all they can to put in place specific procedures that will pick up early warning signals. In this way, they hopefully head off major crises before they actually happen, the best form of Crisis Management. Nonetheless, since even with the best of preparations crises still occur, they constantly work to improve and maintain Damage Containment mechanisms. They know that the worst time to set up Damage Containment is during the heat of actual crises. As a result, they are absolutely ruthless in rooting dangerous rationalizations that prevent them from being Crisis Prepared.

My colleagues and I have shown that Crisis Prepared organizations experience significantly fewer crises, are substantially more profitable, have fewer lawsuits and injuries, and lose fewer days in resuming operations than Crisis Prone Organizations. In short, Proactive Crisis Management is not only the right ethical thing to do, but it’s good for business.

Against this backdrop, President Elect Trump fares extremely poorly. In failing to set up a true blind trust, he’s setting himself up for major political conflicts of interest. From the standpoint of Crisis Management, a blind trust is one of the major forms of Damage Containment for potential financial and personal crises. It helps ensure that one’s political office will not be used for financial gain. But then, in order to set up a blind trust, President Elect Trump would have to own up to the very real possibilities of major conflicts of interest. In a word, he would have to stop engaging in denial, which given his personality is one of the most difficult things for him to do.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Too many of his cabinet appointments have already set off hailstorms of protest. They are sure to be embroiled in crises for years.

Trump’s constant use of Twitter is nothing but sorry form of preemptive Damage Control. Instead of heading off crises, it only exacerbates them. So do all his preposterous claims, for instance that he actually won the popular vote because of all the illegal votes that were cast for Hillary.

I expect Trump to stumble from one crisis to others again and again. (China?) Of course, none of this really matters to his base. If anything, they want him to create major crises in order to “drain the Washington swamp.” But what happens if all his promises to bring back jobs and help the middle class only end up helping him and his business cronies? Do we really expect the case of Carrier to be easily replicated?

Are we prepared to confront the crisis when so many downtrodden workers realized that they have been royally betrayed?

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Blog, Crisis Management

The Cincinnati Zoo: Part of a Dangerous Pattern

Originally published June 7th, 2016 on the Huffington Post

I wish that what happened recently at the Cincinnati Zoo was the rare exception. Unfortunately, in my over 30 years of experience as a crisis consultant and university researcher, it’s not.

As we know, a young child somehow slipped behind a barrier and fell into a gorilla enclosure. In order to save the child from harm, the gorilla was shot. Howls of protest over whether the animal had to be killed and calls for the parents to be charged with child endangerment were immediate.

What rankled me most of all was that in defending their actions, the spokesman for the zoo said that they’ve never had such an incident in over 38 years. Somehow, we were supposed to be comforted by this statistic. This completely overlooks the fact that a crisis is the worst time to spout statistics. Despite one’s good intentions and preparations, nothing prevented the unthinkable from occurring.

The sad fact (statistic!) is that most organizations merely react to major safety failures and crises. Immediately after they occur, organizations become more concerned about safety and reliability. As a result, they invest more time and money in safety, reliability, and crisis prevention and response. But vigilance is temporary. When things get back to normal, and as a result of increases in allocated resources and heightened attention, the safety and reliability of operations do improve. Organizations then begin to mistake the absence of failure for the presence of safety. They become complacent. Eventually, resources drift away from safety and reliability and towards productivity, efficiency, and profitability. The drift toward failure accelerates when there are time and cost-cutting pressures, and when organizations make tradeoffs between safety and efficiency/productivity/profitability. When the next crisis hits, the cycle begins again.

The challenge is to break the cycle and question the fundamental assumption on which it is based: That there are acceptable tradeoffs between safety, efficiency, and normal operations. There aren’t, period! But, this is easier said than done.

There is no doubt that after the Gulf oil spill, both BP, Transocean, and other companies in the deep-water drilling industry began to (or were forced to) review their safety procedures, test their equipment, renew their commitment to safety, etc. The corrupt branch of the government (Material Management Service) that was supposed to regulate the industry was also restructured. Unfortunately, the attention paid to safety wanes over time.

Consider the following: In February 2001, a colleague and I mailed a questionnaire on Crisis Management to the top executives of the 1000 largest companies (measured in revenues) in the United States. In one section of the questionnaire, the executives were given a generic list of various types of crises (fires, explosions, product tampering, environmental disasters, major lawsuits, etc.), and they were asked to indicate how many of each their organization had experienced in the last 3 years. They were also asked to indicate the capabilities of their organization in responding to or handling the various types of crises.

We intentionally included “terrorist attacks.” We listed this particular type because we wanted to see if U.S. companies were prepared for crises that are extremely infrequent if not improbable. Not surprisingly, the majority of the companies indicated that they had experienced no terrorist attacks and that they had very little capability to handle them. Then, 9/11 happened. In response, we mailed the same questionnaire to the same executives three more times: January 2002, August 2002, and August 2003.

Analyses of the data collected over more than 2 years showed strong support for the notion of the constant drift toward failure and unacceptable tradeoffs between safety and productivity. A significant number of executives who responded to the two questionnaires mailed out in 2002 reported significantly higher levels of capabilities in handling or responding to terrorist attacks. Executives who responded to the questionnaire mailed in 2003, however, reported lower levels. In fact, the average level of capabilities reported before 9/11, and the average level reported two years after 9/11 were about the same. In other words, companies reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attack, increased their preparation level for terrorist attacks, and when it didn’t occur again, their levels of preparation went down dramatically.

We also found that the best crisis prepared organizations—no more than 10-15%-were constantly expanding and testing their preparations. As a result, they were not only constantly improving their preparations for those crises that they had already considered, but they were preparing for new types of crises that they had not previously thought about. They also went about new ways of preparing for them.

For example, I’ve worked as a crisis consultant in a few hospitals. Based on my recommendations, realistic-looking dolls have been placed in maternity wards. The test is to see how far someone can get out of the ward holding the fake child in his or her hands. In some cases, they’ve gotten completely out of the hospital with no one questioning and thereby stopping them. Needless to say, the test is repeated again and again until procedures are tightened up such that one can’t make it by the first nurse’s station.

All zoos ought to be practicing something similar. Why weren’t dolls used to test how easily young children could slip through the barriers to animal enclosures? Why weren’t tests conducted frequently and such that they were increasingly more difficult to pass? Constantly thinking and testing for the unthinkable is the only protection we have against calamities.

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Blog, Crisis Management, Philosophy + Systems

Ebola Is a True Systems Crisis: It Must Be Managed Systemically or It Cannot Be Managed At All

Originally posted October 21, 2014 on the Huffington Post

As most know by now, the response in the U.S. to Ebola has been mixed at best. On the one hand, the infectious disease has not spread uncontrollably. Despite serious snafus, the health system is learning how to manage the disease. On the other hand, the health system should have known from the very beginning that it was dealing with a disease and a situation that demanded a true systems understanding and appropriate response. The appointment of an “Ebola Tsar” is a belated acknowledgement of the fact that Ebola must be managed systemically or it cannot be managed at all.

Let me address briefly some of the many systems factors.

First, of all, without exception, all crises are due in large part to the fact that a series of key assumptions that we have been taking as fundamentally true prove to be completely invalid, if not outright false. But more than this, virtually all of the key assumptions on which we depend collapse all at once and in their entirety. Most of us can live with the collapse of one or two of our basic assumptions, but few can still function when our entire belief systems collapse. This is precisely why crises are so devastating.

Thus, a basic taken-for-granted assumption was given that hospitals essentially know how to contain infectious disease that originate within their immediate boundaries, they would be equally good at containing severe infectious diseases that not only originate from outside, but from afar. Obviously this was not the case.

