Video: Friday, 6 November 2015

During a police operation in response to the terrorist attacks on London in July 2005, the Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes was mistaken for a suicide terrorist and shot dead in Stockwell tube station. How did a highly skilled team of police specialists come to identify an innocent civilian as a terrorist? In a prize-winning paper, Joep Cornelissen, professor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), examines how the team’s communication and ‘emotional contagion’ led to a dramatic group decision.

What can teams learn from the Stockwell shooting?

To find out how the team came to label de Menezes as a terrorist and eventually shoot him, Cornelissen looked at police reports of that day and studied transcripts of police communication. “The verbal communication during a time of high alert was subtle – but crucial – in the decision-making process,” says Cornelissen.

The surveillance officer who first noticed de Menezes was never entirely sure he matched the person on the photograph: ‘He is worth a second look,’ he said to his team leader. Despite the fact that police protocol demanded a positive identification, from that moment every observed action of de Menezes was interpreted and described by the other officers in terms of terrorist behaviour. This made it increasingly hard for the team to reconsider other options but to follow their target, resulting in his death.

Emotional contagion

Cornelissen’s analysis further showed that the team’s subconscious psychological framing of reality was supported by ‘emotional contagion’: the distress to be part of a high-profile anti-terrorist operation felt by team members was intensified by the words they used, their tone of voice and their signals during the operation. Sharing the common emotion of nervous anticipation made every team member even more dedicated to end the perceived terrorist threat.

...the quality of team decisions taken under high pressure may suffer from incorrect framing caused by poor communication and emotional contagion.

Interestingly, the team could have picked up on several clues to question their course of action during the operation: de Menezes casually picked up a Metro newspaper, behaviour quite uncharacteristic for a nervous terrorist. By that time however most of the team members were already committed to their mental image of de Menezes as terrorist. The police reports even describe de Menezes as wearing a ‘bulky jacket’ (supposedly stuffed with bombs). In actual fact, he was wearing an open denim jacket.

High-pressure team decisions

Prof. Cornelissen demonstrates that the quality of team decisions taken under high pressure may suffer from incorrect framing caused by poor communication and emotional contagion. These mechanisms restrict critical self-assessment and leave little room for constructive dissent. Ultimately they can lead to poor judgement in organisations. “By focusing on a dramatic, high-profile case this study also offers insights and pointers for questions of leadership, improvisation, and effective communication within other, less challenging contexts,” Cornelissen concludes.

prof.dr. J.P (Joep) Cornelissen
Professor of Corporate Communication and Management
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Joep Cornelissen
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