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Voices from the field: Optimising performance for humanitarian workers

By Jared Katz, Deborah Nguyen, Carla Lacerda and Gerald Daly

The authors extend special thanks to Olesya Dudenkova for helping to get the project off the ground, and to everyone who took the time to support this project along the way.

An Argentinean aid worker holds a girl injured in the earthquake in Leogane, Haiti

A recent study1 set out to understand how humanitarian workers remain effective in challenging environments while also maintaining personal life balance.

Discussions were held with twenty-six professional humanitarians from eight international organisations currently working on the frontline of global emergencies. The interviews were framed on a McKinsey model of ‘Centred Leadership’, which identifies five capabilities that, in combination, generate high levels of professional performance and life satisfaction. They are finding meaning in work, converting emotions such as fear or stress into opportunity, leveraging connections and community, acting in the face of risk, and sustaining energy. The following is a compilation of the best personal practices of these 21st century humanitarians.

Having meaning in work and life

The humanitarians interviewed most often found meaning in the understanding of and connection with those receiving humanitarian aid. Humanitarians have a combination of motives that may not be altogether altruistic, as the work can be financially motivating and the positions themselves bestow power and respect. However, those who find meaning in their work convey energy and enthusiasm because the goal is important to them personally, because they actively enjoy its pursuit, and because their work plays to their strengths. One humanitarian commented: “The ultimate goal must have meaning for humanitarians and the people they are serving; otherwise they’ll lack the energy and motivation to get things done.”

‘Stay on target’ – Maintaining meaning

Often, the noble motivations humanitarians may have had when entering this field become diluted, as they grow dependent on the money and benefits they receive from the work. Many interviewees stressed that staying out of the field to climb the bureaucratic ladder caused their work to become abstract and meaningless. Maintaining a sense of meaning throughout a humanitarian’s career can be aided by periodic visits to the field, and the connection with real on-the-ground issues.

When unable to get into the field, respondents found other methods of maintaining the connection. Some stayed in close contact with colleagues in the field to remember the meaning of their work. “It is important to talk to staff that work in the field, you will catch their enthusiasm.”

‘Balancing act’ – Don’t neglect meaning outside of work

Finding meaning in humanitarian work needs to be balanced with maintaining meaning outside of work. Maintaining personal relationships is often the best remedy against losing yourself and becoming over defined by your job.

Balancing work and personal life is difficult. “It is a never ending challenge, and particularly so during an emergency situation where you are most likely to be separated from your family.”

‘Rolling with the punches’ – Resilience and recovery

Having a strong sense of meaning and a purpose greater than oneself fosters humility, which strengthens the ability to withstand and recover quickly from difficult situations. Emergencies cannot afford to have workers who are knocked off balance by their own shortfalls, but who keep their “sights on target” and can adapt and react quickly to tough situations.

Humanitarianism is not about you, but what you do: “You are not the centre of anything when you are a humanitarian. It’s about your work; it’s about achieving your objective.” By realising you are only a means to a greater end, you can limit frustrations and losses by not getting knocked off balance with failures. You can recognise when you have made a mistake, “analyse your mistake and criticise yourself, but forgive yourself,” and move forward.

Mental Framing: Converting emotions into opportunity

Optimists have an edge over pessimists. Leaders who do not naturally see opportunity in change and uncertainty create stress and limit creative solutions. It is no surprise that 75% of respondents believe they are optimists and use positive framing on a regular basis; they have found ways to convert stress into opportunity. “One of the reasons for my success is positive framing, I always see the bright side, I see the glass half full.”

‘Making a purse out of a sow’s ear’ – value in positive framing

Effective leaders grappling with failure see opportunity and creative solutions when others see defeat. Early on in emergencies, confusion is usual and decision-making is based on weak information, so projecting a positive and calm mindset supports team spirit. Leaders often project a positive frame because they know their team needs it.

‘Teflon has its uses’ – Protecting yourself and your team

Some people might choose deliberately to shelve emotions that are triggered by the intense suffering of people struck by a disaster. In doing so, they often are able to remain effective in the midst of the storm. The ‘Teflon method’ is such a shelving technique, allowing negative or intense situations to slide off and not affect one’s work during a crisis. While the ‘Teflon method’ can be effective in the shortterm, one respondent cautioned on the need to share with friends traumatic experiences as they occur. Their reasoning was that an unprocessed negative experience might ambush a humanitarian worker years after a traumatic event has been experienced.

‘I’ve got high hopes’– A fine line Between optimism and naivety

A common piece of advice was the importance of having realistic expectations of what can be accomplished. Humanitarian workers do not ‘save the world’, but rather the best they can hope for is to help a disaster-impacted community or help with the formulation of a policy. Although there is nothing wrong with idealistic aspirations, it is important they are not confused with naivety, which can lead to disappointment or even depression.

