When Donald Trump yesterday pronounced the words “We are under siege” in front of the Faith & Freedom Coalition shortly after former FBI’s Director James Comey ended his public testimony on the Hill, crisis management experts must have jumped in their seats. Was the President expressing a psychological state of mind well know to practitioners? Was he really displaying a feeling of victimization? Or was he playing out a carefully devised communications strategy aimed at rallying his troops? Or perhaps a combination of the two?
The White House reality show we have all been dragged into is, according to analysts, likely to loom over Donald Trump for months and perhaps years to come. Regardless, it is providing us with a unique opportunity to look at a crisis unfolding.
“Under siege mentality”: them against us
The term “under siege” of military origin was conceptualized by Bar-Tal in the early 90s and opened the door to a new area of psychological research. Bar-Tal defined it as “a mental state in which members of a group hold a central belief that the rest of the world has highly negative behavioral intentions towards them“. He elaborated his theory looking at nations and specifically Israel, but it has more recently been extended to Iran and North Korea. Interestingly “in sum, the measure of siege mentality includes five facets, namely perceptions of historical victimhood, ongoing threat in the present and future, lack of support by other nations, justification of (violent) self-defense, and the suppression of dissent in the service of in-group cohesion”. You can read more about it here.
A dangerous state of mind in crisis
The “under siege” mentality has long been integrated in crisis preparedness discussions and it’s a state of mind we caution managers to avoid during a crisis. Here are 5 reasons why:
- the “they against us” mentality prevents openness, transparency and the assumption of responsibility, key elements in crisis management;
- it leads to a simplified “black and white” vision of the issues that leaves little space for maneuver and dialogue with stakeholders;
- it erroneously leads to a “messianic” interpretation of reality (we are right they are wrong);
- it inevitably places on the defensive;
- it increases the level of animosity and stimulates violent reactions.
Trump’s speech to the “Faith & Freedom Coalition”
Take 30 minutes to listen to President Trump’s speech to the Faith & Freedom Coalition. How does his speech stack up to Bar-Tal’s five facets of the siege mentality? Could we consider the firing of FBI Director James Comey “suppression of dissent” or “lack of support” or perhaps both? Can the “under siege mentality” help explain why in firing Comney President Trump de facto betrayed one of his key principles for successful deal making i.e. “protect the downside” (anticipate what can go wrong, also a key element of crisis preparedness)? Is President Trump rallying his troops much like soccer coach José Mourinho did at Chelsea and is this a wise strategy? In the Mourinho context Tom Mason thinks it is not. Read Tom’s story here.
“In the short term, instilling this sort of mentality can be an effective way of negating the dangers of complacency and provide a way to keep motivation high. However, it’s not a sustainable or healthy mindset to adopt in the long term and can be detrimental – it’s mentally fatiguing to be constantly waging a war of attrition against faceless threats. Similarly, if everyone is out to get you, it is easy to shirk responsibility for bad performances and write things off as being out of your hands.”
The mind of Donald Trump
On May 16th, 2016 Psychologist Dan P. McAdams wrote an interesting article for The Atlantic titled “The mind of Donald Trump. Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency”. Take a moment to read it as it may provide further interesting insights. If you don’t have time, here is a short extract.
“The real psychological wild card, however, is Trump’s agreeableness—or lack thereof. There has probably never been a U.S. president as consistently and overtly disagreeable on the public stage as Donald Trump is.”…. ” Trump seems capable of a similar toughness and strategic pragmatism (as Nixon), although the cool rationality does not always seem to fit, probably because Trump’s disagreeableness appears so strongly motivated by anger.”… “Research shows that people low in agreeableness are typically viewed as untrustworthy. Dishonesty and deceit brought down Nixon and damaged the institution of the presidency. It is generally believed today that all politicians lie, or at least dissemble, but Trump appears extreme in this regard.”…. In sum, Donald Trump’s basic personality traits suggest a presidency that could be highly combustible. One possible yield is an energetic, activist president who has a less than cordial relationship with the truth. He could be a daring and ruthlessly aggressive decision maker who desperately desires to create the strongest, tallest, shiniest, and most awesome result—and who never thinks twice about the collateral damage he will leave behind. Tough. Bellicose. Threatening. Explosive.
Tough. Bellicose. Threatening. Explosive. Angry and Untrustworthy. Not exactly the traits we expect to see in a leader at a time of crisis. If you want to read more about the President and crisis take a look at this recent article from Politico. And here is an additional thought from Kori Schake, a fellow at the Hoover Institute:
“It’s going to be very hard for this president to line the country up in a crisis because he himself is not reliably steady in how he is talking to the country. This is the opportunity cost of the president’s reckless tweeting and creating a non-stop sense of melodrama about our domestic politics.”
If you want to read more, here is a CNN editorial on the same topic by Yascha Mounk.
A closing thought
“If you know neither the risks nor yourself, you are bound to be defeated in every battle” (Sunzi, 1999, p. 23)
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