The “Dark Matter’ of Crisis Management.


Great people and smart teams often underperform (or fail) when they manage a corporate crisis. Even trained crisis teams from large and well-resourced companies often perform only marginally better. Research, statistics, and media headlines make this rather clear. Could we be missing something important in our approach?

It’s worth noting that in most cases, the novelty or complexity of problem itself is not the reason they fail. Most crisis teams are composed of people who have the skills and experience to solve complex problems if given enough time, information, tools, the right people etc. Teams, even great teams, usually fail because crises must be often be resolved under highly unusual and unfamiliar conditions. These “crisis conditions" are the real forces that crush crisis management performance.

We know from research that this complex constellation of conditions that we call “crisis conditions” is so powerful that it distorts and impedes our thinking, makes our teams behave strangely, and removes or diminishes nearly all the things we normally use to make smart decisions (information, time to discuss and analyze etc).  So what do we know about these crisis conditions?

First, we know that some are more visible and well known than others. The well known crisis conditions include: time constraints, incomplete information upon which to make decisions, acute stress effects on decision-making, and communication/media challenges, among others.  If we use our solar system as an analogy, these are the sun and planets of our crisis system - all very visible elements that we have been studying and grasping with for a long time. Dealing with these conditions has been the bread and butter of emergency management and is still the foundation of corporate crisis management practice.

Second, we know that some crisis conditions are less visible but extremely powerful. The gravity and magnetism forces of our crisis solar system could include the warping of our decision-making processes in strong contexts, and the amplification of certain biases under pressure and stress. These conditions and their effects are well known in academia and among more advanced crisis teams, but their less visible (and often unconscious) nature make them particularly dangerous for unprepared crisis teams. We also tend to have fewer crisis-purposed tools and methodologies at our disposal to mitigate them. 

Then, there may be many invisible, pervasive and powerful crisis conditions that we can’t see or don’t fully understand - the “dark matter" of our crisis world. This could include things like “ethical blindness”: the common but less well know propensity for our brains to temporarily and unconsciously switch-off our ethics in a crisis context. Crisis can make good people go bad without them knowing it. This is only one of perhaps many important dark matter conditions that few crisis practitioners and teams are aware of, or prepare for, that can lead to poor or disastrous performance. Research into these dark matters is ongoing in various disciplines ranging from psychology to neuroeconomics, but finding, tracking and extracting useful insights from them is not easy. Even my spell checker tells me these some of these concepts don’t exist. 

Might it be possible that many corporate crisis teams are underperforming and failing because we are designing approaches that are focusing on the sun and planets, a bit on gravity, but mostly ignorant of the powerful effects of dark-matter crisis conditions? Should we not do more to better identify, prepare for, and manage, the less visible and dark-matter forces that warp, push and pull our crisis teams into failure? If so, how might we go about it?