Balancing Team Harmony and Positional Authority in a Disaster Zone

Forming a team to carry out day-to-day operations can present challenges even in organizations where members fall under the authority of centralized and hierarchical leadership. Operating with a newly formed cross-functional team in a disaster zone increases the challenges and the stakes. Following any major disaster, time feels compressed, resources and outside assistance are limited, and, often, decisions must be made with less-than-ideal levels of supporting information. Other factors that can complicate matters further are always at risk of manifesting when you least expect them.

These observations reflect my experience following Hurricane Katrina and again following Hurricane Florence.

Hurricane Katrina was my first exposure to the world of disaster response and disaster relief. I was attached to an urban search and rescue team operating directly out of a major emergency operations center (EOC). I benefited personally and professionally from being able to observe the power that the incident command system (ICS) can bring to the emergency support functions it serves. In a disaster, ICS creates a unifying, synergistic effect among disparate organizations and teams providing resources to the response and recovery effort.

An EOC running under ICS is a visible manifestation of the phrase the strength of the wolf is in the pack. This observation is true on so many levels, from logistics to planning to operations. Your team checks in at the EOC, attends the next briefing and receives a task. The other functions at the EOC support and reinforce each other, which largely frees each team and each person to focus on the task at hand. The dynamics of team formation are the mostly invisible by-products of operating under ICS at an EOC.

Fast-forward to hurricane season 2018

The weekend call came in for me to go out as a single resource (subject matter expert) to assist a small team from another organization charged with monitoring the activities of an emergency support function post-landfall of Hurricane Florence. Hurricane recovery is unique in that there is a gap between the conclusion of rescue operations and the middle of recovery where normalcy is unnervingly juxtaposed with devastation.

I landed at an airport far enough from the coast and, as I drove in, you could see a chain coffee shop opened for business and packed with customers. Look across the street and you would see a gas station with a caved-in roof from a downed tree. I went into the coffee shop and examined the map and our list of sites to visit as I waited for the rest of the team to arrive.

Forming the team when it is not clear who is in charge

A few minutes later, the federal team lead arrived. She was sharp, focused and driven; experienced in her normal duties. We studied the map, and she shared that this was her first disaster-response assignment; this was not business as usual. As we would soon discover, it wouldn’t be business as usual for anyone.

We didn’t have much time for pre-planning, as the list of sites came in as the team was flying in from across the country. While we waited for the others, I asked if she minded sharing her personal goals for our assignment. She talked candidly about team safety, her concerns regarding gaining physical access to our sites, and about what to expect.

The situation presented a unique challenge: I had experience and no positional authority. My colleague and the rest of the cadre had positional authority but admittedly no experience in the unique conditions we would face. Both of us acknowledged this scenario had the potential to create conflict. We knew genuine cooperation was needed to accomplish what we were tasked with doing.

I thought back to how I felt when I was a rookie during Hurricane Katrina and how reassuring it felt to know I had a team of experienced professionals alongside me.

How we made things work by developing types of goals

We both realized this and decided to establish and observe three main tenets as we worked together in a disaster zone. These three keys served to increase our chances of achieving our objectives safely while allowing for the growth of a new leader.

She asked if she could share a framework with me that would allow us to accomplish the goals we identified while capitalizing on personal and team strengths while shoring up areas of weakness. I’d like to share that with you here.

In contrast with my tasking for Hurricane Katrina, our assignment was mostly observational in nature, so we had some leeway in how each site visit would be conducted. Everyone needed to be on the same page. She suggested we use a faster variant of traditional SMART goal setting that was more nimble and well-suited to the environment. We were still waiting for the others to arrive when she asked if I would see if this would be a good way of working together before she passed it by the rest of her colleagues.

Prioritizing objectives: sorting “musts” vs “wants”

Sitting together, we finished our coffee as she detailed how our site visits would go. We discussed SMART goals and realized that we needed something more nimble that allowed us to prioritize what really needed to be addressed. We suggested categorizing objectives into “musts” vs “wants.”

Here’s how you tell the difference:

Musts are:

  • Mandatory: Has to happen at each site visit
  • Measurable: An outside observer could determine if the condition was met
  • Realistic: Barring a safety concern, we would perform the task

Everything else is a “want.”

From this, we developed a list of “musts” for each site visit and then a list of “wants.” I noted that the wants outnumbered the musts by at least 5 to 1 and noted that this was a great way to prevent falling into the “if everything is important, nothing is important” trap.

Communicating and evaluating objectives and surfacing concerns

Next, she talked about how we would communicate and evaluate how well we were sticking to the guidelines. In addition, this would provide us with a way to give domain-specific feedback to her.

We would focus on:

  • Clarity on objectives & goals
  • Concurrence on objectives & roles
  • Conformity: We’ll call each other out if we stray from what we’ve agreed upon.

In a dynamic environment, this would happen in an iterative manner and often was communicated in an informal, verbal manner.

She concluded her overview as the remaining two members of the team walked in. She asked me to brief them, which I thought was a great way to test my understanding of the method she just conveyed.

Review of impromptu team formation and objective-setting framework

What worked:

  • The collaborative nature of the interaction established a positive attitude, which is vital to forming a team.
  • The opportunity for the team lead and the domain expert to speak candidly and in private was not planned in advance. This dialogue allowed for concerns and objectives, both personal and mission-specific, to be discussed prior to sharing them with the rest of the team. Personally, I felt that this was invaluable. The dialogue gave me the opportunity to let the new leader know I was there to support her and acknowledged her positional authority. I was also able to establish how I would also exert my domain-specific authority when needed.
  • The introduction of an up-front agreement also occurred during the private discussion. It went something like this:

me: “Ma’am, I want you to know that you have my full support in accomplishing our objectives. In order to do that I’m going to ask a favor of you. Is that ok?”

her: “Yes.”

me: “OK, so if at any time, I’m doing something regarding my technical expertise that you have a question about or you feel is interfering with your authority, you’ll promise to ask that question or let me know?”

her: “Yes, of course.”

Me: “And from my end, there may be times when I see something that I feel is unsafe or could jeopardize our objectives. You agree that I need to be up-front about that with you as well?”

Her: “Absolutely.”

What didn’t work:

Nothing… yet. (more to come).

Additionally, here is a brief video describing the frameworks presented here in more detail:


Have you encountered a similar situation? How did you handle it? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section. Have feedback on what you’d like to see more or less of in future articles? Connect with me here or on LinkedIn.

featured image: an urban search and rescue task force searches a debris field in Hancock County, MS following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. PC: Anthony Veltri

Anthony Veltri is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here

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Anthony Veltri

It was definitely interesting to observe the similarities and differences in response and relief efforts from 2005 to today.

Catherine Andrews

What an inspiring story of two people working together collaboratively and openly for the greater good. I love that you shared this – thank you!