Organization and Management

Uncertainty + Danger = Fear

17 Mar 2020  

When people are in a crisis, a flow of good information can help them to focus, quiet their nerves, and lead to productive outcomes. Bad information — much more readily available — can increase anxiety and confusion, and quickly becomes unproductively disruptive.

The tank crew effect

I came across a study years ago — I can’t locate the source now, if you know it please ping me — about the effects of communications of tank commanders with their crews under combat conditions. According to that study, the crew of a tank — who are enclosed and can’t directly see what is going on outside — become easily demoralized by being literally in the dark. The commanders in the turret above can see everything on the battlefield — and, though under great stress, have less tendency to get psychologically down. And — here’s the key — when the commanders above continually talk to the crew below via two-way radio, the morale of the crew remains much higher than when they work without the leader’s words. The voice of the leader keeps them oriented and productive under high-stress conditions.

Alert, don’t alarm

Many of the seven and a half billion of us on earth are now under considerably greater ambient stress than usual. Those of us within the “knowledge services” parts of our organizations — competitive and market intelligence, communications, strategy, and so on — have a unique responsibility at such times to ensure that our organizations have the best information, at the right times — and in the right amounts, so as to alert people without alarming them into a panic. We can act as curators of information about the ecosystem in which we operate, in order to blunt the effects of disinformation and to minimize unwarranted disruption.

Know who knows

The only thing better than knowing, is knowing who knows. A coordinated, well-rehearsed knowledge network represents an insurance policy against the “tank crew effect” and the chaos that typically results. And in fast-developing situations, this gives you the capacity to continually refresh the information as the situation changes.

In reviewing dozens of sources of information about the “novel coronavirus of 2019” (COVID-19), I have gravitated toward these three as the “best” sources of information. Best in the sense that they pass what I call the TRAN test, i.e, they contain data that is generally Timely, Relevant, Accurate, and Non-redundant.

You would be doing a great service to your organization if you were to:

  • summarize the data on these sites (and/or others that may have industry-specific information),
  • assess the relevance and implications for your own organization and trading partners, and
  • refresh all of the above continually.

Fearing fear itself

The name COVID-19 itself speaks volumes. Yes, it’s the 2019 model of the class of coronaviruses that also cause MERS, SARS, certain flus, and the common cold — but because it is “novel,” by definition we have neither accurate predictive models nor playbooks for it. When we are in danger and we don’t know what to do, our instinctive reaction is to be afraid. Uncertainty + Danger = Fear.

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” as President F.D. Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression. Fear is a powerful motivator, and can overtake and consume an individual, an organization — even an entire country — if left to metastasize unchecked.

A leader’s words provide a much-needed touchpoint in times of overwhelming uncertainty. A crisis like the current one is a great opportunity for knowledge professionals to take the lead in driving the conversation away from fear and toward fact.


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