Episode 79: Thomas Lahnthaler on self-care and self-reflection as part of crisis management

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Dominic Bowen speaks to Thomas Lahnthaler. Thomas started his career volunteering in South Africa for a local NGO, and has since worked in different roles for the UN, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, governmental organizations and the private sector. During the past 15 years, he has led crisis teams in complex contexts and volatile environments in 20+ countries on all continents including Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and DRC working with governments, international organisations, and businesses in both crisis response and recovery. For the past few years he has veeb running his own business focusing on innovative crisis management, crisis leadership and communications psychology specialising in the development of high performance teams and leadership in crisis. Thomas is Co-creator and CEO of The Crisis Compass which brings together crisis management, HR, communication, as well client and stakeholder management experts from various industries in readily assisting companies navigate through a crisis by using it as a means of reinvention.

International Risk Podcast interview transcript with Thomas Lahnthaler

Dominic Bowen 01:05

Good morning. My name is Dominic and I’m the host of the International risk Podcast. Today we’re joined by Thomas Lahnthaler. Tom has started his career volunteering in South Africa for a local NGO. Since then, he’s had lots of different roles with the United Nations, Red Cross government organisations and the private sector. Over the last 15 years, he’s led crisis teams in a variety of complex contexts and volatile environments. And he spent over 20 years in places like Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Bangladesh, Papa, New Guinea, and DRC. He’s working with both governments, international organisations and businesses on crisis response and recovery. More recently, he was the CO creator, and now the CEO of the crisis compass, which brings together crisis management, human resources, communication, as well as client and stakeholder management experts from various industries. And now more recently, Thomas is also the author of a book, which we’ll hopefully get the opportunity to unpack today. But welcome back to the podcast, Thomas.

Thomas Lahnthaler  02:06

Thanks. Thanks a lot. It’s great to be back. Thanks, Don, thanks for the invitation.

Dominic Bowen 02:15

Well, Thomas, unlike our listeners, I’ve had the huge advantage to be able to read your book, and it was a really enjoyable read. And I don’t say that lightly. It was it was a great read. I love the stories, I love the really practical applications. Did you enjoy going through the process of writing a book?

Thomas Lahnthaler  02:32

Well, first of all, thanks for reading it. And thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate that it’s great to hear, I’ve been living with this book now for the past year and a half. It was now looking back, it starts to be an enjoyable process. But it wasn’t always along the way I can easily say that I underestimated that write this journey. And it’s actually a thing.

Dominic Bowen 02:54

Thomas, in your book, you talk about self-care and self-reflection as keys for making it through a crisis. And I undoubtedly agree with you that it’s such an important point. I mean, you talk about there being nothing selfish about considering your own needs when working through a crisis. And the basic principle of first aid, isn’t it? You know, the first one is danger, you know, check danger to yourself danger to the people around you. And then danger to the person you’re trying to support in crisis should be the same point. What made you really start the book with a concept around self-care and self-reflection?

Thomas Lahnthaler  03:28

I think what when I started to reflect on this book, and I mean, maybe a step back, I started writing this book, because it was asked about my type of crisis management at the beginning of the pandemic, and they struggled a bit to pinpoint it. So I started to write and tried to get some clarity into that. And one thing that kept popping up was that it’s about people. And that included myself. So often, we’re like, yeah, sure, it’s about people. That’s easily said. But that also includes us. And I think everything in a way starts with us. Because whether you’re crisis manager, or you’re affected by a crisis, or you end up having to deal with a crisis, you’re still the first person to focus on as you said, it all starts with yourself, if I’m not showing up 100%, and not be one won’t be able to make it through. But that requires work. We’re not used to do self-reflection, we’re not used to do self-care, because we could easily lost in the context in the tasks in the developing solutions, because we always feel there’s a lot of pressure. And that is actually something that I am really strongly advocating for that we have to turn around. It’s okay to stop. It’s also okay to walk away from a crisis. If you’re a crisis manager and see I have a modern mental state, I’m not in position to do it, because you’re actually not doing anybody else a favour if you continue to work in such a state. So for me, this is kind of it’s the core concept, this is where it starts. And this is where it ends. And it’s important to along the way, just regularly have these check ins regularly have this honest reflection, I think that’s also really, really important that these need to be honest. And that requires connection to your feelings, to your emotions, and to your state of mind.

Dominic Bowen 05:03

Yeah, it’s so important. And I think generally, in most cultures now we’re getting much better at talking about things like mental health. And I think that the business world and the government sector can still certainly go a lot further when it comes to crisis management teams about people, as you just said, being able to acknowledge our physical, mental, and emotional state. Now, it varies for every crisis, and it varies depending on your relationship with the crisis, whether it’s people or finances or your moral compass itself. We talked about, people shouldn’t be on a crisis management team generally for four to six weeks. And of course, that’s a sliding scale about how long but, you know, for many crisis that go on for months, you know, you really need to be looking at people’s situation. I remember one crisis I was working on, it was a kidnapping in Syria. And we literally didn’t leave the crisis management room and we had teams bringing us breakfast, lunch, dinner, and they were happy. I think it was about the full wheatmark at stands for being just physically unhealthy. I like to exercise every day, and I just wasn’t at all. And then when I was complaining about it, everyone was sort of laughing whenever I’d complain, and then at one point had bent over to pick up something off the floor, and tore my pants open. Because of the physical state I was in, you know, we laugh for a bit, but the point is that, alright, we all need to take time for physical exercise every day, even if it’s just an hour, until we found a local gym in the area. And it made such a huge difference. From then on, you find a quiet spot in the day with a battle rhythm was a little bit slower, and you just go out for a walk or go to the gym or do whatever you need to. But ah, gosh, it made us so much more effective.

Thomas Lahnthaler  06:40

Yeah, and I could absolutely relate to what you would have said, because I’ve also been in this crisis teams to just, well, you have the feeling you cannot leave the room because something might happen, which is a complete misconception. Because when we really face out and look back afterwards, it’s like, well, there’s so many times when nothing happens, and you just sit there waiting for something to happen. And while that costs so much energy, and it’s completely underestimated how much energy that costs. And when you work with that crisis management team you’re together pretty much, you know, I wouldn’t say 24/7, but close to that often. Then you get to know each other’s flaws, you go through mental ups and downs, and not always simultaneously, that’s the thing, you have these different ups and downs. So you really have to be there for each other and look out for each other as well. And these breaks are so crucial, because one effect that’s underestimated by that is if you walk away, you see things often a lot clearer when you come back. Because when you sit in that same situation all the time, you have the same conversations, you have the same discussions, you know, you have the same seat, often you have your chair, you sit on that chair, but just his physical movement, taking a break, getting your mind off, joking, right. I am a strong fan of really playing with humour because there’s nothing wrong, even if it’s a serious situation, we’re still people. And actually, humour can lighten up, our intensity can really help us to just get distracted for a moment and then come back. And all of a sudden we see something that we haven’t seen, and we fight we have a new idea. And then you already get the motivation back in the drive. But of course, over long period of time, you will also have to consider probably changing people, because it’s not it’s not feasible to sit on extended period of time, the same people. And I think it’s also not necessarily healthy, because you might just get a tunnel vision that’s too narrow.

Dominic Bowen 08:27

And I think the point about humour. Humour being okay, during a crisis really is an important one, I think a lot of people think it’s inappropriate, or it’s not right to be to be sort of having a joke or to be having a moment of ease or laughter when there’s a big crisis going on. But I agree with you entirely, we are humans. And we need that capacity for our creativity, for our ability to think for our ability to sort of discharge and recharge at the same time, I think it’s really important. In your book, you talk about being able to honestly assess how we felt and how we behaved in a situation in order to, you know, get a picture of ourselves. And that way, once we know our own capacities, and we know our own strengths and weaknesses, we can hopefully become better crisis managers and better contributors to crisis management activities. It’s easily said, you know, have a look at yourself, you know, how well are you behaving? How well did you behave? But what’s your advice on how people can and should be doing that?

