Negative Thinking for Emergency Planning

negative thinking

Could negative thinking actually be useful?  Well, in the context of emergency preparedness, the answer is a resounding yes!

Consider this example.  Years ago, before word processing or desktop publishing, a friend of EPP’s was tasked with placing a rate increase ad in local newspapers, to publicize a “Notice of Public Hearings.”  The strategy back then was to place such ads in Saturday’s editions, in hopes that they would attract as little notice or opportunity for public response as possible.

On this fateful Saturday, our friend got an early morning call from the company president.

“Have you seen this morning’s paper?” he asked in a mysterious tone.

“Not yet, sir, why do you ask?”

“Read the headline of the notice,” he said.

Our friend hurriedly paged through to the depths of the deadest space in the edition. “See anything odd?” the president asked.

There it was.  In all its Arial Black 24-point glory, the typesetter had forgotten to include an “L” in the word “Public.”

The president wanted immediate action.  The notice was scheduled to run for three consecutive days and he did not want the company held up for any form of ridicule.  Unfortunately, back then, you couldn’t turn on a dime and make that kind of change.  Sunday’s edition was already printed.  The earliest chance for amendment would come on Monday.

That headline had passed through the hands and eyes of our friend, as well as a Rates Department manager, a graphic artist, a typesetter and a clerk at the newspaper.  Not one of them picked up the error.  In an industry run by men who believed in wearing both belts and suspenders, this was a career-limiting moment.

A post mortem identified two main human frailties as culprits: Haste and Expectation.

  • Haste: Our friend had been waiting all day for a decision to be handed down on the rate case, and the Rates Department wanted the ad placed right away.  Everyone had been working overtime and the weekend was in sight.  Deadline pressure and fatigue are well-known causes of screw-ups, and this was no exception.
  • Expectation: The juxtaposition of the “i” with a lower case “l” in the word “Public” can make you think you’re seeing the word that you’re expecting to see.  The French call it a “trompe l’oeil,” or “trick of the eye.”  It’s the same reason why sports editors hate to see the word “puck” referred to in an article.

Now, if you think that modern technology with spellcheck or autocorrect would save you from such embarrassment, think again.  The word “public,” without the “l,” is a perfectly legitimate word – just not in this particular case of usage.  Technology without human backup is not a standalone guarantee of lexicological accuracy.

How Negative Thinking May Have Helped

To guard against such future catastrophes, our friend resorted to a different element in human nature: skepticism, or negative thinking.  He had a member of his staff who was a renowned pessimist, an inveterate complainer who was seldom satisfied.  So he made this person the departmental proofreader and head of QC, and gave him two key instructions.  First, that he should never feel any form of time pressure to complete his reviews; and second, he had to find what he thought were errors, even if the document in question appeared to have no errors.  In short, he was to employ The Power of Negative Thinking.

This is not how most people would prefer to work.  Most of us prefer positivity.  We like likeable people, peace and tranquility.  We seek solutions, not problems.  And therein lies the rub.

Sometimes, you need to think negatively.  When you’re putting a process together that you think should speed restoration, or save time or money, you need to think of all the possible pitfalls as well.

In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it was found that bad moods have been linked to a more effective communication style (just think of the last presidential debates or those TV ads asking you to help abused animals as examples).  Other studies have found that “defensive pessimists” often optimize their performance by setting low expectations and envisioning worst-case scenarios.  Still more study samples can be found in The Power of Negativity in the January/February edition of The Atlantic.

So let’s apply “The Power of Negative Thinking” for better emergency preparation.  Here are some key opportunities for you to be the “Dreadful Downer” in the room:

  • List all the objections your leadership may have when proposing your next round of emergency exercises and drills, and prepare counter-arguments
  • Commission a multifunctional workshop or plan review with the sole purpose of finding gaps or weak links, not improvements – that would be the topic of another workshop.
  • During hot washes or debriefs, encourage participants to think first about process weaknesses or threats to future response efforts.
  • When evaluating suggestions to improve processes, list all the possible adverse consequences that may occur so that you can plan additional preventive measures or contingent action.
  • Bring in disinterested Subject Matter Experts to review your plans or processes and commission them to find only errors, gaps, weaknesses or threats.

And finally, encourage an atmosphere of “negative thinking” in your operation.  Value the naysayers, as irritating as they may be.  They may be your last and best line of defense against disaster.

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