Carol Pearson presented this research at the International Leadership Association gathering in Vancouver. She was kind enough to share her study here.
Meaning and Motivation in Disaster Preparedness and Relief:
Insights from Organizational and Team Culture Indicator™ Results for SELA Red Cross Post-Katrina Organizational Recovery
By Carol S. Pearson, Ph.D.
Director of the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland
The important Center for Creative Leadership study of crisis leadership, Stepping Into the Void, outlines critical questions for our understanding of the dynamics of leadership during crises of mega-proportions, such as with Hurricane Katrina. The following brief article augments that study by exploring organizational cultures and their resilience as they recover or prepare for such unforeseen disasters.
The Organizational and Team Culture Indicator™ (OTCI) was administered to the Southeast Louisiana Red Cross chapter (SELA) as part of a post-Katrina intervention to rebuild chapter resilience. This effort was lead by Dr. John Harrald, Director of The George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management, and Laura Olsen, Research Scientist, who coordinated the project. It was supported by funds from the American Red Cross national office. My role was as a consultant on the project, responsible for administering and interpreting the OTCI data and working with the executive team to reestablish the health and strength of SELA’s organizational culture.
Almost everyone understands that organizational culture matters greatly, whether to healthy organizational functioning in good times or to establishing the resiliency to weather difficult ones. However, organizational culture is difficult to decode. Most historical work on culture itemizes discrete behavioral elements such as power distances, acceptable space between people, and the like. Such approaches are valuable, but difficult for most individuals to get their arms around. The Organizational and Team Culture Indicator™ is designed to go deeper to identify the sense of meaning and motivation experienced by the people within the organization. It does so by identifying universal (or archetypal) narratives that groups live out collectively almost as if they were all living in the same movie or play. Because we all know these narratives, which live in all cultures and in all times, virtually anyone can grasp the nature of the culture as a gestalt, not simply as a series of discrete behaviors, and thus know how to behave in it without memorizing lots of individual rules.
The OTCI is a useful tool for helping a group restore a healthy and resilient culture after dysfunction caused by trauma. It does this, in part, by helping people to understand and articulate the best of who they are as well as how they are hurting, and to restoring what has been best about them. It works precisely because it is based on timeless human narratives that have provided meaning to human endeavors in all times and all places—narratives that everyone knows and has access to.
Southeast Louisiana Red Cross Chapter: Post-Katrina Resiliency Project
After a crisis of the magnitude of Katrina and with the slow pace of recovery for New Orleans, how do you reestablish resiliency in a battered but noble organization? How do you care for wounded warriors who give their all to save the lives of strangers—in any disaster relief organization?
Going into the work with SELA, I had not known that after even major disasters of lesser scale, most disaster relief organizations lose much of their staff and volunteers, and many fold or become dysfunctional. Not surprisingly, then, post-Katrina SELA lost a good percentage of its key staff, both paid and volunteer. What was hopeful about SELA is that it quickly hired as many new staff as possible in a city populated by the walking wounded. That it was able to do so was a reflection of leadership—by the CEO, Kay Wilkins, as well as many other capable leaders at all levels.
Meeting the SELA staff who stayed was heart wrenching. Many had lost family members as well as homes. Some lost everything, and many were living in FEMA trailers or camping out in the basements of relatives. Many seemed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress, having flashbacks to the horror of it all—or belatedly feeling the pain of helping strangers while not knowing whether their own family was safe.
What was both touching and inspiring to me was how the staff continued to give selflessly to others while grappling with extreme physical and emotional difficulties themselves. Meanwhile, the organization itself was experiencing huge challenges. The American Red Cross supplemented SELA by funding a Hurricane Recovery Program (HRP) to work alongside the chapter, but its work was hampered by how overwhelmed the government and nonprofit agencies were. HRP staff members were trained to refer clients to other agencies for various purposes, but soon found that even people in desperate circumstances often came up empty-handed, as the agencies either had nothing to give or had huge backlogs. Trying to help their clients in these situations was frustrating and disheartening.
