Why isn’t tragedy a good teacher?

As Hurricane Harvey struck land thousands of people evacuated, but many stayed. My heart goes out to those who lost everything in Hurricane Harvey and especially to the families of those who died. But after Hurricane Katrina’s devastating blow to New Orleans in 2005, why did anyone have to die in this most recent disaster? I believe we are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to learning from disaster on two counts, one is biological, the other is human-made.

First, brains aren’t built to learn during tragedy, humans are made to survive when disaster strikes. Our brains are in acute stress response when we are threatened, this is commonly called flight or fight. I am 800 miles away from Houston, but my emotions take over when I see the photos of entire cities underwater. Whether it is donating money to help those in need or getting your family out of harm, survival is the top priority during a disaster, not coming up with evacuation plans for the next natural disaster.

But once we are able to process what happened and the brain feels it is out of harm’s way, why doesn’t change happen? With news alerts popping up on our phones with every tweet or misstep from a politician or actor, the brain can become numb to urgency. As soon as one story falls out of today’s rapid news cycle, we are on to the next shiny bright article or photo, sadly forgetting the real tragedy in the world and leaving those immediately impacted to fend for themselves.

This lack of attention span in today’s ever connected world concerns me. While human life and business results are by no means in the same category, I see the same reaction-inaction pattern in companies. Panic followed by doing more of the same may be an urgency to sell-sell-sell to meet quarterly targets or forcing all-nighters to fix preventable error in products.

Change can happen. Millions of passengers go through extra security measures after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992 and exposed shoddy house building techniques, building codes were updated. But both of those events occurred before the explosion of uber-information and when the news cycle lasted longer than a few minutes.

Uber-information is useful during tragedy. Many lives have been saved by Twitter as emergency response crews now use it to disseminate instructions and alerts. Teams come together on Slack channels and chats to fix urgent customer issues. But the trick is how to learn from one tragedy or mistake to prevent the next.

Christina is a LinkedIn Learning Insider and author of Managing Multiple Generations.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *