Managing The Victim Dimension Of Large-Scale Disasters, Part 2 - Insurance Thought Leadership



January 21, 2013

Managing The Victim Dimension Of Large-Scale Disasters, Part 2


In the midst of a crisis, the most important responsibility of the CEO is to take a personal interest and an active role in the care of victims. Senior executives should maintain a positive, constructive pressure to get victim issues resolved promptly.

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This is the second article in a multi-part series on “victim management” in the wake of large-scale disasters and crises. Additional articles in the series can be found here: Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4.

Management Culture Prevents Adequate Victim Management
In America today, the process of becoming a leader, manager, or professional involves, in part, deliberate and calculated de-emotionalization. This is the attitude and practice that only those actions and decisions that can be easily measured, quantified, or metricized are important. This approach generally ignores people and people issues and the things that happen to people or that people care about. Management culture simply deemphasizes and devalues anything that is difficult to quantify — that is, emotional or “soft.”

On top of this, managers, leaders, and professionals are trained to discredit, discount, disregard, disrespect, and even demean virtually every kind of emotional expression. Peers, shareholders, and colleagues in the business community expect crisis-affected managers to tough it out and avoid looking like sissies, at least at first. It is okay to give in after victims have been ignored, insulted, demeaned, and slapped around a bit. The result is that management's response to crisis often comes across as what it truly is — callous, arrogant, cold, and heartless. It is true that managers, leaders, and professionals are not compensated for their level of empathy, especially in crisis. The lesson is that what doesn't get paid for doesn't get done.

Our country's business culture systematically avoids emotional issues. Business people are taught a kind of decision-making ritual — one in which even the most urgent decisions are made through a process of conflict, confrontation, and aggressive intellectual and verbal combat. Looked at through the lens of victimization, this approach is time consuming and distracts from the humane immediacy victim response requires. Too much delay, and the perceptions of arrogance, callousness, and culpability take over, especially if management hesitates, acts timidly, or is initially hostile and negative toward victims.

What The Boss Should Really Do In A Crisis
From another perspective, one of the more powerful weaknesses in crisis response is the lack of specific roles and assignments for top management. The result of this crucial gap in crisis management planning is the mismanagement, lack of management, or paralysis that afflicts crisis response efforts. This defect occurs all too frequently in plans I review, responses I analyze, and scenarios I explore with client companies. In the course of directing crisis response, analyzing past responses to crisis, or developing powerful response strategies, it's clear that crisis response promptness and effectiveness depend on having five essential responsibilities spelled out carefully in every crisis plan for the CEO and top management (or surviving leaders):

  1. Assert the moral authority expected of ethical leadership.
  2. Take responsibility for the care of victims.
  3. Set the appropriate tone for the organizational response.
  4. Set the organization's voice.
  5. Commit acts of leadership at every level.

Assert The Moral Authority Expected Of Ethical Leadership
No matter how devastating or catastrophic the crisis is, in most cultures forgiveness is possible provided the organization, through its early behaviors and leadership, takes appropriate and expected steps to learn from and deal with the crisis-causing issues. The behaviors, briefly and in order, are as follows:

  • Candor and disclosure (acknowledgment that something adverse has happened or is happening);
  • Explanation and revelation about the nature of the problem (some early analysis);
  • Commitment to communicate throughout the process (even if there are lots of critics);
  • Empathy (intentional acts of helpfulness, kindness, and compassion);
  • Oversight (inviting outsiders, even victims, to look over your shoulder);
  • Commitment to zero (finding ways to prevent similar events from occurring again);
  • and,

  • Restitution or penance (paying the price — generally doing more than would be expected, asked for, or required).

Take Responsibility For The Care Of Victims
The single most crucial element in any crisis, aside from ending the victim-causing event, is managing the victim dimension. There are three kinds of victims: people, animals, and living systems. It's top management's responsibility to see that appropriate steps are taken to care for victims' needs. This is both a reputation preservation and a litigation reduction activity. Most devastating responses to crises occur when victims are left to their own devices, when victims' needs go unfulfilled, or when for whatever reasons (usually legal) the organization that created the victims refuses to take even the simplest of humane steps to ease the pain, suffering, and victimization of those afflicted. Out of all of the CEO's essential responsibilities, taking a personal interest and an active role in the care of victims is the most important. Senior executives should maintain a positive, constructive pressure to get victim issues resolved promptly.

Set The Appropriate Tone For The Organizational Response
Tone refers to internal management behavior that helps the organization meet the expectations triggered by a crucial, critical, or catastrophic situation. If senior management takes on the posture of being attacked or victimized, the entire organization will react in the same way. Very rarely are large organizations and institutions considered victims. They're generally considered to be the perpetrators at worst or arrogant bystanders at best.

It's the most senior executives who need to set a constructive tone that encourages positive attitudes and language and prompt responses. This approach protects the organization's relationships with various constituents during the response and recovery period, shows respect for victims, and reduces the threat of further trust or reputation damage.

Set The Organization's Voice
Top management must put a face and a voice on the organization or institution as it moves through the crisis. This action is directed first toward the internal world, then second toward the external world — how you describe yourself, what you're doing, how the response is going, what responsibilities you're taking, and what outside scrutiny you're inviting.

Selecting a spokesperson who understands what the various publics and audiences are expecting, as well as what the various medias require, is essential in successfully managing the visibility of any crisis situation. The complexity of crises today, as well as the complexity of coverage, probably requires a range of expertise and more than one individual to be responsible, ready, and prepared to present an organization's case internally and externally. Depending on the severity of the situation, this duty often falls to the chief executive. Generally, the more severe the level of damage and number of victims, the more senior the operating individual needs to be to become the face of the organization and its voice. The more extensive the crisis, the more likely it is that there will be a number of spokespeople, including professional communicators, subject matter experts, and operating executives.

The weight of crisis management falls most heavily on organizational leaders and leadership, primarily the chief executive. Recent trends demonstrate that no matter how effectively a chief executive leads the response to a crisis situation, the likelihood seems extremely high that this person will be relieved of his or her duties at some point relatively soon, often well before the crisis itself is totally resolved. Even if a senior executive has someone else carry out these duties, public expectations have been shaped toward placing blame on and seeking retribution from the highest individual on duty at the time of the circumstance.

Commit Acts Of Leadership At Every Level
Leaders acting like leaders have significance during urgent situations. Senior executives should literally walk around and talk to people. They should encourage, suggest, knock down barriers, and help everyone stay focused on the ultimate goals of the response process. Random acts of leadership are always welcome in any environment, but especially during crisis. Rather than huddling in their executive offices trying to determine what steps should be taken to resolve the situation, 90% of senior executive activities should have them out and about, being leaders, motivators, and instigators of empathy, rather than sitting in their offices or bugging responders in the command center.

All crises are management problems first. Preplanning executive actions focused on the most essential and important circumstance — that is, the victims — can avoid career-defining moments. Another crucial strategic responsibility of company leadership is to have in place a victim response unit and special victim action teams, reflecting participation by communicators, the legal department, and human resources, to immediately help management avoid the collateral damage and devastating consequences of mismanaging the victim dimension and to keep management focused on the significant benefits to reputation, public trust, and legal liability reduction that will be achieved by prompt, empathetic, and apologetic management of victims.

This series first appeared as an article in Leadership and Management in Engineering, a publication of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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