To make things worse, several smaller natural disasters occurred the year after Katrina, and another horrendous hurricane season was predicted. Both SELA and HRP had to hire and train new people quickly, which put an extra strain on all concerned, but particularly those who had just risen into management positions to fill vacancies and newly created jobs. The staff was understandably demoralized and out of juice.
The intervention, as designed by a high-powered consulting team, began with an interview process, identifying the concerns of the SELA and HRP staffs, and administration of the Organizational and Team Culture Indicator™ instrument to participating staff. The concerns raised in the interviews were discussed during a four-day retreat, and groups were formed to address them. At this same retreat, the OTCI results (based on an N-64) were shared and their implications discussed.
Three archetypal stories were identified by the instrument and validated by the retreat participants as providing the meaning and motivation narratives for SELA’s work:
The Everyperson narrative, which spoke to the deep belief held by the staff and volunteers in the importance of respecting the dignity of every person they work with, regardless of their education, income, circumstances, ethnicity, or gender. It also reflected the fact that many of the staff were living in post-Katrina New Orleans in very basic conditions themselves; they had not been spared the devastating experiences their clients endured.
The Hero narrative, whereby they expected to do whatever was necessary—no matter how difficult—to help people during and after disasters, even if those disasters were unprecedented in their severity.
The Caregiver narrative, whereby they simply assumed that they should be compassionate, altruistic, and caring to others, no matter how shattered their own lives might be.
The results, as interpreted by the participants, put in sharp relief a paradoxical outcome of living such idealistic stories together: the staff recognized how their demoralization resulted, in part, from the contrast between the enormity of the devastation in New Orleans and the limited resources available to address the results of this devastation. This meant that no matter how hard they tried, they could not succeed in fulfilling the expectations of even one of these noble narratives.
As might be expected with so much stress and frustration, the staff had begun to spend a good bit of time blaming other agencies, each other, and management for the inability to solve the massive problems facing their clients and themselves. Recognizing the discrepancy between their aspirations and what was really possible began to undercut such divisions and helped people to focus on working together toward realistic goals and to solve the very real problems that were overwhelming their system.
Two other archetypal stories also were important to them. The story that actually scored highest in their profile was the Ruler. The participants determined that this story was not a primary motivator for them, but it reflected their being part of a prestigious, powerful, and bureaucratic organization. The Innocent story defined their organizational learning style (a narrative that—in contrast to the autonomous Explorer and scholarly Sage—assumes that others—in this case the national or local leadership—should be responsible for providing all necessary training).
Understanding these results helped the participants normalize why they felt so demoralized and understand that while they could not help the fact that Katrina happened and the pain its aftermath caused for them and their clients, they could decrease their pain in some ways: supporting one another more so that they would not feel so alone and letting go of feeling inadequate because they could live out Hero/Caregiver/Everyperson only at a human scale, not on the mythic scale by which they judged themselves. As the organizational leadership worked with the data, they recognized that they needed to help the staff develop reasonable, focused, attainable goals and to celebrate the heroic, caring, and egalitarian spirit they demonstrated in doing so.
In addition, the high results on Ruler—which was the Red Cross’s public identity—helped SELA’s leaders understand why desperate people in New Orleans sometimes believed that SELA had secret funds that they were refusing to provide to the relief effort. People were projecting onto them a perception of the Red Cross as an elite and wealthy organization that was rich beyond measure. So the charge was that the Red Cross was simply holding out on them. Recognizing this, SELA’s leaders were able to go out into the community and talk about the Everyperson, Hero, and Caregiver motivations of the organization and to model transparency in what resources were actually available to them, thus quelling as much as possible the negative rumor mill.
SELA’s leaders also were aided by seeing where the organization had scored low. The leadership had emerged from the Katrina experience with great respect and pride at what had been accomplished, but some accompanying concern that while had they showed more creativity in the moment, more might have been accomplished. The OTCI results suggested that great creativity was not to be expected, as the organization as a whole scored low in the more innovative narratives: Creator, Explorer, Magician, Revolutionary.
This is not to say that innovative resourcefulness was completely absent. After all, these are people who ran shelters for evacuees without enough food, water, or medicine, or diapers for incontinent elderly and babies—much less enough toilet paper. They could and did tap into creative solutions in the service of their Hero and Caregiver motivations. What some were grieving was that while they had followed orders and evacuated with others, putting together shelters outside of New Orleans, in retrospect they felt that they lacked the more radical and rule-breaking sense of innovation that might have allowed them to get more help to those who were desperate and trapped in the city. However, such Revolutionary action was acknowledged to be unlikely in an organization whose highest archetype was the Ruler.
Both leadership and the consultation team also learned from observation of the process as well as from the OTCI results that our initial intervention design was not a good cultural fit, as it expected staff to take ownership of identifying solutions to the issues and concerns raised in their interviews. Both the busyness of their schedules and the Innocent expectations that others (management and the consulting team) should remediate those concerns made it necessary to adapt the consultation design to fit their situation and culture. Discussion with leadership also explained why abandoning hierarchy and turning the power over to the people (staff) could not work in disaster relief—a field much like the military. As the CEO put it, when I tell people to leave their own families and evacuate others, I need to know they will do what I say.
Heroes and Caregivers are used to helping others without thought for themselves. Given the level of their pain, however, many staff felt betrayed that the organization was not caring for them the way they all cared for the client groups. Moreover, they felt that management, overwhelmed by their own pain and challenges, was not listening to them when they raised important questions or asked for time to address their own recovery needs.
As a result, a major focus of the project became an initiative in which management practiced empathic active listening with their staffs. In this process, management also demonstrated that they were modeling the ideals of the culture: a Ruler sense of responsibility and authority; the Everyperson’s respect for and attention to each person on the staff; and the Caregiver and Hero commitment to helping those in trouble—in this case, the staff, which was feeling as demoralized as were their clients. As a result of this process, the staff gained familiarity with their individual as well as the organization’s archetypes, creating a shared language for discussing deep motivations and the stories they were living individually and collectively. Most salient for many was understanding the Destroyer archetype, which allowed them to normalize the feelings elicited by unwanted loss and change and recognize how the Destroyer can lead to metamorphosis and renewal.
Out of these exchanges, a shared sense of working together to remediate problems was restored.
Recognizing that strategies for healing must be culture specific and appropriate, the design of the final retreat was influenced greatly by the culture of New Orleans—a city built around the love of music and the art, and one that celebrates life through partying. Creative Leaps—a group of world-class musicians who teach leadership (and other topics) through music and other arts—inspired the group by its musical celebration of SELA’s heroism and by connecting what they had done with the shared human legacy of heroic and noble sacrifice. At this final session, participants shared their love of New Orleans, one another, and the work they do, as well as their appreciation for the healing nature of the work they had done together. Many disclosed that they felt once again like “one Red Cross,” with the confidence that together they could handle the challenges of the next season.
The intervention was so successful that the retreat ended with an authentically celebratory Second-Line Parade, with the staff dancing down the street behind a New Orleans jazz band, looking energized and genuinely happy.
 The views and analysis in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Red Cross or the Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management.isas
 Amy Mintz and Gregg Oryon at the Red Cross National Office and SELA CEO Kay Wilkins played major roles in supporting this project.
 For more information about the Organizational and Team Culture Indicator™, visit www.capt.org.
About the Crisis Leadership Forum
To better understand the leadership dimensions of crisis situations, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a forum with formal and emergent leaders who played a role in Hurricane Katrina. We overlaid this conversation between crisis leaders with the perspectives of discussants with expertise in disaster, terrorism, public health, and leadership. This blog site is intended to continue this conversation.
To read the report on the Crisis Leadership Forum, please click here.
To read CCL's Leading Effectively newsletter on the Forum, please click here.
To read the report on the Crisis Leadership Forum, please click here.
To read CCL's Leading Effectively newsletter on the Forum, please click here.