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It may sound far-fetched, but businesses need to be ready for an election-related disaster

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How can leaders prepare for the presidential election resulting in a disaster?

That possibility may sound unrealistic to many leaders. Yet it doesn’t sound so far-fetched to many top politicians and experts observing the run-up to the election. With many more mail-in ballots—which are much more vulnerable to legal challenges—than in previous elections, the counting might drag on for many weeks. It may well be accompanied by widespread civil disturbances, serious economic turmoil, and potentially a constitutional crisis.  

Is a voice deep inside your gut whispering, “An election disaster has never happened before, and so it won’t happen now”? Maybe it’s the same voice you heard when reading articles at the beginning of this year about the need to prepare for COVID-19 turning into a pandemic?

That’s why the vast majority of companies weren’t prepared for the pandemic. Our brains have a disastrous tendency to underestimate greatly low-probability and high-impact disruptors, events you might have recently heard referred to as “black swans.”

This disastrous tendency comes from dangerous judgment errors that researchers in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics call cognitive biases. These mental blind spots impact all areas of our life, from health to politics to even shopping.

Three cognitive biases bear the biggest fault for our failure to face the truth about the possibility of an election disaster.

Normalcy bias refers to our brains assuming things will keep going as they have been—normally—and evaluate the near-term future based on our short-term past experience. As a result, we underestimate drastically both the likelihood and impact of a serious disruption, such as a constitutional crisis.

Another major problem, confirmation bias, describes our strong preference to look only for information that already supports our preexisting beliefs and gut feelings, and ignore data that doesn’t. That includes the possibility of a major election disaster.

When we make plans, we naturally believe that the future will go according to plan. That wrong-headed mental blind spot, the planning fallacy, results in us not preparing sufficiently for contingencies and problems. The planning fallacy applies especially black swan–type low-probability, high-impact events such as an election catastrophe.

To address these cognitive biases, you need to use probabilistic thinking. First, assign a probability to various election disaster scenarios.

What’s the probability that mail-in ballots will take a long time to be processed due to legal challenges and civil strife, say stretching at least until the Electoral College vote on Dec. 14? Given the serious, costly, and truly unprecedented preparations for the post-election counting battle by top politicians, I’d say no less than 30%.

After that, what’s the likelihood that the Electoral College vote will not be decisive due to legal challenges? Perhaps only half of that, so we’re at 15%.

At that point, the House of Representatives gets to decide the President. Yet both parties have ways of stalemating the process, potentially resulting in a full-blown constitutional crisis with no clear legal resolution. I’d put the likelihood of that at two-thirds of 15%, so 10%.

Now imagine what the future would look like if the civil strife and legal challenges lasted only through the Electoral College vote. What kind of problems might come up for you as a leader and how can you solve them? (My firm, Disaster Avoidance Experts, advises organizations on how to prepare for unexpected crises, and therefore I could benefit financially from organizations following the advice outlined in this article.)

Revisit your business continuity plan: The large majority of organizations were seriously underprepared for the pandemic, for example. If you’re not working all virtually now, prepare if at all possible to go to all-virtual work. If you can’t, get extra security for your office ahead of potential civil strife.

Let your employees know about the significant possibility of an election disaster, and encourage them to prepare themselves as needed. Remind them of any opportunities you provide for access to mental health resources, such as through an employee assistance program. Prepare your office for a number of your employees suffering a serious disruption in their work; make sure that the more important positions have employees cross-trained to provide backups just in case.

If you manufacture products, see where you might need to take steps to protect your supply chains. If you provide services, reassure your clients about the steps you will take to protect your services from interruptions.

How many resources would you require to address potential problems? Add them up, and multiply them by 30%. Then, go on to use those resources to prepare for this possibility.

Next, consider what problems you might face, and what resources you might need, if the Electoral College vote is indecisive, and this situation goes into early January. Multiple these resources by 15%. Finally, evaluate the problems and resources needed if the House voting ends in an impasse and a constitutional crisis, and multiply these by 10%.

Using this approach, you distribute your plans and resources across the different possibilities in accordance with your chosen evaluations. By doing so, you’re essentially buying insurance to protect yourself from an election disaster.

Gleb Tsipursky is CEO of the risk management and strategy consulting firm Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters.

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