Are Your True Colors Revealed in Crisis?

“Do you think people reveal their true selves in times of crisis? Or should we make allowances for shock, fear and panicked fatalism?”

A friend asked that today. There’s a saying that a person’s true character is revealed in tough times. Do you buy that?

If a person enters a difficult stage in life or undergoes personal drama or crisis, and exhibits unusual calm and rationality, does this suggest deeper virtues?

How about if a person, when confronted with emotional turmoil, acts recklessly and destructively, does this reveal a person’s deeper instability? Or do circumstances make any situational response not representative of one’s larger character?

On the first, I don’t think any truer colors, in the positive sense, are revealed in times of crisis. Hence my skepticism at the Rudy Guiliani proposition that somehow calm on 9/11 translates into broad leadership capacity.

On the second, I don’t like those who are unable to regulate themselves in times of crisis or emotional turmoil and rely upon circumstances (“It was a difficult week” or “I was feeling hurt”) to defend out-of-character actions. Again, I don’t think any truer colors are necessarily unveiled, but nor do I dismiss the colors that were.

So I suppose that makes me unsympathetic to assigning greater weight to action taken in crisis over any other action.

12 comments on “Are Your True Colors Revealed in Crisis?
  • It is not “truer” colors as in their behaviour during normal times is false. It is about evaluating emotional maturity.

    In a crisis, you do not have the luxury of time to think. So, if you panic during crisis, then the chances are good that you are not dependable in a crisis.

    If you are recruiting someone for CEO, then their behavior in crisis mode is important. If you are just being an acquaintance or friend, then it really does not matter.

  • In the tipping point Malcolm Gladwell explains how people will act differently in different context.

    The crisis will create a context in which some people will thrive. People who are better in times of stability might show us a different face. Still we will be happy to have them again when the crisis is over.

    For the time being you will want to make sure you are surrounded with people who are comfortable in a crisis environment.

  • Ben:
    I couldn’t help weighing in on this one.

    In my previous profession, I was in several crisis situations. Bombings, earthquakes, attempting carjackings, pandemics, and so on.

    What really makes the difference in how people react? Training.

    People who have been trained in how to deal with these things – and despite what you hear from movies and media you CAN be trained and equipped to deal well – react differently because they have information.

    They have information about two things:
    1) what to do
    2) what to look for

    Knowing how to gather information from a chaotic, crisis-like situation helps a person stay in control. The training helps you stay focused on WHAT to do so that your brain is not overwhelmed and can focus on its usual task of observation and processing.

    There are some people who SEEM to react to crisis situations well with no training, but in reality, they have probably thought about such scenarios many times and, in effect, trained themselves.

    The same goes for CEOs – the good ones have not taken their elevated status as a sign that they don’t NEED training. They continue to train. To learn. To stay ready.

    What a provocative post. Thanks for writing it!

  • The question itself reveals an assumption that a person has a “true self” that can be encapsulated in some sort of platonic ideal. This is downright silly. Furthermore, the concept of a “crisis” is not all that simple to define either. For example, crises involving severe physical injury are very different than emotional crises are very different than crises involving mechanical/physical issues. Just as a personal example, I tend to be avoidant in emotional crises but generally calm with physical things (e.g., backpacking stove not working in wilderness).

    A person’s character is a complex set of behaviors and tendencies. Some behaviors are very consistent and show up right away; others only come out in challenging situations. Some people have behaviors that vary widely from time to time – others are very predictable. We can learn things about people, but it’s important to remember that there’s no simple “true colors” to be discovered.

    Of course, in business we do not have the luxury of understanding people in great depth. We have to go on what’s apparent. If a person performs poorly in an adjudged “crisis situation” then they probably shouldn’t be relied upon in a position where they will face similar crises regularly.

  • Well, people may well reveal more of the depth of their abilities when under unusual stress. It’s a chance to find out more about them, in general. But if they’ve been trained, or have specific difficulties with that type of stress, you’re only finding out about their training/problem, not their character. So that’s as far as it goes, I’d say.

    Then there are people who initially go nuts before calming down and impressing everyone with their courage and fortitude. Like all generalisations, lots of variables really.

  • Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Dave, “Some behaviors are very consistent and show up right away; others only come out in challenging situations.” I guess the question is should we make anything more of behavior that comes out in challenging situations. That is, do we see such behavior as self-contained to those challenging situations or perhaps revealing of something deeper that we should be concerned about even in calm times. Obviously it depends.

  • Substitute “character” for “true self” if the latter is simply too silly for you to consider, Dave.

    Worthwhile comments here – as ever, Ben, you attract interesting commentators.

  • Dealing with a crisis situation can certainly reveal one of the many elements of human character, but not in its entirety.

    This is because life is all about moving from one crisis to another. The way we handle situation #10 could be vastly different from the way we reacted to #1. All species mature with age and experience.

    Another angle to test one’s character is to see how she reacts to a situation (a) happened to someone else; and (b) if it happens to her. Many doctors counsel cancer patients efficiently; but they all go into a severe depression the moment a malignancy is detected in them.

    Sometimes the littlest things in life are the hardest to take. You can sit on a mountain more comfortably than on a tack. Yet there is this dichotomy – civilization has taught man never really grows up, he just learns to act in public. When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

  • Hey Ben.
    Bluntly. Yes, crisis reveals true self.

    How you behave during a crisis (i.e. difficult circumstances), no matter what the crisis is, is the true measure of who you are.
    You might be better at handling certain things than others. That just means that you’re weaker in some areas, but then that reveals your “true self” no?

    It’s easy to be good, calm, rational, nice, kind and charitable when everything’s going well.
    Anyone can do it.

  • Isn’t the bigger issue how people manage change with integrity, skill and authenticity?

    Crisis is just rapid change. What appears to be stability is just a slower rate of change. Let’s focus away from the drama of crisis management and just look at time/speed as one factor in managing change. It is just as important to maintain focus during ‘slow’ times of change to set the right direction.

    Crises are dramatic and sometimes require skilled intevention, but slower change can be just as damaging if one is lulled into thinking that events are going in the right directions when they really aren’t.

    Never let your guard down.

  • I think it usually means something different. Not handling of the situation, but how your value system changes, or adjusts, depending on scale.
    I am from the school that holds that people are, with respect to common moral standards, naturally evil, and only environment that is relatively non-threatening and emphasizes importance of peaceful cohabitation can make them good. Obviously, some people are more “inherently good/bad” compared to others, but I think it holds for everyone to some degree.
    Best close-to-home illustration is looking at looting and shootouts(?) during NOLA flood, a relatively minor and short-lived disturbance.
    Everyone with solid trust of people and faith in humanity should live for a couple of years someplace like tribes’ border between Amhara and Somali tribes in Ethiopia; just to see how well it fares there 🙂
    Or, as an exercise, being a friendly and polite person during day-to-day interactions (like myself also), consider how your behavior would have changed if you knew from statistics that say, every 20th person in the mall was likely to try to steal from you, that there are several gangs in the neighborhood who rob houses by having an old woman, or uniformed “cop”, decoy knocking at the door asking for help to have you open it, or better yet if you knew that random person from a passing car might shoot you for the sake of it.
    Similarly, someone honest and friendly in good times might turn out a bit different during hard times.

  • Completely depends, but if you’re going by the majority’s logic here, the members of the Donner Party were all really, truly and deeply immoral cannibals who had no problem eating their grandmas. (To be fair, that’s an extreme situation, but their situation was motivated by an intense, primal emotion: fear of death.)

    Crisis doesn’t necessarily reveal a different character than that one presents to the public, but perhaps a more base version–base in all senses of the word.

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