When things go bad

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The NY Times headline read, "Report on ’09 Air France Crash Cites Conflicting Data in Cockpit." Here's a core quote.

"There was a 'profound loss of understanding' among all three pilots of Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330 en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, about what was happening after ice crystals threw off the plane’s airspeed sensors and the autopilot disconnected, the report said. The pilots then struggled to control the plane manually amid a barrage of alarms, a situation further confused by the faulty instructions displayed by an automated navigational aid called the flight director."

You probably don't face life-and-death situations that are anything like that. On the other hand, the image of several people trying to figure out what to do, while alarms are going off all around them, may seem oddly familiar. When things go bad, they tend to hit us suddenly.

To make matters more difficult, some of the worst situations aren't generated by a single cause. In those situations there are several interacting causes, called an "event cascade" that are almost impossible to predict. When that happens, it's too late to prepare and the worst time to think up a response.

Your body was made for the jungle where danger was met with fight or flight. Note: thinking wasn't part of it. When danger strikes, your body sends the blood that's normally in the brain to the parts of your body where it's needed to flee or fight. Less blood in the brain means you can't think as well. If you're going to handle emergencies effectively you've got to do your thinking ahead of time.

Plan for the things you know can happen. Weather emergencies, hazmat spills, and fires come to mind. Rick Rescorla's plan for what Morgan Stanley workers should do if the World Trade Center was attacked, is one reason why that firm only lost six people out of almost three thousand on September 11, 2001.

Include some thinking about how you will know what you're facing. While the Port Authority officials were broadcasting "stay put" messages, Rick decided that an attack was happening. He activated his plan, marching his company employees down the stairs, two by two.

Make sure people are trained to react effectively. The Air France pilots weren't, but Morgan Stanley employees had written instructions and drill to help them.

Boss's Bottom Line

You and I will, hopefully, never face situations like the Air France disaster or the World Trade Center attack. But a little planning and some training can make it more likely that we'll respond well when things go bad.

Additional Resource

Dan Nigro, Rick Rescorla and the Leadership Lessons of 9/11

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  • 7/11/2012 2:36 AM John Hunter wrote:
    I can't recall not but I think there are studies that show people will be lulled into not acting when a group of people is around (who are not taking action). So something is introduced that if they were alone they would react (say leave the trade center or investigate the seemingly risky piece of data). But if there is a group people become more passive - thinking the non-action by others means they are over-reacting. So they then don't react (thus re-inforcing everyone else decision not to act).

    This is one of those times leadership really matters. Someone not afraid to take action and potentially criticized for going against the consensus group decision to not act. If all of a sudden tons of people jump to support the idea it is likely they all would have done so alone but were intimidated by the non-acting group. Either that or they respect the leader and decide to support them while not sure it is really needed.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/11/2012 8:42 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      You're right, John. The phenomenon is called the "Bystander Effect" or the "Genovese Effect," after Kitty Genovese who was stabbed to death in 1964 within earshot of several neighbors.  One of the things we've learned from those studies is that you can break the effect by assigning responsibility for action to individuals. For example, if you come upon someone unconscious with a crowd gathered around, many people will shout "Call 911." That may work, but it's not nearly as effective as pointing to a single individual and saying. "You. Call 911. Do it now."

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