Thomas Lahnthaler  09:24

For me, it’s basically there’s one perspective, which is the one that I have myself. And of course, you can ask simply with simple questions, like how was it for me? How did I approach it? How did I feel at certain moments or really, honestly feel that really have this connection? Because what I noticed a lot when we do these exercises is that they become very cognitive exercise, meaning we reflect with our heads, but we don’t reflect with our bodies. So a couple of questions could be like, how did it feel where did it sit in the body, those might sound very esoteric, but they’re actually not, they really like our body tense up when you’re in stress. So this is, this is a way to find this out. And if you don’t find these areas, then you might have either to do more reflection, or you actually really came through it quite well. But then there’s the second perspective. And for me, this is this is almost a reality check. Ask others and that makes that request vulnerability, but it’s important to also get the perspective of how did I seem to you? How did you assess my behaviour? You know, did you could you read my emotions? How did that connect with you? This there’s different ways you could ask but it’s important to get these perspectives and actually play it back and that can be done within a team but that can also be done outside of the team because what is also noticeable and you might notice yourself from your experience is that these crisis teams become a little bit own worlds, like own universes, right? Where things you know, own language, and everybody knows what’s talking about what what’s being talked about. But when you look at it from the outside, it might seem very differently. When you meet people who are not involved in it. You might have a very different image of what’s actually happening in that then then what they see. So it’s worth just getting different perspectives and then really putting This almost together as like a puzzle, and then you’ll, you’ll have a picture and you’ll have an assessment. But one word of caution with that, that does not mean, in my experience that the next time is going to be the exact same thing. In crisis are different. We’re different, we evolve as people, we have bad days, we have good days, we have experiences that we carry and collect along the way. And they all influence how the next time is going to look. That’s why I’m always very careful when I’m saying like, well, I’ve done trainings, and I know how I react in crisis situations. Honestly, I don’t know. I have done many trainings, I have an indication of how I am. But the next crisis might look completely different, that might be a trigger that I wasn’t prepared for. So don’t draw these conclusions, rather do this retrospectively, and say, “This is how I did this is how I handled it”. “This is what I what I did well, there’s maybe a room for improvement.”

Dominic Bowen 11:53

If we look at the start of a crisis, you talk about defining the crisis, what is a crisis and what’s the opposite of a crisis. And I think in the book, you actually say, if I can quote, you know, therefore, as a first step, it’s important to create a common understanding and expand your image of the crisis amongst the people you’re surrounded by. Keep in mind, this is not an exercise about being right or wrong, but about sharing and growing the understanding of the crisis to expand options to get through. And then you know, you talk about how it helps align and increase resources and their use, which is just so fantastic and so correct. Why do you think this is often a step that’s overlooked? And have you ever seen a failure to do this lead in particularly wrong or right direction?

Thomas Lahnthaler  12:36

I’ve seen the effects, I wouldn’t say I would also hear not necessarily talk about wrong and right, because the thing is that I’ve seen is we very quickly fall into this trap that I call it a as using the crisis is something that’s defined. And crisis is for me nothing else than a description of a period of time where maybe the pressure is higher, it feels like we have to make more decisions that have heavier impact. Yet we all interpret different things and this exercise that you mentioned in a sentence, that’s really the simple question, what’s the opposite of a crisis for you? People might answer that very differently, as my experience is that they all they all strive for something else. Some strive for stability, others strive for, you know, security, the next one for order of others also thrive off crisis. So they would actually say, for me, the opposite of a crisis, this border maybe, right. But the thing is that, that once crisis is called, let’s say, you know, I don’t know a financial crisis, it’s really important to sit down. So what does this mean? Does this even affect me? Right? When we see a headline, refugee crisis couple of years ago, does this affect me at all? Or am I just jumping on that narrative? And when it’s in a company, it’s like, so what does this crisis really mean? How do you see it, you and you, because that, on the one hand, creates a common reality, common understanding of the crisis. But on the other hand, it also expands the options, as you said, because we might see different angles that we haven’t had on the screen. And all these angles actually give us opportunities to maybe develop our own solutions, develop our opportunities through it. And that should be given time in the beginning to really do a check, like, so what is this even a crisis? Often it’s not even a crisis, because that label is just also widely used to really influence to shape a narrative to set a frame. And the question is, is it really a crisis? Maybe not, I really reframe personally from calling it a crisis as long as I can, because of the impact that that word has on us psychologically, memories experiences that we’ve had, that we immediately will relate that and will also trigger emotional and physical responses in us when we hear it. So I’m very careful with using that term, if I don’t have to.

