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What fascinates me most about a crisis is that it reveals a lot about human psychology. I personally don’t believe you can navigate a crisis effectively if you don’t take stock of the human emotions bubbling up around you during one. The crisis within the crisis — of people reacting to the events — often determines the effectiveness of business decisions and outcomes.
Psychologists have observed that when people feel under attack, it generates a fight-or-flight response. I believe when a business is threatened by outsiders, it simulates the same survival instincts our ancestors felt when their tribe was in the presence of a predatory animal.
Along with a crisis communications plan, I also believe you need an accompanying “psychology plan.” This should establish how you will handle the different reactions to a crisis that could either impede development of a thoughtful communications approach or skew the approach and steer your organization into greater trouble.
Put this lens on any recent crisis response you have witnessed. How often do you hear complaints nobody within an organization took responsibility for a crisis or the CEO left the response to a spokesperson or non-executive? This is the flight mentality in action. Lower-level employees often embrace the U.S. Secret Service mindset to “take the bullet.” Calls to “protect the CEO” and allow him or her to stay out of the “line of fire” are common. Meanwhile, a CEO with a flight mentality is comfortable staying out of plain sight.
Alternatively, many organizations also fail to hear the cries of their critics and suit up for battle — the fight response. Organizational responses to crises commonly involve a variety of fight responses, including shifting blame to clients, partners or consumers, attacking critics for their perceived unreasonableness, accusing outsiders of lacking smarts or sufficient knowledge, or dismissing critics by defending their actions in only a legal context.
Notice how prevalent violence metaphors are in these situations. It is not a coincidence. When the tribe is attacked, it is a declaration of war. Or, so it seems. During a crisis, key leaders meet in a “war room” or “safe room.” While some of this is to preserve confidentiality and enable rapid decision-making, an “under-siege” psychological element is also very much at play and affects decision-making.
While an organizational crisis tests the best of us, I don’t think an organization under criticism can win by succumbing to human instincts of fight or flight. Those natural-instinct urges to flee or stand and fight must be resisted. While these instincts saved many lives in the wild, they don’t work well in our complex civilizations. A successful crisis counselor will have both a strategy to manage those psychological tendencies and the credibility to help guide key leaders to an approach that seeks a positive outcome for all stakeholders involved in a crisis.
Marcel Goldstein is an EVP in Allison+Partners corporate practice.