The New Normal of Crisis
Every crisis has telltale signs that linger long after the crisis is over.
A March 30, 2020 survey by Gartner shows that a staggering 74% of CFOs expect to make remote work more permanent for some employees who work on-site. This study indicates that remote working, a hallmark of the ongoing crisis, will be more prevalent post-crisis.
A second lasting effect of the coronavirus crisis may be the return of activist government that would gauge its accomplishments by the “number of hospital beds, rather than aircraft carriers and missile-defense systems or gross domestic product.”
A third telltale sign that I expect will last beyond the current virus crisis is handwashing.
Apparently, before the global pandemic, we didn’t do much handwashing, even after using public bathrooms. Gross! A 2009 study cited by the CDC shows that almost 70% of men and 35% of women do not wash their hands after using public washrooms. Eww! (Sorry, if I ruined handshakes for you – Oh, by the way, that form of greeting may also change post-COVID).
To Wash, or Not to Wash
While it is now a generally accepted fact that handwashing is the cheapest way to curb diseases worldwide, once upon a time, even medical doctors did not wash their hands at work. It was perfectly acceptable for them to go from cutting up dead bodies for anatomy, autopsy, and pathology lessons to attending to expectant mothers in the labor and delivery wards. This unsafe practice resulted in a long-standing crisis: a high death rate among expectant mothers due to puerperal fever (also known as "childbed fever").
It was not until 1847 (over 2,200 years after Hippocrates) that Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis (pictured right), a Hungarian physician, after extensive research, introduced handwashing to address this lingering crisis and dramatically lowered the maternal mortality rate from as high as 15.8% to below 1%. He was known as “the savior of mothers.”
What a feat! Surely, the scientific and medical community of his time would embrace this new information as a solution to the protracted crisis of high maternal mortality rates in obstetrics clinics. Sadly, that was not to be.
Instead, Semmelweis’ handwashing proposal was ridiculed, ripped apart and, rejected by the medical community! Why? Because they mishandled this vital information.
"How leaders respond to and handle information during a crisis is one of the most central determinants of the duration and severity of that crisis."
My crisis leadership research shows that how leaders respond to and handle information during a crisis is one of the most central determinants of the duration and severity of that crisis. I also saw this first-hand in my global executive experience.
Handle Info Like a Pro
When it comes to the handling of information that drives decision-making during crises, successful leaders respond by being relentless in the eye of the storm, egoless in their interaction with new information and borderless in their search for information:
Successful leaders are relentless in a crisis because they understand that their resilience determines their organization’s staying power during adversity. Relentlessness is about leadership, not showmanship. My experience shows that there is nothing that unmasks a leader’s level of resilience like a crisis. Nothing.
Following a particularly brutal weekend of managing a deluge of COVID-19 cases, many of whom passed away, Dr. Cornelia Griggs (pictured left), a fellow of pediatric surgery at the Columbia University Medical Center, tweeted “My babies are too young to read this now. And they’d barely recognize me in my gear. But if they lose me to COVID I want them to know Mommy tried really hard to do her job”.
During a crisis, your willingness as a leader to try really hard, to be relentless in your quest to create a better future beyond the ongoing crisis will determine the sincerity with which you search for information and the value you place on the information. These responses to information search impact your decision-making and, eventually, the success or failure of your team.
Also, if people within your sphere of leadership do not see you try really hard in the face of adversity, the bottom will fall out of your authority as a crisis leader. This effect is because a leader in a crisis derives his/her authority from a willingness to try really hard. Without that, a leader's influence is eroded, and s/he will not be trusted with critical information by team members.
"True leaders do not capitulate in the face of adversity"
Semmelweis was relentless; he tried really hard. Unlike other physicians in his generation, he refused to accept the status quo of a high maternal mortality rate. He said the crisis “made me so miserable that life seemed worthless.” His relentlessness drove his sincere quest for and the value he placed on information that later turned out to be critical.
True leaders do not capitulate in the face of adversity or acquiesce to the destructive potentials of a crisis. Instead, buoyed by a measured dose of optimism, they chart a new path with masterfully deployed but rarely sufficient resources.
Finally, decades of research studying people with chronic illnesses confirm that patients that are willing to try really hard for a favorable outcome are more open to and deliberately seek out information about their health crisis and potential solutions. Being relentless is a choice a leader has to make in a crisis; it is often an intentional stance. Don’t assume you are relentless – show it.