Dominic Bowen 14:49

It’s very interesting, Thomas. And you rightly talk about in your book about the negative impact of suppressing emotions, I think you actually go on to say that, you know, the issue with suppressing emotions when it’s unhealthy. But secondly, they’re gonna come up eventually. And you can either choose, you can either choose the time when the emotions get discussed, guys, let’s do it at nine o’clock in the morning over coffee or whatever might be, or you can just wait till they pop up. And that may not be the right time. I mean, what are you? What are your thoughts to are we what are your comments to leaders? We have some some great leaders and business leaders and government leaders that listen to the international risk podcast, but what are your messaging to leaders who are sort of sceptical of people expressing emotions and, you know, who really tried to run a crisis management team with everyone having a cool head and very calm and, you know, people can deal with their emotions in their off time?

Thomas Lahnthaler  15:40

I think it’s missed opportunities, honestly, to not work with emotions. I think it’s outdated honestly, also to think that emotions do not have a space in that field, or generally in work, I think we’re getting we get a lot better generally, but still, the crisis management field holds on a little bit to that narrative. And to start extent I agree, of course, when you when you take decisions, you should not be 100% impacted by these emotions. But one way of not doing that is working through them beforehand. Because I think we underestimate, I think it’s way, way easier said than done to like, keep a cool head and take a rational decision because we are affected by emotions, stress, stress reactions that we underestimate. So when I look back at decisions that I have to make, they were under stress. And I cannot say that it wasn’t emotional. But the point is that I need to acknowledge that there’s also the hidden opportunity and emotions that I have learned to fight to discover is that there may be give me an indicator where I have to look for my solutions, because what I react to emotionally, if I turned that around might be where my solution is hiding. So if I’m worried about something, maybe I address that first, if I’m afraid of something, if I have a strong, you know, fear or any other reaction to it, explore why that’s the case, because that’s maybe something you might have to prioritise. And that brings us back to this same the same is for a team members, team members have emotional reactions. Emotion is also contagious. So if I’m afraid, that will eventually spill over as a crisis manager. So I think it’s important to not dismiss them, make space for them. And as you rightly said, I think I’ve almost always seen that when we don’t address emotions, they come back, it’s a bit like that boiling pot of water, if you put a lid on it will boil over. That’s my experience.

Dominic Bowen 17:32

Now, you’re totally right, Thomas. And I will call it I know in your book, you talk about your response to in Cox’s Bazar to the million Rohingya refugees that come over the border. And I remember when leading a team there, we had some really strong people in the team. And we had some people that we knew the crisis. And, and this story is a very clear failing on my role as a leader, you know, I clearly failed in this aspect, in that I knew there were members of the team that were stronger than others and, and a failing of mine was, I didn’t want to have to deal with the members. And those one or two, they weren’t experienced in crisis, they hadn’t had the opportunity to talk through their emotions, and I just didn’t want to deal with it, I wanted to focus on fixing the issues, I just wanted to fix all the problems, without really looking at my team. And just as you as you said, before, you know, I can think of one time when it did boil over and boil over at about midnight, you know, we’re trying to wrap things up so we can get some sleep. And instead, I had to deal with a team member that had broken down, but completely justifiably and understandably, that she broke down, and she was in tears, it required, you know, hours of conversation on packing. And that was entirely my fault. If I had, if I’d been a good leader in that, in that regard, and actually sat down with her a couple of days early, when I could start seeing warning signs and just start talking to her and start unpacking it, she would have been fine, she would have been fine. And she ended up being a really great contributor to the team. But it just required some good leadership of which, which I didn’t provide in that instance. And I think that’s a lesson I certainly learned, I pay a lot of attention to now. But you know, let’s hope some of our listeners can perhaps learn from some of our mistakes and not make the same one themselves.

