Moral Authority

Savonarola-preaching-against-prodigality-ludwig-von-langenmantel-1879
When you have the moral high ground, the good people will listen.
(image: Wikimedia Commons, license: Public Domain)

Once you get familiar with a system, you start to get a good sense of what could push it over the edge. As a troubleshooter, there will be times that you labor in vain to alert your colleagues about the dangers of a meltdown. It’s human nature to ignore warnings for things which we have little or no experience. Many times your fate will be like a modern day Laocoön, who tried to warn the Trojans about the giant wooden horse/metaphor they had just wheeled into their stronghold. He famously said: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” Actually, I hope you fare a little better than good ol’ Laocoön, who was blinded and then strangled by two giant sea serpents (courtesy of Athena) as repayment for his whistle-blowing efforts. Unfortunately, he was deprived of a righteous “I told you so!” moment at the end of that whole saga.

Unlike Laocoön, maybe you didn’t see disaster coming and were blindsided like everyone else. Either way, in the wake of a crisis, people will be ready to listen to your plans for improvement. Because they will be the most receptive to change after a catastrophe, you must take advantage of this limited window. Act while the pain of a crisis is fresh in people’s memories. This quote sums it up quite well:

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Rahm Emanuel, former White House Chief of Staff

In a political context, I’m suspicious of the sentiment contained in a statement such as this. When the government does things it “thought it couldn’t do before”—watch out! You might’ve heard the old saying, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.”

That aside, I must admit that Mr. Emanuel would make a mighty fine troubleshooter. He’s right, you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Afterwards (or during, if it persists long enough), you’ll have the opportunity to make changes that would have been difficult without the undeniable reality of a recent catastrophe. In the aftermath of a crisis, here are some areas where you should boldly forge ahead:

  • Budgets: risks you identify have an “average” expected cost. When an accident finally does happen, that cost is fully realized. Whereas before, the probabilities and expenses were once hypothetical, afterwards you will have the actual numbers to point at. The resulting expenses are a great starting point to advocate for new spending to prevent an accident from reoccurring: new machines, increased staffing, more frequent maintenance, infrastructure improvements, etc.
  • Policies: new gear isn’t the only way to prevent an accident from reoccurring. Instead, what you might need are changes to how your organization works. Training and procedures should be reviewed and updated to deal with the new reality. Because people like routine and are resistant to change, or because of organizational politics, this may be your only opportunity to make meaningful policy changes.
  • Information flow/transparency: sometimes a lack of information is the origin of a disaster. As a consequence of territorial or political disputes, departments and processes can become closed off from each other. In times of peace, vital information might be painful to assemble because of this organizational friction. However, in the wake of a calamity, demands for transparency will be taken more seriously.

The Psychology Of Disasters

Why don’t we do a better job anticipating disasters? It probably has to do with:

  • Reality is complicated: poorly understood systems, interacting with other poorly understood systems, can produce even more things you don’t understand. Also, there’s the power of unintended consequences: your actions can set things in motion that may only be understood with the power of hindsight.
  • “Availability heuristic”: psychology studies have shown that your mind places additional importance on things that have happened recently. This effect is called the “availability heuristic” and the mental bias also applies if you’re able to think of an example of something. Disasters, being rare, won’t likely trip this “availability” trigger–you’ll have to champion their importance without this psychological boost.
  • “Bystander effect”: group dynamics come into play in disaster preparedness psychology. If no one else is concerned, you’ll be more likely to brush off the risk as well.
  • Personal or institutional solipsism: this is an inability to project beyond your own experience (or your organization’s). It’s the sentiment that, if it hasn’t happened to you (or us), it cannot happen at all.

Data collection (prediction) and routine maintenance (prevention) can be a bulwark against catastrophes. But, let’s be realistic, eliminating all future disasters is like trying to stop the rain. This is not an argument for complacency, but rather a reminder to prevent accidents when you can and to learn the most from the rest that will inevitably slip through your best defenses.

“With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility”

Invoke the power of Moral Authority sparingly and with the restraint of a wise, old sage like Mr. Miyagi. The goal is to pave the way for a better future, not to wield power for its own sake. The phenomenon of unintended consequences, which underlies many disasters, can also befall plans to prevent disasters. Using the emotion of a disaster to take resources and attention away from other worthy causes has its own cost, and can lead to problems just the same.

*** Questions? Comments? Have a related troubleshooting story that you’d like to share? Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments section below! ***

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