‘Seek first to understand.’ It’s one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
This past weekend I came across a blog in a prominent industry magazine’s online edition which was highly critical of a recent response and the state of preparedness of a major metropolitan area. I was quite set back by how outwardly critical this post was, particularly since the author is rather experienced in emergency management.
No matter what field we are in, we have a tendency to examine, critique, analyze, and criticize. This is generally healthy and important, especially when there is something that can be learned and applied from the experience. Things can easily go ugly, though.
The nitty gritty of this is that if you weren’t involved and aren’t providing a critique through something more or less official and reasonably objective, such as an after action report, you generally shouldn’t be commenting (at least publicly). Why? Primarily, you very likely don’t have all the information. Second, what is the criticism gaining you aside from looking like an ass?
Seek first to understand. That’s the main reason why we, particularly in emergency management, should be looking at other people’s incidents. Yes, we can examine media reports and other sources of information, but be holistic and comprehensive. If the people involved in managing the incident made mistakes, then learn from their mistakes. Don’t criticize them for it – they very likely are already receiving that criticism internally. They certainly don’t need you to Monday morning quarterback. It does no one any good.
Pointing fingers at other people only makes them point fingers back and creates a culture of negativity. In emergency management, we are fortunate enough to have a culture of collaboration, where we are generally willing to share our success and failures with others so that they may learn from them as well. When we become critical, people become bitter, defensive, and isolationist.
It’s not to say that it’s inappropriate to use an incident as an example. In December I wrote a post about how People Should Not Die in Exercises, in response to an article about an active shooter exercise in Kenya gone wrong. Was I harsh? You bet your ass I was – and rightfully so. The occurrence I wrote about was a great example of what not to do in exercises and an important lesson learned that a lot of people should know about to prevent further loss of life.
While I have as much a history of putting my foot in my mouth as the next person, all I’m saying is be careful how you spend your criticism credits. When you start to criticize you are no longer seeking to understand. If you aren’t seeking to understand, then no one learns.