Thomas Lahnthaler  19:18

I can relate to that I have I’ve done similar situations in know how it is, you know, you’re in the doing, and you feel like there’s no space. But I think we have to acknowledge that emotions are part of us. And again, starts and ends with us, right? So if you don’t accept that for yourself, and I was a long time, really, I wouldn’t send a nail but I was strongly following that. Like, you have to keep a cool head and you have to make this clear decisions. Yeah, but there’s still a process that leads up to that. And that process is you know, plastered with emotions. And they’re not all they’re not all the same. And they’re not all easy. But it’s really about taking, as you say, taking that little time even those timeouts that we set initially, taking a step back, those can be used for that. It’s like how do we feel now? How’s it going? You know, it’s we’re all people behind what we’re doing what we’re there to do. So I think it’s important to just give that space.

Dominic Bowen 20:09

And I think in your book, when dealing with crisis, you talk about five habits that you use when managing teams. I wonder if we could unpack some of those for our listeners today.

Thomas Lahnthaler  21:21

Sure. Well, I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about already about the people behind the function, right? This is one that I that I keep emphasising I think it’s important to really look at the crisis managers, but that’s at the end of the day, that’s a function, and we’re still people behind it. So we have also reactions to what we see. I mean, as you said in the book, I also outlined how I reacted to seeing so many refugees and one spot at the same time people in need that really was overwhelming to process. But that was me as a person that was not me as a crisis manager. And the reaction that you explained about your colleague, same; that was because she was a person, not because she was there in a crisis team. And I think it’s important to remember that and important to really for our own expectations, our own ambition level. Now we can, we can fix everything at the same time, but also for the team. And that sets both as a leader and as a team member an example. So that’s definitely one; remember the person behind the function.

The other one was frustrations, we’ve also talked about that. I think my experience is if you make space for these frustrations, they also emotional responses in that sense. But if you make space for them, and say, like, Okay, now we’re taking the time to just really voice our frustrations, and what’s going wrong. In many cases, this actually turns into it also humoristic experience because you start laughing at the end, because you’re nagging and you’re just throwing in everything that goes wrong, and you’re just exaggerating. And so it turns into positive experience. But at the same time, it is a little bit of that frustration, because it’s important to say that as well, it’s important not to swallow that because it will have the same effect as it has with other emotions. They will boil over eventually it will explode. So voice your frustrations openly. I think that’s fine, but make it not a continuous process. So not constantly, because then you’re like you spreading negativity, but make these little spots and spaces where like, you know what, let’s make a little round of frustrations. And that is a fun effect on the team.

Third one that I would talk about is the celebrations of successes and our failures. So we hear often, like celebrate successes, yes, it’s easier done than said, easier said than done. Sorry. It’s because it’s also very often a cognitive process. It’s like, you go around, like, Oh, we did this great. But really make sure that you actually connect to it, and really take the time and say like, Yes, we did something great. And not say not immediately walk over it. That’s what we crisis managers do very quickly, we have solved one thing let’s go to the next. No, take a moment and appreciate that. Also your team, yourself, this is an achievement, you’ve made a difficult choice, you’ve done something that really has an impact. Same applies, however, for failures. Failures are important learning opportunities, so celebrate them make that like, oh, we really screwed this one up. Great. Well done, guys. Because also, they’re human as part of it. It’s acknowledging, yeah, we screwed up. It’s sharing vulnerability, all these subtle concepts that are not often talked about within crisis management, I think they’re crucial to managing crisis. Forcing breaks would be number four, I think we’ve talked about that in the beginning, that’s very important, but should be regularly applied. And what I like to do is sometimes I assign habit keepers, to basically guardians of this habits. So if I don’t have the crisis manager don’t have on the screen that we need to take breaks, I’ll tell someone, it’s your responsibility to remind me that you take breaks, and I’m not allowed to overrule you on that. And that’s fine. Works well, but needs to require some letting go. And number five-and we’ve explored that a little bit already- is really allowing for humour. I think crisis management is serious enough as it is. So these little islands of humour, these little islands of joking, they help; they give an energy back. And as you also rightly said, motivation, creativity and all the other things that positively influence the crisis management will be stimulated.

Dominic Bowen 24:19

Oh, that’s great. Thanks for sharing that with us. I’m sure that anyone who’s interested can certainly read them more, read more detail in your book. But you also talk about the framing effect in the book, Thomas. And I think this is quite interesting. You know, on the podcast, we’ve spoken to quite a lot of people, some analysts, former intelligence officers, and risk professionals. And you know, we normally talk about the negative aspects of cognitive bias, but you actually talk about a deliberate way to create a cognitive bias that’s angled towards reality by specific by creating that specific frame. Can you explain that to our listeners? What do you talk about there with regards to the positive the positive aspects of creating a cognitive bias?

