Managing Crises Means Managing Victims

Dealing with victims remains among the least well handled of all campus management activities. Here’s how your institution can appropriately respond when a victim-creating incident occurs.

The highest priority, greatest threat and most crucial aspect of managing crises is the victim dimension. Victims provide the explosive emotional drive that results in high visibility, high liability and high anxiety for campuses. The reality is most hospitals, schools and universities do a sloppy, insensitive or timid job of dealing with these individuals.

Managing victims means more than putting them into an ambulance. Responders, administrators and leaders need to know a lot more about the patterns of victim behavior.

There are many powerful reasons why managing victims is so difficult for campuses. Victim behavior is irrational, and management’s obsession with tangible results over something that is clearly emotional, and by-in-large immeasurable, forces them to appear anti-victim, emotionless and cold. Furthermore, management training in ethics and managing emotional circumstances is at best minimal. As a result, administrators and law enforcement who respond with empathy and sympathy can be criticized as being soft, sentimental, even sissies.

Legal issues also make victim management a challenge. Administrators usually rely on peer and legal advice to avoid being empathetic or apologetic. As a result, they are often reluctant to promptly assume blame or responsibility.

Managers and leaders may excuse their callous behavior by saying, “We didn’t want to overreact.” When individuals are victimized, however, instantaneous or at least extremely prompt action is required, even if it appears to be an over-reaction later on. Failure to act is among a select list of powerful non-behaviors that cause the greatest damage and accelerate the victimization of everyone at risk.

In crises, one crucial strategic responsibility of leadership is to have in place a victim response unit and special victim action team. These teams include staff from the organization’s communications department, legal department, human resources and victim management specialists. They immediately help administrators avoid both the collateral damage and devastating consequences of mismanaging the victim dimension. They keep management focused on the significant benefits to reputation, public trust and legal liability reduction that will be achieved by the prompt, empathetic and apologetic managing of victims. These same groups need to continue victim follow up for years after a crisis.

Key Indicators of Victim Behavior
Victims’ behaviors are driven by powerful emotion. After a crisis, there is anger, betrayal, disbelief, dread and fear. There is frustration, powerlessness and helplessness. There is the feeling of inadequacy and the agony of walking-but-wounded loneliness. In fact, these are the words that help identify the truly victimized.

Victims become intellectually deaf. When humans are victimized, the first thing that happens is our inner voice begins repeating over and over to us exactly what happened, how stupid we were, how careless we had to be to get into this kind of jam. Our outer voice, the one everyone can hear (most of us have the two voices; some have more) is telling everyone else about what we are suffering and who is responsible. This is what makes dealing with victims so difficult.

Victims experience instant self-absorption and focus on the problems and afflictions that being a victim causes. They hear little. They notice little, and they are primarily stimulated by additional negative information about their circumstances or similar ideas. Even sincere offers or actions to help can be interpreted as intrusions or attempts to control.

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