ostrich with head in sand

The Three Behaviors that Feed a Crisis: Ostrich Effect

May 22, 2024

Do you think you know what causes a reputational crisis? At least have a good guess? I’m here to tell you that it’s likely not what you think. It’s a lack of preparation.  

There is that pithy statement that you see on notepads, signs on desks, and as gifs – lack of preparation on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine. When it comes to crisis management, this is completely false.

If you’ve followed me for more than a hot second, you know that is our philosophy: preparation mitigates crisis. We know this. We’ve seen it. We are experts in it. 

But what is the root of that lack of preparedness? Sometimes it’s budget. Sometimes it’s lack of time. Most of the time it’s the human behavior of organizational leadership. 

Over the next three weeks, I’m going to delve into the three most prevalent leadership behaviors and why it means that your organization isn’t ready for the next crisis. 

The first one I’m going to tackle is the Ostrich Effect. I’ve been intending to write about the Ostrich Effect for a while because it is the most common; basically the common cold of crisis management procrastination.

I’m sure you get the gist of what I’m saying, but let me define it clearly thanks to The Decision Lab: “The ostrich effect, also known as the ostrich problem, is a cognitive bias that describes how people often avoid negative information….. Instead of dealing with the situation, we bury our heads in the sand, like ostriches. This avoidance can often make things worse, incurring costs that we might not have had to pay if we had faced things head-on.”

Let’s clear one thing up first, ostriches don’t actually do this but people do — figuratively.  As a culture, we are told to avoid the negative, put our heads in the sand, and focus on the positive. Good vibes is a hashtag. Positive daily affirmations is an app. Everywhere we turn we are told to focus on the positive. 

This actually feeds into our natural inclinations to avoid thinking about the negative. We are told to save for a rainy day, but we don’t.  We avoid medical appointments for fear that, at the very least, our doctors will tell us to cut out ice cream and exercise more. But when the roof needs fixing, we’d wish we’d saved, and when our blood pressure is high, we wish we’d listened to our doctors. 

Let’s extrapolate that to an organization’s leadership. This avoidance can be deeply damaging to a reputation, and since a reputation has value, it can be financially damaging. Because we want to be optimistic about the success of our business, we actively ignore that bad things can happen, like customer outrage, angry investors, and regulatory investigations. The Ostrich Effect has real-life consequences. 

The immediate ramifications of the Ostrich Effect are much more addressable (and can mitigate the more serious outcomes) because they manifest in lack of preparation, lack of funding for crisis preparation activities, and not making crisis preparation a responsibility of the C-suite. Let me say this again — crisis preparation is not just a function of communicators. Crisis preparedness needs to be the concern of the organization’s leadership team and made a regular agenda item. And, oh wait, you need to budget for it. 

If you aren’t already doing the things to prepare and it isn’t baked into your C-suite agenda, the change isn’t going to be as simple as signing up for the Crisis of the Month (read on for more). The hard part of changing your culture to one of crisis preparedness is not creating a line item in your budget or doing regular crisis drills. It is going to be getting your organization’s leadership to pull their heads out of the sand and realize that an ounce of preparedness is worth a pound of confidence. 

So once you’ve recognized that the Ostrich Effect is part of your culture, you can begin to eliminate it. First start by finding an ally on your Executive Management team. A good place to start is with the Chief Financial Officer or Chief Legal Counsel. They too think of what could go wrong. Together, agree to start the discussion with the rest of your leadership  team. 

Another good option is to hold up a news story about one of your competitors and ask, “what would we do if this happened to us?” That will be a good moment of clarity if no one knows. (Kith has made it simple for you, just sign up for the Crisis of the Month and we’ll deliver a scenario right to your inbox.)

Lastly, consider bringing in outside voices to talk about best practices of crisis preparedness and ask them to do an assessment of your capabilities. Then present the findings to your colleagues. This should be a wakeup call. 

Yes, it is human nature to focus on the positive. Instagram tells us so, but there is a real danger to your organization in making that the company culture. Crisis is inevitable if you don’t know what could go wrong.

Being crisis prepared is an ongoing effort.Yes, full blown simulations and workshops should happen regularly, but crisis preparation can be as simple as holding up a newspaper (or your phone) during a staff meeting and asking “what would we do if this happened to us?” The Crisis of the Month cuts out the newspaper (pun INTENDED). Once a month, we’ll send you a situation with some questions that you can ask at your next staff meeting. There. You’ve done a crisis exercise and are stronger for it. Subscribe here

Kith facilitates crisis preparedness workshops that will help your company attain the clarity, trust and speed you need to respond confidently – no dithering! – to any crisis. We’d be happy to have a conversation about how we can help your company be ready to chart an effective course to reputation protection.

Stephanie Craig

Stephanie Craig has built her reputation as a crisis expert by guiding some of the world’s most prominent people and organizations through their most trying moments. Before Kith, Stephanie founded the Apeiron Strategy Group where she counted former First Lady Rosalynn Carter and the mayor of the nation’s 10th largest city as clients.