Thomas Lahnthaler  25:00

We did an experiment a year and a half ago with a couple of teams where we split the team and gave them each a case study about the exact same crisis situation? One of them was very strongly framed around. We don’t know anything, we have hardly any information. We’re not sure what the next step is. It was basically the situation was that this was an executive management team and the information was given by the board to we don’t know and, you know, crisis is serious. The other one was framed however in well, this is serious situation, which sure we’re going to get through this. We’re sure this is actually an opportunity for us. With full trust in us support to manage this. Maybe we already can come up with some ideas on how to overcome this and we will keep monitoring the situation but this is our opportunity. Exact same situation. Challenging, you know, what the defects were also there what the challenges were. And those two teams were having a little bit of time to come up with discuss this and come up with a short memo back to the board. And the difference was beyond striking. So the one team that was not given any guidance that was giving very vague, very insecure information. They were writing just like that back. So there was no daring, they were very careful, they were like, “We’re gonna monitor the situation, we need more information.” Very passive. The other team, they pretty much laid out a reinvention plan for that company. So they came like, oh, we could do this. And we can do that. And we so they were immediately into creating options and opportunities. And all, the only difference was the framing. So to go back to your question, I think we focus a lot on the things that on the challenges that are presented to us, and why it’s so difficult, and it’s changing, and it’s the unknown. And it’s, you know, chaotic, and complex and uncertainty, those are all concepts that we feel with our, with our own emotional responses, and they hardly ever positive. If you’re honest, and say, like, well, we don’t know how the situation is going to play out. But we want to really take this into our own hands. And we say that we have opportunities, we focus on our zone of leverage, basically what we can do, we find out these little tweaks, the rules have changed, but we can still play the game, you immediately frame that a bit differently. You talk about the same situation, but you take the ownership back, you’re not letting it be with the context that constantly changes, but you take it back. And those are small tweaks. And when, as we’ve discussed, I think in our last podcast episode, and I’m sure several of your guests have said that internal communication is the first step. And if you really frame that with positive honesty, and say like, well, situation is challenging, but there’s lots we can do, you make a difference, you create a momentum, you actually allow people to be daring, because you say like, Yes, this is something we have to try out. Instead of focusing on well, we don’t know what this is gonna go, we have to be careful and see how this is gonna play out. The responses are fundamentally different.

Dominic Bowen 28:23

It’s a really, really great point, I really, I’ll be drawing on that chapter a lot. I think it’s such a great point, we all know it, you walk into a meeting, if the chair of a meeting is energised and excited and talking about all the opportunities and it’s hard not to be engaged and to come up with good ideas in that meeting. Whereas if the chair of the meeting is particularly grumpy, got a bad attitude, and you know, that’s equally that’s equally infectious. So it’s not surprising, but it’s certainly something to consider. You also talk about the communication triangle about considering the self, the context, and the audience of the messaging. What’s so important about the triangle?

Thomas Lahnthaler  29:04

We often basic communication psychology, which I studied focuses a lot on sender receiver principle, right? So really the basic idea that, okay, you send a message, which is decoded on the receivers, and this is also something we often forget that no matter what your message is decoded under receiver sent, and then vice versa. But what I’ve what I really learned a lot, and I read a bit about this before, but I learned this also in practice, it’s so important to consider where this is happening. And by that I don’t mean necessarily only the physical space, I mean, the context when it’s happening, and many people say, well, crisis is the context in itself, yes, but there’s also sub context. So you will still deliver messages in certain situations within the crisis. That could be when your team is tired. And you basically, you know, in the middle of the night, you’d like your situation before the context in the middle of the night, after a long day needs to be considered in your messaging. It can’t be like that long monologue where what you want to do, because your people will not, they will not listen, they will not take anything away. So that’s why these three elements are crucial. It again, starts and ends with yourself. So how are you in this situation? Are you standing behind your message? How are you feeling? How are you emotionally? You know, are you are you bored? Are you scared? Just also an honest look in the mirror? The context? Where are you delivering this? How are you delivering this? What time of the day? Is it in a rush? Is there actually a bit of time so all these elements are very important there, and then the audience and that’s for me, it’s almost a bit. It’s a difficult element because you have to really be on the one hand and pet traffic. But on the on the other hand, you have to really also not forget that you’re part of the audience. So it’s really about looking, what do they need? What do they not? What did they not want to hear? And a final thing that I also write about in the book is what we often look for what connects the audience. And that’s very important because you want to you want to speak to all of them, but it’s equally important to find out what they What divides them, because that on the one hand gives you information, what you need to avoid in your communication, because if you come in with this with sentences along those lines, you might actually subconsciously divide them. And you can actually tailor your messaging a bit more to different target groups if that that was relevant. So I think that’s, that’s why this triangle is so important to consider with the caveat that we have to accept that our message will never be perfect, will never reach everybody at once. But still, these free things, in my experience help.

