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When Learning Stops in an Emergency Management Organization: The Dunning-Kruger Effect on Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Romeo B. Lavarias
July 28, 2023

In Ygnacio “Nash” Flores, Don Mason & Tracy Rickman’s PA Times article dated October 7, 2022, on “The Dunning-Kruger Effect and the Peter Principle: A Fatal Combination”, the authors defined the Dunning-Kruger Effect as when a person, “deviates from rational thinking and makes judgements based on a subjective reality they create.” It is essentially when a person believes they can do more than their abilities allow them to. The result may range from lost productivity to severe injury or even death. The effect is clear in the field of emergency management where critical decisions must be made quickly with minimal information in an ever-changing landscape of variables involving people and communities, internal and external organizations, evolving technology, critical reimbursement funding, short to long term recovery and even longer mitigation efforts. 

Much of emergency management incident leadership is often led by current or retired fire or police senior staff who are promoted by administrators who base their hiring decision on past performance (but not in emergency management). All of them have initially gained their experience in the response phase of emergency management. It leaves them unfamiliar and inexperienced in the other phases of emergency management (preparedness, prevention, recovery and mitigation). So, when they are confronted with dealing with any of these phases, they often either ignore them since they have no experience in them, or delegate it to their staff who will eventually have to seek their decision on how to proceed. Regardless, they will need to learn more than what they know and that will be labor intensive.  For many who will not put forth the effort, they will downplay the importance of doing much of what it takes to have a successful and effective emergency management program. The result will be, unfortunately, a higher risk of hazardous impact on a community.

As mentioned earlier, emergency managers must make critical decisions before, during and after an incident. Oftentimes, these decisions will rely on not just having response experience but will also need to be knowledgeable based on the other emergency management phases. Otherwise, recovery will take longer, cost more and/or worse, conditions will not improve to the point that the same devastation will happen when disaster strikes again.

In addition to responding to incidents that immediately arise, there are times when an incident slowly develops and then becomes a full-blown incident. In situations like this, the emergency management leader must rely on his/her knowledge and training to advance being proactive in case the situation develops into something more serious. Again, the emergency management leader that suffers from the Dunning-Kruger Effect will downplay the incident so as not to risk the chance of showing that he/she may not know what to do. Or worse, acts on their lack of training that puts others in danger.

One key feature of contemporary emergency management is the creation of an “After-Action Report” or AAR. The AAR reviews how an organization conducted itself in their response to an incident (hurricane, tornado, active shooter, cyber-attack, Super Bowl, July 4th celebration, etc.). Aside from describing the conditions prior to the incident and how the respective response was carried out by the organization, the AAR also addresses those areas for improvement. It relies on honest, unfettered and unbiased comments from all those that were involved. But it also relies on the ability to learn from mistakes and take the proactive action to correct them so that they don’t happen again. But what happens when emergency management leaders see the AAR more as a criticism of its response efforts, and therefore downplay or even ignore the recommendations or even deny the incident even happened? 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect in emergency management may also lead to the lack of support from, or even abandonment, of those that the organization is responsible for providing emergency management services to. Whether short term or long term, incompetence will be revealed since emergency management works on many different levels, i.e., levels of government, variety of authoritative laws, policies, procedures, political atmosphere, etc. So without the respect and support of internal staff and internal/external organizations, emergency management efforts are further eroded which then exacerbates the incident adding more frustration, cost and delays to an already challenging incident.

Today’s emergency management organizations will need those professionals who have the training and experience to know what to do immediately, in the short term and in the long term of an incident. The level of success a community can experience before, during and after these incidents will require having emergency management leaders who are knowledgeable, experienced, ethical and constantly learning.  In today’s world of more natural disasters, pandemics, active shooters, extreme weather events, etc., can we afford to have emergency management leaders who suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

Author: Romeo is the Emergency Manager for the City of Miramar, FL and is an Adjunct Professor for Barry University’s Public Administration Program where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. He is a Certified Emergency Manager through the International Association of Emergency Managers. His research interests include emergency management, homeland security, ethics, and performance measurement. 

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