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Published: March 24, 2021

Crisis management – people matter

By: Dan Huntington

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As in the corporate sector, crisis management in the aid and humanitarian sphere has often focused on a functional and technical approach. Written by Constellis’ crisis management adviser Dan Huntington, this blog draws on the practical, first-hand experience of a team with extensive accumulated experience fused with research into crisis decision-making. It explains why, instead of relying only on process and technical factors, we need to understand that personality and behavioural dynamics in crisis management teams matter.

It’s a team sport

People have difficulty making timely decisions:

  1. When the stakes are high.
  2. When they are under stress.
  3. When the information they have is incomplete and sometimes contradictory.
  4. When the decision-makers are working on an issue outside of their usual frame of reference.

The most successful crisis response occurs when those making the decisions – the crisis management team (CMT) – work effectively together and use their combined capacity to the greatest effect.

External crisis management advisers are often in an extraordinarily privileged position, able to observe the thinking and actions of CMTs.  We have seen tremendously impressive and effective performances, where teams work to their fullest capacity despite extraordinary stress.  We also see CMTs that, despite having multiple members, effectively have only one decision-maker who acts as if the rest of the team are not present.  Or we see CMTs that flood themselves with analysis and are unable to convert information into action resulting in their failure to make crucial or timely decisions – a very common problem known as ‘analysis paralysis’.

An effective CMT requires a structured approach and space for open discussion.  This allows the team to identify issues rapidly and make decisions.  But this needs preparation and training: without this, a CMT is merely ‘a flash team’ – just a group of individuals without a structured approach and often unable to work together effectively under stress.  Training needs to be realistic, practical, and relevant to the organisation.  Importantly, training should cover not only procedural and operational issues but should fundamentally focus on improving the CMT’s capacity to work together to make successful decisions under stress. This requires acknowledging the personalities around the CMT table and the group dynamics that are inevitably present.

Group dynamics

Time and again, we have noted how group dynamics within or around the CMT have hindered or helped crisis management.  Poor group dynamics often centre around inappropriate or weak leadership, blocking behaviour by CMT members, or apprehension of being ‘judged’ or evaluated by fellow CMT members.  Groupthink, which occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides individual opinion (usually a differing or opposing point of view), can be a major problem and result in good decisions one moment, disastrous the next.  While groupthink often presents particular ‘symptoms’ that CMT leaders and advisers can recognise and tackle or mitigate, it may actually be rooted in a lack of diversity in the team or even the organisation and is thus more fundamental.

Human behaviour

Human behavioural and emotional factors are key. People’s performance is usually context specific – in other words, performance deteriorates when one is outside one’s usual frame of reference.  This can even be related to location: research into the performance of trauma surgeons showed that those who worked very effectively in an operating theatre experienced a marked deterioration in performance when doing the same tasks with the same equipment at the site of a road traffic accident.  Similarly, CMT leaders cannot expect an expert in, for instance, community forestry or public healthcare to automatically become an effective manager responding to a political crisis or a kidnapping.

Behavioural factors are inherently individual and depend on personality traits and personal biases.  Personality traits become magnified under stress.  For instance, compulsive personalities – of which many are found in the ranks of senior executives, scientists, engineers and military leaders – normally display good attention to detail, rational processing and organisational ability; they are logical decision-makers.  But, under stress, this trait can interfere with effective decision-making, causing preoccupation with detail, an inability to see the ‘big picture’ and indecisiveness.  In group situations, compulsive personalities can place too much emphasis on hierarchy, resulting in blind submission to superiors’ ideas.  Compulsive personalities under stress will often ignore expert advice.

Cognitive biases

Personal biases and organisational (‘political’) dynamics can also impact decision-making, for good and bad. For example, cognitive biases can sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or other forms of irrationality.  Confirmation or attributional biases are often seen in CMTs and can have very negative effects on decision-making. On the other hand, some cognitive biases are adaptive and, particularly in situations where speed is more important than precision, may allow quicker choices to be made.  Subject-matter experts, in particular, may use heuristics – mental shortcuts such as an instinctive response to a problem, or a rule of thumb, which ease the cognitive load of making a decision – successfully in crises.

What do crisis management leaders need to do?

Crisis management is different to ‘routine’ management.  It needs the right people leading the response and plenty of practice. Unprepared CMTs bring a dangerous illusion of readiness.  Leaders should recognise the importance of human behaviour and group dynamics, as well as process, in responding to a crisis. Identifying and and developing CMT members who have the right skills, experience and personalities for crisis management is essential for effective crisis response and training exercises can be the perfect environment to achieve this prior to a real crisis event.


About the author

Dan Huntington is a Constellis crisis management adviser. He has over twenty-five years’ experience of crisis management around the world.  He has worked in the corporate, government and aid sectors and has experience of a variety of crises – technical, reputational, environmental, political and security-related.  He has lived in Venezuela, India, Nepal, Chile and Canada, as well as the UK.

Constellis provides end-to-end risk management and humanitarian solutions to safeguard people and infrastructure globally. 





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