Knowledge at Wharton features an interview this week with Professor Robert Meyer regarding his research on hurricane preparation (or lack thereof, by many citizens). Here's an excerpt:
Knowledge@Wharton: How difficult is it to get people to be proactive?
Meyer: It varies. We’ve done some studies as to who is prepared for storms and who isn’t. What we find is that the people who are the most at danger of not preparing are those who have been through a storm but not a very strong one. Effectively, they think that they’ve survived a hurricane, but they actually haven’t.
On the other hand, surprisingly, people who are often better prepared are people who move into an area and have never been through a storm. They’re listening to the end-of-the-world broadcasts that are coming on television and saying, “I’ve just moved to Miami or the mid-Atlantic, and I’m going to believe what they tell me on the news, that I’d better really prepare.” These people do prepare. Unfortunately, what happens is that then when the storm comes through and they find nothing really happened, then the next time they figure, well, maybe I might prepare a little bit but not as much.
What's the lesson for business leaders? How does this research finding apply beyond the scope of hurricane preparation? Consider the types of competitive threats that your company faces? Have you coped with similar threats in the past? If you have, and if the threats were mild in nature, that might make you less likely to take future threats seriously. You might think, "I've been through this before, and it wasn't so bad. It won't harm our business."
Repeated mild threats leads to a sort of dampening of our sensivity to risk. Diane Vaughan wrote about this concept many years ago in her research on the Challenger space shuttle accident. She described the phenomenon as the "normalization of deviance." Basically, the unexpected can gradually become the expected, which can then gradually become an acceptable risk. To an outsider, of course, a threat can seem much more serious and severe. They have never seen this type of risk in the past. The lesson, then, is that you might want to make sure that you engage both new leaders and incumbent managers in a constructive debate when assessing competitive threats. The new voices can bring a necessary sense of urgency to the conversation, and they can perhaps help the organization assess the risk in a more accurate way.