Leveraging connections and community

‘Stay connected’ – Managing complex networks in emergencies

Maintaining real-time updates in emergency situations by developing community and interorganisational networks can tremendously increase efficiency and help decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. “In order to stay connected you have to spend a lot of time in the field and understand the local context; what is on paper is not always what is really happening. Talk to donors, beneficiaries and other agencies to find out what needs to be worked on.” This approach provides updates on the politics, as well as other developments in fast-paced crisis environments. The role of information technologies to achieve effective communication and decision-making goals in emergencies is a skill-set to be fully honed.

‘Soak it in’ – Learning from others

In a complex and high-pressure environment with little structured training, mentors provide an opportunity for young humanitarians both to learn from their experiences and provide inspiration to emulate their actions and make them more effective humanitarians. A shortfall in humanitarian mentoring system was summed up as: “Mentors don’t come easily, you have to make them happen.”

Only one organisation, out of all those represented in this study, had a structured mentoring system.

With little structured mentoring, it is important to learn as much as possible from everyone you come across. “At work you meet different people, some inspire you, and some have more experience. I try to absorb as much as I can on how they deal with different issues: the way they manage a conflict between two colleagues, or how they listen to their team. I do not follow one model.”

A unique angle of this issue is the new concept of reverse mentoring. Humanitarians who have been in the business a long time can have a narrowly defined skill-base and be ignorant of emerging humanitarian trends. Often it is younger colleagues who are most savvy in the newly emerging skill areas (e.g. social media in times of emergency). One respondent advised: “If older humanitarians wish to stay relevant and keep with the pulse of the 21st century needs, I suggest they ask to be reversementored by a younger colleague.”

Acting in the face of risk

Risk aversion and fear are widespread in humanitarian crises, as mistakes are often publicised and punished more than successes are rewarded.

‘No ‘I’ in Team’– Trusting in others

Many humanitarians do not delegate due to lack of trust and perceived consequences of poor actions, or the fear of losing their jobs by giving away their ‘technical expertise’. Encouraging others to act and take risks on your behalf is extremely difficult. However, it should be considered imperative for leaders in humanitarian organisations as this gives people confidence and demonstrates trust, which creates an even higher demand for people to act responsibly.

‘Living on the Edge’– Decision making: risk taking and intuition

In high-risk environments where there are more questions than answers, intuition plays a major role in humanitarian decision-making. “Your intuition tells you what is around the corner and how to take action with a number of unknowns.” However, decisions should always utilise as much fact as possible and “common sense based on an understanding of the politics of where you are. Without that, you’re floundering around in the dark.”

‘Rules were meant to be broken’– Organisational rules vs. humanitarian imperative

Organisational rules set a general framework for action and decrease the risk of negligence and failure. But rules are sometimes too detached from the reality on the ground, and in emergency situations, when lives are at stake and the window for action is narrow, you sometimes have to break the rules to do what makes the most sense. “We are living by the rule of humanitarian imperative, which might be in conflict with agency regulations.”

Competent humanitarians need to have the personal strength to take critical initiatives both with creativity and speed. “In real emergency situations you have to balance getting the job done, ethics, transparency, and are you going to live with this the next day.”

‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’ – personal values in testing environments

“When you are first starting off it’s all about ideals, humanitarianism and doing the right thing. With time, those ideals don’t hold up. You have to find your own way of reconciling these really big disparities. There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy that has to be reconciled.”

Historical and social factors make each country different, and institutional structures, ethnic and religious rivalries can all test personal values. Corruption, for example, may not be seen as much of a problem in some societies, and bribery can be socially acceptable as a means of getting things done quickly. It is very easy to empathise with the communities one works with or with a government official, particularly when it gives access to key decision makers and project benefits are immediate.

In these situations, humanitarians must stick to the ‘limits’ of their personal values. “A tough situation was witnessing a culture of corruption for one of the organisations I worked in. I was instructed to utilise stolen equipment, even after I pointed out to them that it was stolen.” One interviewee felt that, “a morally ‘purist’ approach may not always be possible” while another felt you should “never break personal principles; you have to weigh whether the conflict breaks personal principles or if it is just an approach that can be resolved by swallowing some pride and compromising.”

While values are context-bound and vary across cultures and individuals, there are limits in all cultures. Humanitarians should not support cultural norms that undercut the longterm stability and development a society hopes to achieve. “Humanitarians need to understand that an emergency is a rupture in the normal development of a country – and the job is to help it resume that development as soon as possible – so we have to understand long-term development and cultural contexts as well as short-term emergency efficiency contexts.”

