Disgraceful Paralysis in the Face of Tragedy

Dezenhall Resources / June 1, 2022
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Like so many of us, I have been obsessing about the mass murder at the Robb Elementary School in Texas. I have frustratingly very little insight, with one possible exception that I humbly offer up for consideration: The question of why the police, based upon current reports, didn’t enter the school sooner to confront the killer.

I have spent a career observing how people and organizations behave in a crisis. There is a myth that in times of danger, people panic. This hasn’t been my experience, especially when unseasoned people are involved. Who wants to admit they have no idea what they’re doing? Nobody. Better to do nothing, the self-preservation instinct goes, and wait for some external authority or act of God to take charge.

It’s one thing to think this way in a corporate board room because it’s usually just money on the line. It’s another to become paralyzed by inaction when the lives of children are at stake.

The conflicting and contradictory reports out of Texas indicate that a Customs and Border Protection tactical team ultimately stormed the school and not the Uvalde Police, who were waiting for tactical gear and keys for over an hour, ignoring parents pleas for help. The concept of hesitation rings true to me. Maddeningly. I have seen time again that a group of people in high-stakes situations remain staggeringly risk-averse. An irrational hope takes over that someone or something will insert itself into the action and resolve it. Group members fear that they’re going to make things worse if they take action or that in a media climate where blame and shame are the coins of the realm they will be singled out as villains at worst, incompetent clowns at best.

This phenomenon is intensely at work when there are only bad options and no clean getaways. Such is the case with crisis management, where, if you’re lucky, a victory is measured by gradations of “less awful.” Furthermore, whoever is out front in a controversy will surely be blamed for botching the affair if and when there are imperfect outcomes. There is a 100 percent chance that cable TV and the internet will light up with self-promoting experts who will opine how it could have been handled better. Somebody will get fired, sometimes rightly, sometimes not.

It’s worth noting that some of the best students I have had in my crisis management classes are those with military backgrounds. They understand the concept of loss. They know that “risk” isn’t just a word to be used to seem bold in a meeting. They get that some outcomes can only be “less awful” and not due to negligence or incompetence.

The level of outrage right now is as justified as anything I’ve seen in my career. We all know that the status quo is untenable. The fierce policy debates are necessary. I add little value to those discussions save my narrow experience with group decision-making psychology. If the last century taught us anything, it is that organizational behavior can degenerate imperceptibly from banality to evil, as Hannah Arendt famously wrote.

Policies aside, one discrete order of business is to confront decision-making protocols with eyes wide open. In the meantime, problem solvers — not to mention the rest of us —will have to come to grips with the reality that risk means that something may be lost in the pursuit of something bigger and that paralytic inaction in the midst of crisis is a cause for shame.