Our evening news recently carried a story about a man who held utility line workers by gunpoint, angry that his power hadn’t been restored yet and demanding they do it immediately. My husband and I listened to the story on our battery-operated radio, in what was our 8th New Hampshire day without power or phone of our own.
We could understand the man’s frustration, though of course wouldn’t dream of acting on those frustrations in the way he did. We’d experienced some of the same frustrations…and they weren’t caused by lack of electricity. They were caused by lack of information from our clearly overwhelmed public utility company (almost half a million homes without power in a northern New England winter, almost 50% of the utility’s customers) and our local media.
At the end of the news story about the man with the gun, the reporter interviewed the chief of police from that town. The chief said he believed much of the gun owner’s anger came from lack of information, and the man probably just wanted someone to listen to him.
How lack of information contributes to anger and conflict
When you have information, it’s easy to forget that others don’t. Or to miss that you’ve not shared it in a manner that’s helpful to those who need it. In an ice storm, that means power- and phone-less customers can’t read the information about local shelters that’s scrolling across the bottom of the television screen. In an organization, it could look like this: Members of a senior team get so familiar with information that they may not remember others don’t have it. Or managers have information but share it with mechanisms that don’t sufficiently reach the people who need it most.
Lack of information spawns anger in stressful times because:
- It leaves those who don’t have it wondering what those who do have it are hiding.
- It leaves those who don’t have it wondering if those running the show know what they’re doing, have a plan, are trustworthy.
- It leaves those who don’t have it unable to make good choices for themselves (in the ice storm, people couldn’t decide whether they should pack and leave the state for warm relative homes…or know if they’re power had been restored and they could return).
- It leaves those who don’t have it feeling patronized in the worst sense of the word because they don’t have the information to take their own actions.
- It leaves those who do have it frustrated because they feel they’re doing the best they can in very difficult circumstances and don’t understand why there’s so much anger.
Tips for better communication in conflict and crisis
- Use multiple modes of information dissemination. In the ice storm, that would have meant more information on radio stations, with other radio stations letting listeners know where to tune. Or using Twitter more effectively. Or putting out web information that’s readable on a smart phone. Or front-loading information to all regional daily newspapers. What would it look like in your own organization?
- Remember that good communication is a two-way act. People in stressful times want to be heard and understood. In the ice storm, that would have meant better mechanisms for the media and utility companies to collect information about what affected people and communities most needed to know – mechanisms that people without power or landline phones could learn about and contribute to. How can you build two-way communication in your own organization?
- How trustworthy you are before the crisis influences how much people trust you during it. In the ice storm, I had more faith than others in Public Service of NH because I know some folks there and think highly of their integrity. I don’t know that everyone had the benefit of my prior experiences. How are you building trust now in your own organization?
- Remember that people will act according to what’s most important to them, not according to what you think they should do or what’s logical from where you sit. In day three without power, we began to entertain leaving the state to go stay with family. But we have two dogs and two cats and my sister’s allergic. As someone who helped with pet rescue after Hurricane Katrina, I know I’m not alone in making decisions based on the welfare of the four-legged members of my family. Insufficient information about shelter options for those pets influenced our decision making. And there are countless similar stories. How will you know your own people’s most important interests so you can respond to them during the conflict or crisis?
As I write this, there are still 11,000 homes in NH without power, and other northern New England states also have outages that have lasted into a second week. If you are in my region, and have the good fortune of power today, why not do something special for someone who doesn’t?