Crises Are Inevitable. Why Do We Miss The Warning Signs?

Inspired by The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient Than Before, I recently wrote about the inevitability of crises in organizational settings.

The authors of the book, Erika H. James and Lynn Perry Wooten, write, “Crises are never one-off events. They happen again and again, although we never seem to expect them.”

James and Wooten wrote The Prepared Leader to help leaders prepare for crises, but why don’t we already? They write:

A crisis can feel like it hits you and your organization out of the blue. In reality, certain types of crisis can simmer in the background until the conditions are just right for disaster to materialize. These smoldering crises can be hard to predict, even if they are technically foreseeable.

Crucially, this is because these crises “are often tied to failure in organizational culture or procedures—the same failure that allows them to happen while also making them hard to see or track.” Bury sexual harassment claims, for example, and it will eventually turn into a crisis. (And, worse than whatever “crisis” befalls an organization, real people get hurt behind this stuff.)

I think of Charlie Brown and Lucy and the running football gag by Charles M. Schulz. Like a crisis that could have been avoided or at least prepared for, it gets Charlie Brown every time.

Why is this?

James and Wooten list five biases (“cognitive distortions”) that prepared leaders need to recognize—and overcome:

  1. Probability Neglect: we “underestimate the probability that something (bad) will happen to us.” They give the example of COVID-19, and how many North Americans thought it was all the way over there in China and would never reach us.
  2. Hyperbolic Discounting: it’s easier to focus on the present than the future, even if (especially if?) the problems of the future feel overwhelming.
  3. Anchoring Effect: we “tend to cleave to the first impression or understanding we form about a risk or threat.” This especially serves us poorly if we know such-and-such a person as someone who would never do that, even though they’ve just been credibly accused by multiple people. The cognitive dissonance in such cases is painful and difficult to resolve.
  4. Exponential Growth Bias: this is bias against the exponential growth that a crisis tends to have. In other words, we think situations unfold in a linear, straightforward way. They often don’t.
  5. Sunk-Cost Fallacy: “once we have settled on a course of action, and invested time, effort, and resources, it’s hard to change direction.” Once Charlie Brown is running toward that football, even though he knows Lucy is going to pull it out from under him, he still follows through and tries to kick it.

The Prepared Leader calls all of us to hold these cognitive distortions up to the light right now, because “the next crisis is already heading your way.” Or you’re in one right now. They warn readers not to “let your guard down,” which may be our default mode, especially when our biases almost hard-wire us to miss warning signs.

Is there good news here? Yes! Chapter 1 of The Prepared Leader profiles Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, and his brilliant (and seemingly lightning-fast) move to implement a “Bubble” when COVID-19 hit, so that the season could continue.

Silver’s actions remind us that we have agency, even in the midst of a crisis. In short, we should “have a learning organizational culture, with processes and protocols in place to surface and share information and to resolve any blockages in knowledge flow.”

Leaders and organizations that try to wish a crisis away (tempting as it is) won’t do much better with the next one. Examining and trying to overcome our cognitive biases is an important start.

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