How Much Pain Does It Take?

When it comes to crisis prevention we’re often left asking, “How Much Pain Does It Take?”

By Jonathan Bernstein

[This article was first published in April 2015, edited and published again in October 2017, and now modified further to reflect more current events.  Sadly, however, the problem remains!]

What do September 11, sexual molestation by Catholic priests and the COVID-19 pandemic have in common?  What critical lessons about crisis prevention do all three teach us?

They were all what I’ve previously termed “creeping crises,” vulnerabilities, bombs (literally and figuratively) waiting to explode. There were people — the American intelligence community, Church leaders and the Trump administration, respectively — who had information that could have prevented or reduced the damage from these situations. People who perpetuated and exacerbated the crises by acts of commission or omission.

These acts were terrorism if you define it as “parties inflicting suffering on innocent victims as a means to an end.”

They are all the tip of massive icebergs of creeping crises. Who dares to say that there aren’t other terrorism groups poised to wreak unprecedented damage, organizations that are still desperately trying to cover up sexual wrongdoing (hello Boy Scouts and fraternities), and “Covid-19a” if it mutates or “Covid-21” if there’s a new virus next year.

These are all crises which strike at our emotional infrastructure: our desires for physical, psychological and financial security.  And yet too many of us are still focused on the crisis at hand not remembering that crisis prevention is infinitely less costly, in all ways, that crisis response without advance preparation.  We can’t stop preparedness activities just because we’re in the middle of another crisis, e.g., examining our individual and organization souls on topics such as #blacklivesmatter.

I have observed that human beings seem to have an immense capacity for enduring pain individually and as organizations. Along with an immense resistance to change. That’s a bad combination, because for most individuals, and most organizations, it seems to take a great deal of pain to motivate change.

There is a psychological concept that 12-step programs introduced called “hitting bottom.” It refers to the point at which an individual feels so much pain from what he or she has been doing that the fear of continuing “as is” is greater than the fear of change. At that point, the individual is willing to take some direction from someone other than him- or herself.

It has been my experience that organizations, too, usually have to “hit bottom,” to feel enough crisis-related pain from their actions, or lack thereof, that they’re willing to realize that their own best thinking isn’t making them crisis-resistant, versus crisis-prone. And that’s when they start getting proactive about crisis management.

Here’s the catch, however. Sometimes, that willingness to change comes too late. Sometimes, for an individual or an organization, that delay is fatal.  It is impossible, through crisis prevention – vulnerability assessment, planning and training – to completely prevent all crises.  It is entirely possible, however, to mitigate damage from all crises through advance crisis preparedness.

So ask yourselves at your next leadership team meeting: how much pain does it take?

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