Crisis Management: The Essential Must-Do’s

Sooner or later, and whether we like it or not, every business, organization, or team will encounter some type of crisis or unexpected emergency. Most leaders in fast-moving organizations encounter a crisis of some magnitude nearly every week and in some cases, they seem to occur on a daily basis. While these situations bear no resemblance to the severity of a global pandemic, major earthquake, or tsunami, they can still wreak havoc on a business and create anxiety and stress among team members. For the past 40 years, CMOE has been at the forefront of leadership development by guiding individual managers and teams of all types and sizes through how to be more proactive and strategic in the way they operate. We consistently counsel leaders that the best way to manage a crisis is to anticipate and prepare for it in advance. Generally speaking, when people do some proactive thinking and look ahead, they will be better prepared for any unwelcome events they encounter.

But, even with the best scenario thinking and preparation, some events will be so difficult to anticipate that they will take just about everyone by surprise.

Effective leaders understand that managing crises is nothing new. Crisis situations have been around since the dawn of civilization and will continue to be part of the business landscape in the future. Even though chaos can be complex and disruptive and create anxiety in the organization, great leaders rise to the occasion. Less-effective leaders go into panic mode, think irrationally, and tend to make poor decisions.

So, what do you do when fast and furious events arise? Regardless of the size or timing of any crisis or emergency, there are a few essential steps you can take to help contain the crisis and mitigate the harm it may cause you and your organization. The following is a practical and systematic framework that will guide you through uncharted waters.

Must-Do #1:
Master your Mind

The first thing you must do when faced with a crisis is maintain your composure. Leaders need to practice some measure of self-discipline to avoid being paralyzed. In a crisis, your mind needs a chance to process what is happening in order to take control of the situation. If you don’t deliberately take a pause, it will be more difficult to see the situation clearly through the tumult. This can make it virtually impossible to gain the upper hand. When it feels like the sky is falling, stop, take a breath, and try to think about the situation rationally. Being asked to pause and deliberately think about your response may seem counterintuitive. Your basest instinct tells you to freeze, panic, and then start moving in multiple directions, so we know how difficult this can be.

Manage emotions

Mustering some control over your mind in this situation calls for inner dialogue. Your self-coaching might sound like, “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened,”  “You can do this,” “You will survive this,” or “Slow down and clearly assess the situation.” The key is to find your rational voice amid the chaos.

When you are in uncharted waters, another strategy for mastering your mind is to reach out to someone you trust, who you’ve worked with before, and who isn’t caught up in the crisis. They will be able to provide some objective guidance and help you look at the situation from a different perspective.

These are just a few of the mental or physical rituals that will buy you some precious time and enable you to master your mind and formulate a thoughtful response.

Must-Do #2:
Understand the Moment

The next “must-do” is to define the crisis. In other words, formulate a brief and simple statement or description of the crisis you’re facing. Use a simple problem statement that includes the following:

  • Who is involved?
  • What is affected?
  • Where is it happening?
  • When did you first become aware of it?

Be clear about what the situation is and what it is not. For example, when you say there is a “power outage at the plant,” do you mean the whole plant or just in the production area, shipping area, or office?

We have found that when you describe an emergency or crisis using relevant details, it helps you keep the situation in perspective. Many times, a crisis gets exaggerated in the early stages. We are not suggesting that you minimize your current predicament, but you do want a realistic and accurate description of what has occurred or is occurring. Don’t get wrapped up with an in-depth diagnostic investigation or analysis at this stage. You are simply drawing a picture of the parameters or boundaries of your plight and trying to better understand the impact of this unfortunate turn of events. Above all, do not point fingers or assign blame. This will be of little help in your triage efforts. When you rationally describe the situation, it can be amazingly therapeutic for your mind. Be patient. At first, it may seem nearly impossible to define the structure, form, or appearance of the crisis. But as you paint a picture and convey your understanding of the situation, you will be in a better position to seek support from others and identify a plan of action.

Must-Do #3:
Set True Priorities

Focused efficiency is critical in a time of crisis, so leaders need to prioritize the competing issues and challenges they are facing. Leaders who successfully persist through chaos and challenges understand that not all crises are equal in breadth or scope, and it is very common to face multiple crises simultaneously. Calculating the priorities and determining what is truly important, time-sensitive, and changing in scale and scope requires a quiet mind. Step 3 is more than a simple, high-level definition or description; it requires you to gather some objective information and facts regarding three dimensions of the crisis:  seriousness, urgency, and growth.

In order to begin recovering from a crisis, you first need to objectively understand the seriousness of the event. This means evaluating the potential impact, magnitude, or gravity of the situation you are facing. Ask yourself if the apparent crisis is mission critical (an existential threat) or something that is less critical. A mission-critical crisis is a different situation than something like a routine customer complaint over a minor defect. Keep in mind that many people want their crisis to be your crisis. You have to be able to discern when to move into crisis mode yourself and when to be reasonably responsive and willing to support others in the enterprise as they work through their own crises.

After you size up the seriousness of the issue, you need to calculate the urgency. This simply means evaluating how fast things are moving and how much time you have to stem the flow and cut your losses. You need to know if you are facing a fast-moving wildfire or a slow, containable burn. A big, fast-moving fire will require a faster and more complete response than a slower-moving challenge that is bearing down on you.

Finally, take a look at the growth trend or the expansion of the crisis. You can do this by assessing if the crisis will trigger secondary problems or be containable and unlikely to escalate or expand. If the crisis is not escalating or the trend line is flat or declining, you have some time and space to formulate a solution.

Must-Do #4:
Identify Options

After you understand the priority of the dilemma, you are in a position to formulate your options, the choices you have at your disposal and the outcomes you desire in terms of combating the crisis. If you can define the desired outcomes, you can narrow the options down to a few choices about how to respond. This allows you to settle in and focus on the details so you can successfully launch your strategy.

