“The Right Stuff” for Crisis Management Teams
I enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel The Right Stuff and the 1983 major motion picture based on the book, which told the stories of test pilots who were selected as the first astronauts in the Project Mercury (NASA) space program. The title refers to an underlying assumption that those pilots possessed characteristics and traits (“the right stuff”) that made them especially capable to successfully perform these dangerous and challenging tasks.
It occurs to me that likewise assumptions exist about those who are selected for crisis management teams. We sometimes think of these individuals either having or not having “the right stuff” for successfully handling the challenges and overcoming risks in managing crises. “The right stuff” may be difficult for some to articulate or identify other than that we think that we “know it when we see it.” I think that such factors could be categorized as either being “hard knowledge skills” or “soft knowledge skills.”
Hard knowledge skills would include technical knowledge related to tasks. Tasks in which an individual is to perform in their particular role on the crisis management team as well as their familiarity with the processes and procedures of the crisis management plan. Hard knowledge skills are somewhat more easily identified, taught/trained and assessed and therefore receive the “lion’s share” of planning and preparedness attention.
On the other hand, soft knowledge skills would include those related to teamwork, communication, creativity, decision-making, stress management, open-mindedness, listening and conflict orientation. These are more challenging to articulate and measure and therefore are often overlooked during the planning and preparedness process. Nonetheless, these soft knowledge skills are very significant for crisis team effectiveness, and certainly warrant more focus and attention.
First off, research predicts that there is little or no correlation between the “the right stuff” for routine managerial effectiveness and qualities associated with crisis managerial effectiveness. This is because there are dramatic differences in successfully managing routine events when compared with managing crisis events. A crisis is a very different context from routine situations. This does not mean that one cannot be an effective routine manager as well as an effective crisis manager. However, it more practically suggests that effectiveness in managing in routine events does not inherently predict success in managing in crisis events, or vice-versa.
Second, it is important to recognize that crises are unique specialized events. Crises are frequently information deserts, fast paced, high stress and dynamic high-stakes situations. Not everyone is effective during crises – dysfunction, miscommunication and poor decisions occur all too frequently. Obviously, some of the success in these situations has to do with possessing and executing “hard knowledge skills” related to one’s area(s) of technical expertise, as well as knowledge of the stipulated crisis management procedures and policies. It would be difficult to be an effective crisis management team member without such “hard knowledge skills.” Such “hard knowledge skills” are somewhat easier to measure and develop among team members. What is intriguing is to articulate what sorts of “soft knowledge skills” are essential for crisis management team success.
Third, a successful team requires individuals who have complementary skills and abilities. Successful team work in any context often depends on the complementary skills and characteristics and traits of how team members interact with each other. This is particularly true in the crisis management context. So, as we think about the “right stuff” for individuals on a team, it is also necessary to think about how individual member characters would function in combination with other member’s individual characteristics. Teams, as a whole, can be thought of as having the “right stuff” or not. It may not be optimal to have an entire team with members having precisely identical traits and dispositions. Such uniformity itself could be problematic. Teams function better when members bring different dispositions, traits and skills which when working together provide a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of the individuals who constituent the team. On the other hand, the commitment to the team and its processes is one of the essential characteristics which all team members should possess in common. This also calls our attention to the importance of assessing the strengths and areas of needed improvement in all teams and team members. Those who construct teams or lead teams should be aware of the competencies of the members of their team.
Fourth, team members should know the crisis management plan and “play book” as well as the best way for the team to interact and function in order to work effectively. Regardless of the type of crisis or the particular area of expertise for a crisis team member, there are common tasks and processes which are correlated with effective teamwork, decision making and information processing. For example, effective listening is correlated with positive outcome qualities in variables such as teamwork, information processing, decision-making, communication satisfaction and perceptions of cohesiveness. Likewise, the capability to work cooperatively in a group is a known positive variable for effective teamwork, supportiveness, collaboration and commitment to decisions made.
We should focus our selection, training and assessment efforts on the core capabilities or traits which predict improved team effectiveness; assuming that there were no other significant contravening variables and all other factors being equal. This should include both “hard knowledge” and “soft knowledge” skill sets.
Fifth, critical elements for teams include the ability to make effective decisions, communicate and minimize misunderstandings. These functions can be improved with specialized “soft” knowledge, skills and abilities. For example, teams can avoid common decision making errors by engaging in critical vigilance, using effective communication, utilizing feedback methods and assessing their performance. This requires knowledge and skills in the people and group processes as well as the areas of technical competency. These types of soft knowledge skills can be considered the core building blocks of “the right stuff” for crisis management team performance. These characteristics can be assessed and used as an aid in selecting crisis team members based on their existing aptitude for these positive traits. Crisis management team performance can also be enhanced and developed further through crafted training activities. Furthermore, even if you don’t have the option to select team members (you’ve got whom you’ve got) it is possible to develop specialized training programs to teach and develop or improve “the right stuff” traits and skills.
It is useful to consider which characteristics or traits constitute “the right stuff” for effective crisis management teams and team members. “The right stuff” for successfully managing crises can be articulated in a set of “hard knowledge” and “soft knowledge” skills and capabilities. Such positive characteristics can be measured, assessed and developed. Individual members can complement other members’ characteristics in order to make more effective crisis management teams. All too frequently, the important “soft knowledge” skills receive little or no attention in the crisis planning/preparedness effort. Overlooking such aspects hampers overall efforts to ensure optimal crisis team performance.
Using research findings, field experience lessons learned, as well as social scientific theories, I have identified twelve core “soft knowledge” competencies of “the right stuff.” When combined with the appropriate “hard knowledge” competencies, they are essential for crisis teams to interact successfully and effectively to fulfill their objectives and mission. I think that due diligence demands that more attention should be given to these “right stuff” factors for crisis management team selection, training and assessment.