Executives and Boards, Avoid These Missteps in a Crisis

By Matt Dallisson, 27/04/2020

The scale of Covid-19 pandemic’s impact is fully sinking in. Organizations of all types are feeling the pressure to simultaneously wrestle with surviving the immediate crisis and planning for a radically changed future. How do they share the economic pain among stakeholders? How should they revamp their supply chains in order to make them more resilient? How do they avoid the mistakes they made in the last financial crisis — whether that was waiting too long to respond, overreacting by cutting so deeply it hampered their recovery, or simply cutting in the wrong places?

Organizations across the world are facing a level threat not seen since World War II. Their leaders and board directors  are experiencing enormous anxieties fueled not only by the threats to the survival of their companies but also by the health dangers confronting customers, employees, and themselves and their own families.

Just at the time when leaders need to be adaptive to deal with the extreme number of unknowns and dangers, this stress means that many executive teams and boards could fall victim to “threat rigidity” — that is, essentially freezing innovation and resorting to actions that have worked in the past rather than coming up with crucial new approaches.

This tendency and social-distancing restrictions that prevent members of leadership teams and boards from meeting face to face for collective formal meetings or informal side conversations greatly increase the odds that they will not rise to the occasion. Based on our recent research and consulting work and longtime interest in studying the effects of pressure on workplace collaboration, we have come up with ways they can avoid three main traps.

Trap #1: Narrow thinking  

You might think that crises make people more innovative (i.e., “necessity is the mother of invention”). But the reality is our natural tendency is to seek comfort and certainty — to fall back on existing remedies (i.e., “what we do well most of the time”). Executive teams and boards can overcome this propensity by asking these critical questions:

Trap #2: Deferring to the leader

When feeling threatened, people tend to look up to the leader for inspiration, insight, and strength. But executives and directors should resist the urge to instinctively defer to the highest-ranking leader and instead make sure that they are taking advantage of the skills and perspectives of all leaders and directors. Asking these questions will help:

Trap #3: Conformity

Research by scholars such as psychologist Irving L. Janis. shows that there are strong pressures to conform in a crisis to achieve harmony. Some of is innate: We don’t want to disrupt or slow actions to resolve a crisis, so we censor ourselves in discussions.

Another source is the tendency of a group’s majority, once it has reached a preliminary decision or agreed on an initial plan, to pressure dissenters to fall into line with the consensus view in order to have unified action. As a result, the group doesn’t take more time to explore potentially better options. This kind of groupthink contributed to such blunders as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba during the Kennedy administration and Ford Motor Company’s decision to build the Edsel.

To avoid these traps, the group should ask these types of questions:

Asking these kinds of questions and seeking honest answers may sometimes be seen as slowing down the response in a crisis. However, executive teams and boards that ask the tough questions now are less likely to waste time and money protecting what turns out to be an outdated approach and more likely to do the best-possible job of preparing the business for whatever future ultimately emerges.

This content was originally published here.