The Challenges of Communication Under Crisis ConditionsBy Dr. Anita M. McGahan, University of Toronto As a professor at a business school, I find that my students are often surprised by the challenges of communicating across organizational boundaries even under normal, routine conditions. Specializations, differences in mindsets, and variation in focus can block communication even within a well-functioning organization. Often, well-meaning people don’t realize that they have information that would be valuable to colleagues working in another division. Furthermore, the incentive to communicate may be low when conveying information effectively across organizational boundaries takes time and commitment.Yet despite these obstacles, often the biggest impediment to effective communication across a complex organization is the lack of opportunity to execute. For example, in one case that I discussed with my students, we were astonished to find that executives in one division of a company didn’t even have the email addresses or phone numbers of their peers in another division.Complex Organizations The problem of effective communication in complex organizations is even more difficult to solve under crisis conditions. In recent research, my colleagues and I have studied how firefighters from neighboring departments work together under life-threatening conditions where the stakes on clear information-sharing are high. A range of impediments gets in the way, including differences in training that lead firefighters to pursue different strategies for controlling an incident. Lack of familiarity – not to mention trust and loyalty – with the Chiefs of neighbouring departments may lead to conflicts in command structure when divisions from different communities are deployed together. Variation in protocols for operationalizing and deploying equipment may lead to contention. All told, we find that, even when the incentive for effective communication is at its highest, the crisis itself compounds the challenge of accomplishing it.What can organizations do to overcome these problems? Our research suggests a number of best practices:
  • The first is the simple recognition that information-sharing across organizational boundaries requires extra commitment in times of crisis, and that often the best way to accomplish this commitment is by identifying, in advance, which individuals in each relevant department will be responsible for accomplishing it.
  • A second best-practice is in general training among all members of the organization in how to rely on this network of communication experts for sharing information.
  • A third is joint training exercises and case analyses that enhance understanding of the mindsets and principles that shape decision-making in different organizational units.
  • Fourth, communication is enhanced by routinizing collaboration under non-crisis conditions to build shared language and enhance knowledge of variation across units in systems and equipment deployments.
  • Finally, we find that trust and loyalty are enhanced when divisional leaders meet regularly with members across an organization to share information about initiatives and priorities.
While we find that the benefits of pre-crisis information exchange improve performance during crisis, we also believe that they may improve performance in routine situations. We believe that, by building familiarity with the operations of prospective collaborators, firefighters become better in their roles in their home jurisdictions. The discovery that what you know how to accomplish is valuable to others can lead you to deepen your expertise in ways that save lives.Anita McGahan is a Professor of Strategic Management at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, where she holds the George E. Connell Chair in Organizations & Society, and where she leads the Police Leadership Program, a partnership between the OACP and the Rotman School of Management. Dr. McGahan can be reached at

This year’s PLP program runs from October 28 to November 15, 2024, in Toronto. For more information on the PLP, click here.