Many doors

We like to say “you can’t be all things to all people,” so you need to be wise about the direction you choose to move in and the strategy you choose to pursue. Recognize that you are not working at a tactical level yet. That comes next. First, you need to get creative and consider the pros and cons of the various choices in front of you. Going back to the metaphor of fighting a fire, you’ll need to ask yourself if it is better to attack it from the ground or the air.

In some cases, you might even have the capability to do both. But if you are in a mountainous region, fighting the fire from the air may be your only option. If there is heavy rain moving in, it may be best to simply stand down and reevaluate the situation later. Good crisis managers understand that it may come down to choosing between two undesirable options, but making the best decision under the circumstances.

When faced with two undesirable options, crisis managers pick the best of the two.

Must-Do #5:
Formulate a Plan

Planning

Now that you have cleared your mind, looked at the situation objectively, and identified your options, you can quickly create a plan of action. In a crisis, there is no time to make perfect plans. In fact, you may only have time to stop the hemorrhaging and implement a stop-gap, interim plan.

An interim plan is a temporary fix. It will buy you more time to create a longer-term, corrective solution to stabilize the situation, prevent a future crisis, or put contingency actions together to help reduce the impact of disasters down the line.

In this step, you allocate and deploy resources, produce a plan, define roles, and prioritize your actions to match the priority or scale of the problems you are solving. The key is figuring out the most important things you can do that will produce the greatest benefit in the time you have.

Must-Do #6:
Mobilize and Attack

Firefighters

Once you have a plan in place, it is time to get some traction and build momentum for attacking the crisis. Make sure you have a few simple indicators in place so you can discern what is working and what isn’t. Concentrate and focus your time, energy, and resources on the most-important actions and the things that will relieve the immediate pressure and stress on your organization and team.

When you are moving fast, you can expect that there will be some early bungling, confusion, overlaps, and redundancies. Don’t get sidetracked by these secondary problems; stay focused on the big issue. If you overshoot or have some waste, recognize that it goes along with being in crisis-management mode.

As you mobilize your response, be sure to reinforce and rally your team with positive feedback when real progress is being made. Celebrate any breakthroughs and maintain hope. Others will be following your lead. At the same time, you must be transparent and share all the facts when the news isn’t good.

Celebrate breakthroughs and maintain hope. Others will be following your lead.

Must-Do #7:
Manage the Message

Managing the message is a critical part of crisis management and can’t be overlooked. As you begin your assault on the crisis, keep in mind that rumors and misinformation spread fast. You need to create a simple communication structure that defines what information will be reported to immediate leaders and by whom. Likewise, you’ll need to decide what gets shared with your peers, colleagues, other teams, or stakeholders in the organization. It is essential to determine how much information to share with people on the front lines and which methods you will use. Finally, decide how you will frame your communication, what relevant information to share, and when to share it with external stakeholders. If you don’t stay on top of the communication, people will always assume the worst. Be willing to confront harsh realities and avoid minimizing the difficulties you are facing. Assessing the needs of your audience will guide you as you paint an accurate picture for them. And don’t forget that frequent repetition is part of the process, so be prepared to say it multiple times in multiple ways.

Each crisis is different and will require a creative response. You can easily overdo any of the “must-do” actions. Try to keep your response focused, simple, and efficient without leaving our important details. Good crisis managers tend to be eternal optimists (with a plan), but be careful that your optimism doesn’t cause you to seemingly lose touch with reality. Being optimistic without cause will damage your credibility, even among your supporters.

Leaders take the high road and hope for the best but are fully prepared for difficult moments. Ultimately, each leader has to take charge of their frame of mind and have an inner dialogue so they can confront the unknowns associated with each crisis. Find your allies and partners and maintain an emotional connection with people who will fuel your resiliency.

Exceptional leaders expect the unexpected. They know that chaos can range from something fairly trivial to something of epic proportions. Managing upsets and letdowns are just part of a leader’s job. Great leaders are survivors. They may not know when the next challenge will come, but they instinctively know they will face a storm—and that the storm will pass. These leaders take action and don’t allow themselves to feel victimized by situations beyond their control. Good leaders watch for people who may be reaching their breaking point and provide some measure of relief and reassurance. Survivors maintain a measure of optimism. They know there are some things they simply cannot change, but they never stop trying to make an impact or building confidence and capacity in others to respond to crises and regain some level of normalcy.

About the Authors

Steven Stowell, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth. Steve began his career working in the energy industry. During the past 30 years, Steve has consulted with both small and large corporations, government agencies, school systems, and non-profit organizations in 35 different countries. Steve enjoys the challenges of • Helping functional organizations define, create, and execute strategy in order to differentiate the business. • Developing and designing creative and innovative learning experiences, simulations, and keynote presentations. • Helping functions across the organization be more effective and aligned in executing long-term plans. The centerpiece of Steve’s consulting, learning, and executive coaching work is his advocacy of applied research and data collection. Steve is a highly effective presenter and facilitator and enjoys creating customized solutions, assisting senior teams, defining strategic direction from the individual level to the corporate and business-unit level, and improving teams that are faced with important challenges and issues.

Chris Stowell

Christopher Stowell is currently serving as CMOE’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing where he work with multi-national organization to develop their people. His special interests lie in coaching teamwork, strategy, e-learning, and assessment design, and delivery. Chris has a special talent in helping companies assess their organizational effectiveness and identifying key issues and opportunities in order to advance their performance and achieve long term results. Additionally, he has extensive experience in designing, coordinating, and facilitating customized adventure based experiential training events for high performance teams.

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