"The full range of human behaviour"
Ann Enander's research on leadership and how people react in crisis and risk situations is a very current matter. Enander is one of the experts in the government-appointed Corona Commission and she recently published a book on individual and collective reactions to social crises.
Ann Enander is a Professor Emerita in Leadership studies at the Swedish Defence University, and her research is primarily focused on risk and crisis psychology, preparedness and leadership during challenging conditions.
"There are so many fascinating questions about how we handle and respond to crises. There is the whole range from our very human flaws and limitations, to how incredibly creative and adaptable we actually can be. This field of study covers the gamut of human behaviours and abilities, which I still find very fascinating", she says.
As a newly certified psychologist in the late 1970s, she took up a project position in the field of occupational health and safety, and her word encompassed hazardous workplaces in extremely stressful conditions.
"This work led me to write my doctoral thesis on extreme cold, how people cope with it and how it affects performance and other aspects such as mood."
She came into the defence sector when the family moved from Uppsala to Karlstad in 1986. At that time, the Swedish Defence Research Establishment (FOA) was located there, which was later transformed into the Total Defence Research Institute (FOI). The Swedish Rescue Services Agency (now the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, MSB) was a newly established agency based in Karlstad at this time.
"It was the same year as the assassination of Olof Palme and the Chernobyl accident, which led to my involvement in several projects on the topic of severe crises and risks."
Risk research really began in Sweden in the mid-1980s, and Ann Enander has studied and followed up on several major events, such as severe storms, forest fires and the swine flu. She has also analysed other events that had a major impact on local communities, such as high-profile murders.
"My research revolves around how we react in different types of crises, what constitutes good support in crises and what kind of leadership is required."
Crisis leadership requires exceptional skills
Leadership in crises is very different from the more traditional leadership performed in everyday working groups.
"In the regular working life, you know who you are working with and leading. In crises that affect the entire society, you become the leader of many more. Today, for example, we can say that Anders Tegnell is a leader. Such situations require a different approach."
Leadership in crises is more about symbolic language than traditional leadership in order to reach many people. Although every crisis is unique, there are patterns that are recurring, says Ann Enander.
"There are special requirements on a leader when society experiences a crisis. We need to understand what is happening. For example, today there is a lot of information about infections and how they spread. There is also a fundamental need to be able to act and be in control. A third aspect is the sense of community; the need to not feel abandoned."
The keywords are clarity, control and community, which is also what much of crisis communication is about.
"Crisis communication focuses on explaining what we are facing, what we can do about it and that we are working together to solve the problems", explains Ann Enander.
Today, in the midst of the corona pandemic, crisis and risk research is a very current matter. However, when Ann Enander began her research career in the mid-1980s, the situation was quite different.
"At that time, people often said that "there is not much going in Sweden", referring to weather events such as severe hurricanes and earthquakes that occur in other parts of the world. But when we look back, we can see that Sweden has also experienced many different types of crises."
Natural disasters such as severe storms and forest fires, accidents such as the Estonia disaster in 1994, the discotheque fire in Gothenburg in 1998 and the tsunami in Thailand in 2004 have all contributed to the relevance of the research field, attracting a higher interest, she says.
Research on how people react to risks and in crisis is mainly conducted through post-event follow-up, for example in the form of interviews or survey studies. Sometimes observation studies are conducted, for example in relation to leadership.
"Exercises can teach us a lot about what happens under pressure, even if it's just a simulation. We also study preparedness to learn more about how people think about risks and what they worry about."
More time for reflection
As professor emerita, Ann Enander now has a freer role where she supervises Ph.D. students and has more time for writing and her own projects.
"I find I have more time for reflection. I can see the broader picture and can compare different types of crises, which I did in my latest book that came out in April."
In her book "From Storm to Terror: Individual and Collective Reactions to Societal Crises" (Från storm till terror: individuella och kollektiva reaktioner vid samhällskriser in Swedish), she provides an overview of individual and collective reactions to severe events and an insight into the specific challenges that different types of societal crises can pose.
"For example, the book includes a section on pandemics that I wrote at the end of last year."
Member of the Swedish Corona Commission
The current pandemic is also part of her work. On June 30, the government appointed a commission with the task of evaluating the measures taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus by the government, the relevant administrative authorities, the regions and the municipalities, of which Ann Enander is one of eight members.
"We all have different experiences and skills, such as medical and ethical expertise. I contribute with my experiences from crisis management and people's reactions."
The Commission will look at 14 different themes that show how Sweden has managed the COVID-19 situation. The Commission will also make an international comparison with relevant countries of the various measures taken and their impact.
"This includes communication and crisis management. The first interim report, due in December, is on elderly care and why it was so badly affected."
The final report is due in February 2022.
"The time frame is quite short, and we don't know when this crisis will be over. However, I think it's good that we've already started to try and sort out what has actually happened. If we wait too long, much of the information may be lost regarding what happened during the early stages of the pandemic. The initial phase will not provide us with all the answers, and the situation may change during the process."
It is precisely the opportunity to work closely with those who will use the research that attracts Ann Enander to the job.
"There are very practical uses for knowledge about how people react in crisis situations. That is one of the things that I am the proudest of; the fact that I have been involved with education, not only at the Swedish Defence University but also in activities at the municipal, regional and national levels. The knowledge has been shared and put into use. It's not just a report that ends up on a bookshelf. IT is very rewarding to be able to share your research with those who use and need it."
Title: Professor Emerita in Leadership studies.
Recent and current work: Her book ”From Storm to Terror” and a member of the Swedish Corona Commission.
In my free time: I enjoy nature and being a grandmother to twin girls.
Last book I read: ”The mirror and the light”, by Hilary Mantel.
Hidden talent: Pretty good at sniffing out mushroom sites (although didn’t get to do that last year).
I enjoy discussing: As an avid anglophile, I enjoy discussing all things British - history, culture, politics and idiosyncrasies.
What drives me as a researcher: Curiosity and finding joy in contributing knowledge in academia and putting it into practice.