Another key assumption was that encasing humans in state-of-the-art astronaut-like protective gear from head to toe was more than adequate in protecting aid workers from catching and spreading the disease. That is, current protective gear and procedures were more than satisfactory. As we now know, protection has had to be revised so that it has become even more stringent. Even more parts of the human body have had to be encased.

Next, there was the assumption that government agencies were not only sufficiently well-coordinated and would thus work together, but that they knew how to present the message that Ebola was a serious health threat, but that there were no reasons to panic. In other words, how do we “scare people enough to get their attention, but not enough to cause wide-spread disruption and panic?” The international airline industry has seen the result in lost revenues as people are afraid to fly.

The international transportation system is of course a big part of the problem, and as such, the disease. How indeed are passengers to be monitored and induced to report that they may have been exposed to dangerous viruses? Threatening to embargo all flights from West African countries is not only simple-minded, but actually is counterproductive. It just induces people to enter the U.S. by other less monitored means, and by doing so, just adds to the danger. But then, fear is never wholly rational.

A truly systemic approach to Ebola and the next inevitable animal to human transmitted disease would start by listing as much as is humanly possible the key assumptions upon which we are basing our recognition of the disease and our efforts at controlling, better yet coping, with it. But even more, a truly systemic approach would recognize that the various assumptions are interdependent, not independent. They affect one another in ways that we are struggling to understand.

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Blog, Crisis Management

Crisis Management 101: A Wakeup Call for Law Enforcement Organizations Everywhere

Originally posted August 19, 2014 on the Huffington Post

To say the least, the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri raises highly disturbing and troubling issues for law enforcement agencies everywhere. It is imperative that they learn and put into practice immediately, the most critical lessons from Crisis Management. Let us list briefly a few of the many lessons:

1. A crisis is the worst of all possible times to conduct a review of department policies and actions. Indeed, crises generally drag departments through the mud relentlessly with regard to their current and past behavior. The result is that calm, contemplative institutional change gets lost in the din of the crisis. Everything is exposed and criticized for all to see. Long-range damage is done. Affected individuals and communities not only stage legitimate protests, and sadly, violence often erupts as anger towards the police boils over. For this reason, before major crises occur, police agencies need to conduct regular, ongoing Crisis Audits of their strengths and vulnerabilities. They need to imagine the unimaginable. They need to surface and address potential crises long before they occur. They need to bring in outsiders, such as members of police community advisory boards who can perform hard-hitting, no-holds barred assessments of their susceptibilities with regard to potential crises of all kinds. Outsiders also need to be involved in reviewing the lessons that should have been learned and implemented from past crises. It is not that outsiders are perfectly “objective and unbiased,” for no one possess these desirable attributes. Rather, outsiders are indispensable in surfacing and challenging taken-for-granted assumptions and practices that insiders are often reluctant unwilling to face.

2. Again, with the help of outsiders, realistic assessments of the ethnic and racial compositions of law enforcement agencies need to be performed. Members from surrounding communities need to be involved in such assessments and with all aspects of Crisis Management. Outsiders and members need to be involved in plans for correcting ethnic and racial imbalances. This takes transparency and community involvement to new levels.

3. Realistic simulations of worst-case scenarios such as the shootings of unarmed teenagers need to be performed and assessed on a regular basis. The simulations need to cover what can occur before, during, and after such events. Good crisis simulations also cover what happens when any single crisis sets off a chain reaction of other crises. That is, crises virtually never occur in isolation. To be prepared for one and only one type of crisis is not to be prepared at all. Further, no simulation is worthwhile if it doesn’t take a hard look at the assumptions governing when it is allowable to use the various legal and policy approved levels of force in responding to any situation.

4. Finally, Crisis Management needs to be an integral of the “new skill set” of modern policing. Crisis Management needs to be woven seamlessly into day-to-day operations. This means that everyone needs to be trained and evaluated with respect to the best practices of Crisis Management.

The worst form of Crisis Management is reactive, that is, responding without any prior preparation or training. Law enforcement organizations including city, county, state and federal, must learn to practice proactive Crisis Management or things will only get worse. And, if proactive Crisis Management means anything, it’s that plans are not enough. One needs the capabilities to handle crises.

But most of all, good Crisis Management is not just responding well to crises once they’ve occurred. Good Crisis Management is doing everything humanly possible to prevent major crises from happening in the first place. Years of sincere, community based policing built linkages and partnerships can build prevention, proper response and effective containment of even the most difficult crises.

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Blog, Crisis Management

Colleges and Universities Are Ill-Prepared for Crises

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November 21, 2011

When my colleagues and I first started doing surveys of the crisis preparedness of major colleges and universities, we were shocked but not totally surprised to find that as poorly prepared large business organizations generally are for major crises, colleges and universities were even worse off. It is not that they are completely unprepared. Rather, the difference is between the crises that they are relatively well prepared for versus those that they barely prepared for, if at all.

The contrast sheds important light on why the horrific cases of child abuse happened at Penn State. It also points to why all colleges and universities need to wake up, take a serious look at their crisis preparations, and make significant improvements, if not overhaul them completely.
Major colleges and universities are relatively well prepared for explosions, fires, lawsuits, and crimes. They are also relatively well prepared for environmental mishaps.

But here’s the rub. They are not as well prepared for athletic crises such as improper recruiting activities, e.g., out of control drinking and sex parties; ethical breaches by administrators, faculty, and students; damage to their reputation such as that which Penn State is undergoing; sabotage and terrorism.

Sadly, it took a number of widely publicized shootings before colleges took preparations for them seriously.

Part of the difference is explained by the frequency with which certain crises occur. Thus, explosions, fires, lawsuits, and crimes are rather common. But, this is not the major reason.
In the interviews we conducted with the senior staff of colleges and universities, not a single one even mentioned the possibility of child abuse, even though nearly all of them had a major childcare facility on their campus. The major concern was environmental, e.g., if a childcare facility was too close to a dangerous chemical lab.

Most disturbing of all was the fact that we were generally prohibited from interviewing anyone connected with the athletic department. Just as troubling was the fact that the head of the athletic department was least likely to be a member of a campus wide crisis management team, assuming that the college or university had one.

The message was loud and clear. Football and basketball in particular and sports in general are big business. It is not just the sheer amount of revenue that football and basketball attendance bring in, but all of the associated paraphernalia sold in campus stores.

In short, athletics was completely off-limits. It was not to be messed with in any way.
I share the general criticisms that have been levied at big time college athletics. I believe that sports programs are out of control. There is little doubt that they have a major corrupting influence on schools.

However, while the detractors of college sports have been justly critical of the out-of-control recruiting practices at the University of Colorado and USC, just to mention two, they have not thought about the tragedies due to child abuse such as those that have engulfed Penn State.
It’s not that there has been no planning at all for athletic crises, but that crisis planning has been done as if each crisis occurs in complete isolation from all of the others. This is in spite of the fact that no crisis is ever a single crisis. It is a whole series of interconnected ones.

Nonetheless, I am not calling for the complete abandonment of collegiate sports. But, make no mistake about it. Collegiate sports can no longer be conducted as business as usual. One of the most disturbing findings from our surveys was that crisis management had the lowest institutional support of all programs. For instance, while education at all levels was rightly ranked highest in importance, support for crisis management was significantly lower than facilities’ improvement.

The time is way overdue for major colleges and universities to give crisis management the high degree of attention and support it demands.

If I were part of what’s left of Penn State’s top management, I’d be worrying about all the other crises that are brewing and have not yet come to light. For once a major crisis of any kind has occurred, it is highly likely that it will set off a completely unrelated crisis.

All crises are parts of a chain reaction. The purpose of crisis management is to get out in front of the chain so that an institution is not destroyed by a firestorm of never-ending, out-of-control crises.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November 21, 2011

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