Dominic Bowen 31:33

In situations really matter, don’t they? I mean, context matters. And they have such an impact on our perceptions, the actions, the interactions we’re having with the audience, as a sender and receiver of information. But understanding the situation and the context is something that we talk about a lot on the international risk podcast, I mean, it’s one of the fundamental steps of any risk management activity, especially crisis management, can you explain or maybe even you could tell a story about a time when a successful understanding of the context and the situation has led to a good outcome? Or conversely, a time when perhaps you lost an opportunity through not doing the right situation analysis?

Thomas Lahnthaler 

I think what would just disappear, plenty of examples for certainly for the letter. But what they all have in common, like if I, if I reflect now over South Sudan, for example, I was called in to facilitate a meeting between three communities on that we’re in violent conflict previously, and I was called into, to basically facilitate a what I was told was a getting to know each other trust building meeting. And this situation just went completely wild because that’s what not was, was not what they came for. They came for assigning actually boreholes, which should be the result of this project to which village should get one and when and which priorities. And I was just simply there to talk about trust and who we are. And this situation turns into a catastrophe. And whoa, so I was just saved by my South Sudanese young interpreter who just basically took over, he just, you know, pushed me aside: I take this over. And I completely underestimated that situation. And not only because I, on the one hand, because it didn’t have enough information. But that’s also almost an easy excuse, because I could have asked for more. So I trusted blindly instead of just really getting more information, so what is this about? And what do they know, and so on. So I made the fastest but not sufficient enough. So that was really something that that that went very wrong. There are also other situations where it went better. And what the difference was, is that we looked at things a bit more systemically. So we didn’t only take our point of view and say like, so we came there to do this, but we actually considered okay, there’s different actors that were dynamics previously also dynamics from my predecessors, that we have to take in consideration. So it was way bigger picture and not assuming that this is how it’s going to be. But it gave me a lot of a better, it gives me more flexibility, depending on how the situation played out. So I had actually different ways of reacting to it, because I understood, oh, that is not related to that. Something that I in South Sudan I didn’t have, because I was new, I just came in for a couple of days, I had a specific role that was completely miscommunicated, to me and to the people. And in the other examples, there, it was a bit broader. I was still in my crisis context, but I still looked around a bit bigger and try to understand also a bit more of what’s actually wrong, where I am, who I am, and how we relate.

Dominic Bowen 34:51

It’s a fantastic lesson. So thanks for sharing that with us Thomas. In the book, you distinguish between normal contexts and open context, what do you mean by this and why is this such an important concept?

Thomas Lahnthaler 

Normal contexts are contexts that are basically normal, right. So, things like weddings, when we weddings have in different cultures, certain rituals, right? Or a certain routine certain. Even a certain agenda. I eat my own marriage is an intercultural marriage. And there we found out that the way weddings are in Austria and the way weddings are in Norway are fundamentally different. So with the exception that you say yes, at one point, but other than that, there’s very different rituals, very different traditions. But that’s a norm context. What I mean by that is people who go there, they usually have either something to relate to that they have basically anchor some, this is going to happen, this is what is expected of me. This is how it should behave. Open contexts are contexts with this lacks, basically contexts that come out of a situation, which is not normed, where you have to find out. So what is actually now appropriate, but it’s not appropriate that a lot of these intercultural encounters are a bit like that. But certainly, crisis situations, because crisis situations are really dominated by rules changing, dominated by things that all of a sudden don’t work anymore. Maybe traditions, rituals, things that were in place before, they’re irrelevant now. And that’s what I mean by an open context. And the difference is, of course, a normal non context is more predictable, in the sense because you can easier maybe assess what the audience might know what I have to do and how the situation plays out. Open contexts are very generic in that sense. So you have to be way more flexible, you have to be way more, you know, observant, analytical, and to really try out and find your way, step by step forward.

