What can we do to avoid a catastrophe like Chernobyl?
Although your business may not be facing problems to the magnitude of a nuclear plant meltdown, it’s still possible to completely miss the warning signs that the ‘wheels are coming off the wagon.”
I have found that the best way to develop a resilient response to disasters is by relying on the feedback of Devil’s Advocates.
Why Devil’s Advocates are Essential
A Devil’s Advocate is someone who can speak truth to you. Someone who is not afraid to step into an uncomfortable topic and point out the potential problems, even if that point of view is unpopular.
Devil’s Advocates are incredibly valuable because of their ability to make you aware of blind spots and bias, and also because they can foresee problems and help you prepare for the worst.
There were plenty of Devil’s Advocates in the weeks that led up to the Chernobyl disaster, as well as right after it occurred. Many of these were highly trained scientists who understood the gravity of an invisible force that was wreaking havoc on millions of humans and animals, as “bullets of radiation” damaged their cells hour after hour.
Yet the voices of these nay-sayers weren’t heard. So instead of containing the radiation, thousands of people were placed in its path.
I think there are several lessons we can learn from the way things played out in Chernobyl.
1. Disasters cannot be avoided
Even if we try to do all the right things, things happen that we can’t control. Unfortunately, even unavoidable disasters can be made much worse by human error.
An overconfident and overly positive attitude can keep us from considering what could go wrong. We need to consider the negative aspects of our reality and consider the worst-case scenarios in order to be prepared. So when a disaster strikes (and it will eventually happen), you can respond more quickly and with less damage and loss if you’ve planned ahead.
2. The effects are worse if we don’t face reality
It’s important for leaders to step into the pain of what is going on, even though it feels uncomfortable. That’s the idea behind Employee For a Day, which gives you the chance to experience the job role of your staff in order to gain valuable insights.
If Chernobyl officials had decided to accept responsibility for what was going wrong, the outcome could have been significantly mitigated. They would have had more time to curtail the radiation and avoid placing so many lives at unnecessary risk by evacuating the town of Pripyat immediately. Instead, the unnecessary radiation exposure has resulted in many thousands of birth defects and early deaths.
Unfortunately, cognitive dissonance is a common problem for decision-makers. Soviet officials chose to ignore vital information until it was too late.
When we take responsibility, it can be very painful (maybe not as painful as the long-term effects, but still bad enough that we tend to respond with Fight, Flight, or Freeze).
If you’re a business owner, there is a “mantle of responsibility” to accept all the consequences of what happens in your business.
3. Devil’s Advocates provide a safeguard
Devil’s Advocates are people who speak up about the dangerous things going on in your business. They protect you from doing things that could destroy your company. It’s important to have at least a couple of people in your sphere of influence who can speak truth to you, and give you feedback even if you don’t want to hear it.
This happened a lot at Chernobyl. Many scientists could foresee the devastation as soon as they found out. Even prior to the explosion, there were attempts to fix the faulty design of the reactor core (graphite tips that caused the temperature to spike in other reactors as well). The bureaucratic Soviet system kept those voices silent until it was much too late.
To avoid risks in your business, make sure you listen to people who speak truth, even if it is difficult to hear.
4. Ignoring negativity makes things worse
At several points in my life, I didn’t listen to truth tellers; and I can assure you that things go much better when you are aware of a problem early on. Things get worse when you ignore the feedback of people who care about you and want your business to succeed—even if it’s not pleasant.
It’s easier to deny the reality when the reality is too terrifying to face. But listening to honest feedback and doing things differently is the only way to make a change.
5. Devil’s Advocates reveal our flaws
Many Devil’s Advocates have the ability to foresee what is happening in the future (the Futuristic talent in StrengthsFinder), and they’re not afraid to stand up and speak up when something bad is going on.
Many truth-tellers are actually very intuitive and sensitive to the pain this can cause. They understand that “shaking things up” is extremely unpleasant, but destroying long-held beliefs and systems is the only way to make a real difference. It’s not fun to let people know that something is wrong, or that someone is being hurt because of a leader’s decisions, or that a process needs to be changed. This foresight is both a gift and a burden, because not speaking up will result in an effect that is even worse.
Although it’s not fun to hear that you’re doing things wrong, a Devil’s Advocate can understand where you’re making mistakes and how to make adjustments.
6. Listening to the truth takes courage
If the Chernobyl officials had listened to their scientists, they might have avoided some of the effects. Scientists who decided to speak up and warn the officials had a lot of courage. They put their careers at risk and could have been jailed or even killed for going against the party line. By speaking up anyway, they were able to contain the fallout and save the lives of even more people.
7. Devil’s Advocates care
Receiving negative feedback from your patients or customers, or even hearing it from your staff, is actually a good sign. I know it feels uncomfortable to get complaints and you’d rather not hear that things aren’t going well; but it actually shows that someone took the time to invest in making your business better. Someone with a Devil’s Advocate personality type is able to consider all the ways things could fail—in order to help you improve. They really care about you benefiting from the information they share.
I’ll admit, hearing negative feedback (especially anonymous or publicly posted) can be really stinging. Devil’s Advocates may not say things in a nice or gentle way, and that’s one of the biggest gripes most people have against them: that they only present the negativity, and none of the support. Your feedback process should include a Feedback Loop to analyze and apply the information.
Even unpleasant feedback is coming from a place of concern. If you have a grumpy employee, or a horrible online review, consider that there is always a nugget of truth in even the worst comments. The trick is to glean a nugget of truth, and evaluate how you will apply that information (the Decision-Making Matrix is a really helpful tool for this).
Negative feedback can be really helpful, even if it isn’t fun to hear at first.
I hope these seven points have been helpful! If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the fantastic HBO mini-series Chernobyl, as well as the podcasts mentioned in my post about the show.
And if your business marketing feels like a disaster, let’s talk. Find out more here.
Grace LaConte is a business consultant, writer, workplace equity strategist, and the founder of LaConte Consulting. Her risk management tools are used around the globe, and she has successfully reversed toxic work environments for clients in the healthcare and non-profit fields. Grace specializes in lactation law compliance & policy development, reducing staff turnover after maternity leave, and creating a participatory work culture.