“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”  —Maya Angelou

Maybe. Maybe not.

While there are still several potential bumps in the road, the global pandemic seems to be moving in the right direction. If there is a gift to be gained from the crisis, it is insight. What wisdom have we accrued from over a year of quarantine and more than 500,000 U.S. deaths that will help us better manage the next pandemic? But perhaps the more important question is, “What will be the biggest roadblock?” 

The element that keeps jumping out and waving a big red flag at me is the human factor during a crisis. As much as we can prepare and plan for a crisis, we never truly know how the public will respond until it happens. 

The pandemic, especially in the early stages, was indeed scary. We could have anticipated a degree of panic and fear not unlike reactions to events like a tsunami or an out-of-control wildfire. But I think many were disappointed and maybe a little surprised by the level of resistance precipitated by a simple national directive to wear a mask in public. 

Wise crisis managers will take the lessons of 2020-2021 into future crisis management planning and note that ignoring the human factor during a crisis is a huge mistake, and not just in response to a pandemic. Companies, organizations and individuals should always be proactive in recognizing and managing human reactions because not doing so can turn your crisis response on its head. Other things to consider when it comes to managing the human factor during a crisis are:

  • Humans are self-absorbed. It is only natural that personal safety and the safety of one’s family will be paramount. Once that is secured, cooperation is more likely to happen. 
  • A human’s sense of privilege invites anger and chaos. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s emergency communications guidelines note that people’s attempts to seek special treatment can damage the recovery of a community following a crisis.
  • Humans who are fear-filled are more susceptible to disinformation. Crisis managers must move promptly and forcefully to counter it. This means having a good relationship with media, local and national, and employing people who are highly skilled at countering disinformation and propaganda.
  • Humans are resilient (for the most part). After initial confusion and panic, people generally step up to the plate. We have history to back us up on this one. Humans make mistakes, we flounder, but we also persevere. 


This article was written by Lynn Holley. Lynn spent 20 years as an award-winning business journalist before joining the journalism faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2004.