Dominic Bowen 37:02

In the book, Thomas, earlier on, you talked about celebrating failures. And I think that’s a really great point. And in a similar vein, I really liked the idea of building resilience through a crisis and using a crisis to actually strengthen an organization’s culture and its people and ultimately, its operating model. You talk if I can, again, quote directly from the book. For organisations, the magic ingredient to resilience is culture. organisational culture is a broad term, which includes processes, plans, systems approaches, communications and mindsets, as well as knowledge and learning. Thomas, you’ve supported leaders and organisations over the years building resilience and resilient cultures in particular. And I believe that you’ve identified six elements that stand out as real pillars to successfully keep building resilience within organisations. Can you maybe unpack two of your favourite

Thomas Lahnthaler  38:29

Well, one of the one of my favourite ones. And that kind of grew out when I wrote this book was I keep talking about anchoring in crisis management a lot. And anchoring for me is a process that basically if you if you if the feeling of losing control, and this is at one point or the other, everybody has that in a crisis. So if you have the feeling of losing control, you need an anchor. Children do that, right, they carry things around, and we adults do the same thing we just don’t know about it. So anchoring is one very effective way of getting yourself back into the here and now it’s getting you know, a bit of stability, a bit of that feeling that you can control something. But what I found out is actually the most effective anchor, and for organisations, or individuals, for that matter, is what is our purpose is our driver. So what I see organisations often do is when the crisis hits, the first thing that’s thrown over is the purpose maybe we have to completely reinvent ourselves and completely do something new. And that with that motivation disappears. Because what why you started this, why you actually like to work in this company, why you want to make a difference for your work. That doesn’t change in a crisis. And that shouldn’t change in a crisis because that’s actually what keeps you going. So what I one of my favourite ones, if you ask me, or maybe my favourite one of the six is make your purpose your anchor, which means like, remind yourself, why, why you do what you do, why you actually what drives you, and what really, really keeps you going. The other one that I would probably mention is a reinvent just mindset. I’m a huge fan of MacGyver and the soul so that MacGyver gets actually mentioned in my book as well. I’m from that generation. And he inspired my my way of crisis management and my philosophy behind it. And of course, apart from the fact that I also wanted to be MacGyver, but that’s a different story. But what MacGyver has a serene venturous mindset, what I call it, he basically he doesn’t look upon things only as what he sees, but he constantly questions What else can I do with this? What else can I do with with my resources? Is there a different way of approaching this? Is there a different way of really finding a solution here? And I think if you practice this in company, this is actually something really you can practice quite easily if you constantly induced these questions, because what happens is you make this a habit what happens is you becomes it comes naturally and When a crisis hits You will continue doing this and that way, that’s when it really becomes irrelevant. That’s when it’s about, oh, we actually have to do something different because we have to make critical decisions and think that things will change. So having this mindset is already really being a step ahead. Because you used to do things differently. You used to reinventing resources, processes, ideas that you have. So that definitely is an advantage and makes you more resilient and makes you more ready to take this on.

Dominic Bowen 41:31

Well, thanks very much for talking to us about your book today.

Thomas Lahnthaler  40:45

That was really a pleasure. Thanks for having me. Thanks a lot.

Dominic Bowen 41:49

It was great to have you on the podcast again. And for those of you that didn’t listen to the original interview, Thomas and I caught up about 18 months ago and episode nine. So if you haven’t listened to Episode Nine, I encourage you to go back and listen to that. But that was a great conversation with Thomas Lahnthaler , leader, crisis advisor, and author, and we’ll link to the book and to the crisis compass in the show notes. Thanks very much for joining us on the international risk podcast today.

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