When it comes to decision-making toolbox, information is an essential tool. According to an executive who participated in my doctoral research, leaders “gather all the information…and…just tip the decision button”. However, a leader’s ego may get in the way of critical information flow, primarily because the new material contradicts established beliefs of the leader, industry best practice, or affiliated institutions.
"The presence of a crisis is proof of the inadequacy of commonly accepted information."
Leaders of prestigious scientific and medical institutions felt insulted by Semmelweis’ handwashing-to-save-mothers’-lives proposal and their egos corrupted their handling of that piece of valuable information. Their outsized egos felt challenged by the new piece of data, and it caused them to reject the information that could resolve the chronic crisis and save lives.
In the time of a crisis, an effective leader consciously removes his/her ego from the crisis information exchange system. That is because it is not unusual for newly sourced information to fly in the face of commonly held beliefs and conventions. After all, if widely accepted information and the current level of thinking was sufficient, then they would have neutralized the issue before it became a full-blown crisis.
Thus, the presence of a crisis is proof of the inadequacy of commonly accepted information and the insufficiency of the current level of thinking. A leader’s exposure to new and relevant information is one of the surest ways to change his/her level of thinking. No wonder Albert Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
"The more successful your organization is, the stronger its aversion will be to adopting new information."
New information that is not yet commonly accepted is sometimes required to resolve a crisis, and egoless leaders know to get themselves out of the way.
Executives who participated in my research confirmed that they were most successful in leading crises when they had an egoless approach to new information.
The more successful your organization is, the more susceptible it is to crisis because of the propensity to rinse-and-repeat coupled with an aversion to adopting new information that challenges the status quo. The rejection of Netflix’s business model by established players in the industry is captioned in the title of co-founder Marc Randolph’s book – “That will never work”. Heard that sound? That is ego speaking.
New information is indispensable because what was successful yesterday may become the root cause of tomorrow’s crisis. William Pollard put it this way, “The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday would be sufficient for tomorrow.”
The marketplace is littered with borders: among sectors, among industries, among companies in the same industry, among functions and business units in the same company, and among teams with the same function or business unit, to mention a few. Borders, AKA silos, are inimical to the information gathering process necessary for decision-making in a crisis.
Information search as a crisis response should be borderless in terms of
- scope of data-points,
- span of functions or business units, and
- scale of coverage
In the best of times, experience shows that silos tend towards turf wars, suboptimisation, and inefficiency. In the worst of times, epitomized by a crisis, borders impede the flow of vital information while creating and perpetuating a crisis-rife atmosphere.
Describing the impact of silos on the US intelligence community before 9/11 terror attacks, Markel Foundation’s Zoe Baird Budinger and Jeffrey H. Smith in their 2011 statement to the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs said that such territorial behavior created a myriad of “secretive pockets of the nation’s most valuable information.” The crisis that followed was devastating.
Effective leaders recognize that organizations are naturally replete with secretive pockets of prized information, and such leaders are committed in their mission to tear down the silos to access them.
"Organizations are replete with secretive pockets of prized information."
Semmelweis knocked down the “not built here” mentality as he sourced information widely, including outside the hospital, to address the crisis. Women who were too scared to give birth in the hospital due to its negative reputation of high maternal death rate, chose to deliver their babies on the streets. Semmelweis’ borderless mentality enabled him to reach outside the hospital to collect and analyze data of the street births, and compare them with hospital births. This information turned out to be critical in defining the problem statement, a decisive phase of crisis leadership – street births had a far lower mortality rate versus hospital births.
As a Matter of Fact
The Semmelweis story, as you may know, did not end well. Bitter, disappointed, and enraged by his wrongful rejection by the medical community, he suffered extensive psychological affliction. He was lured into a psychiatric hospital where he died just two weeks after admission. Subsequently, Louis Pasteur’s germ theory and other breakthroughs confirmed that Semmelweis was right all along.
Such rejection of vital information is not uncommon in organizations.
This is in spite of the fact that leaders at all levels of organizations recognize the power of having the right kind of information for decision-making. They largely agree with former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s dogma that the most successful person is the person who has acquired the best information. This need is even more vital during a crisis.
However, a crisis creates such a bizarre atmosphere and knotty dynamics that may cause managers to be prone to mishandling information. By being relentless, egoless, and borderless, leaders may avoid the pitfall noted by writer Kenneth Grahame, “The strongest human instinct is to impart information, the second strongest is to resist it.”
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