Sustaining energy

‘What’s in there, you ask? Only what you take with you’ – Emergency response is not for everyone

“While the mind can be very powerful, it can very easily break (or burn-out) in high-pressure situations. We owe it to ourselves to not walk blind into a wall of fire.” Being aware of your strengths and weaknesses helps you cope with the challenges of the job and avoid situations you cannot handle. “You need to understand who you are before you can throw yourself into this type of work. Nobody is effective on the ground if they collapse when personal problems surface due to extreme psychological stress.” For some humanitarians, the pressures induced by working in conflict and emergency environments are used as a driving force. “The pressure itself helps me. You see results faster, it makes you motivated, it helps you pull through and you have a goal to achieve. There is an adaptation to work under adrenaline. But you need to like pressure … if you don’t, you’re not cut out for humanitarian work.”

‘You are what you eat’ – Preparation before entering the field

Many respondents stressed the interdependence and importance of both physical and mental preparation. “Psychologically preparing yourself for the length of your assignment is critical. “I was in Darfur as an emergency coordinator for a few months, which was fine, because I knew it was a few months. It’s psychologically important to know duration, because if you’re in an intense location and don’t know how long you’ll be there, it’s draining.”

‘Lean on me’ – Relying on colleagues to monitor stress

Staff burnouts harm humanitarian relief operations because an individual’s quality of work can deteriorate to the point that there is a gap in operational capacity and a replacement is needed. Due to the lack of training and preparation, most humanitarians develop their own ad-hoc strategies to maintain themselves in crisis situations.

Relying on and communicating with colleagues working under the same external pressures is fundamental in identifying your own levels of stress and coping with the pressures. “Make sure everyone on your team is doing OK … make a pact with a friend who would tell you if you are near to burnout.” Beyond symptoms of extreme stress, respondents identified indicators to know when colleagues are nearing a burnout point. “Reaching the edge, humanitarians often resort to over use of alcohol as a negative means to deal with stress, and people tend to become extremely ironical and sarcastic.”

‘Leave the ball on the field’ – The importance of disconnecting from work

“People who have burnouts don’t detach themselves from a cause and don’t move on.” It is important for humanitarians to be efficient while at work, but to limit themselves, and once they leave, try to switch off from their job.” While working in an emergency context, “You need to relax, know yourself, have something to do after work, have a comfortable place to stay.” Being able to find some peace after a hard day is easier said that done, but if you can empty your mind by doing something that has nothing to do with work, it helps to get the stress out of your system. This is particularly difficult for humanitarians, because shutting one’s mind to suffering is not easy. Mechanisms are diverse, and range from meditation, exercise, to reading a novel.

‘The horror’– Dealing with trauma, one way or another

The period following a difficult mission is just as significant as preparation in avoiding burnouts. One organisation had psychologists who do systematic debriefs of staff who are departing psychologically damaging work situations, but this support is not always effective for everyone, and informal channels need to be explored. Talking with colleagues, friends and family can help to express the traumas experienced.


Somewhere within this physically and psychologically demanding and politically complex environment is where humanitarians find themselves working and living day-by-day. As there are very limited training mechanisms, each humanitarian is often making their own way through the field, learning from their own mistakes and successes. Humanitarians have devised innovative (and sometimes unusual) practices to overcome the old and modern challenges of working in the humanitarian field.

  1. Maintaining meaning in work and life in order to sustain personal effectiveness and satisfaction.
  2. To convert stress into opportunity, positive framing was seen to project confidence and tranquillity on the team and encourage outsidethe- box solutions.
  3. Leveraging connections included developing informal community and interorganisational connections to maintain realtime updates in emergencies, and an ad-hoc system of mentoring as a source of information and inspiration.
  4. Learning to act in the face of risk is achieved through having a thorough understanding of the local context to limit failure, knowing how to work around organisational rules, and understanding the limits of personal values.
  5. Sustaining energy is the most difficult aspect to control in emergency situations. It is a factor of personal character and self-awareness, physical and psychological preparation, relying on colleagues to monitor stress, disconnecting from work, and effectively dealing with trauma when it occurs.

Through this study, we have seen that a humanitarian’s unique, individual practices can be combined to fit together within a larger framework maximising work effectiveness and personal satisfaction. Each humanitarian finds their own way to cope with the challenges they encounter, and keeping the balance is key.

For more information, contact: Deborah Nguyen, email:

Show footnotes

1Development in Practice, Vol. 22 Issue 2.

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Reference this page

Jared Katz, Deborah Nguyen, Carla Lacerda and Gerald Daly (). Voices from the field: Optimising performance for humanitarian workers. Field Exchange 42, January 2012. p13.



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