Coping with a Crisis

A crisis is the perfect test for a leader. Strong leaders will face a crisis head on. Weak leaders will ignore the crisis until it is too late, or start pointing fingers at others. A good leader knows how to handle a crisis. In this article, I’ll share a three step recipe for handling a crisis.

But first, a story…

During my time at University, I spent some time in up-state New York on an exchange program. It happened that this was during September, 2001. At that time, AOL and Yahoo messenger were the communication medium of choice. I was online in the student lab before class, chatting to some friends back in Australia. They asked if I’d seen the news…. a plane had just crashed into one of the famous Twin Towers. 😱

I couldn’t believe it, but a bit of news searching uncovered the same stories. I was stunned. 🥺 Many of us still went to our first class because we didn’t know what else to do. Students created a background noise with their murmuring. This chatter annoyed the lecturer, who demanded everyone focus on the lesson. Although well meaning, he missed the signs of a major crisis. Students paid attention for about 5 seconds before returning to their chatter. He probably continued feeling annoyed by his students’ reactions.

It took another student to change this, who knocked on the door and entered. They delivered a statement from the University announcing all classes cancelled. The University confirmed the events of 9/11 and wanted to give space for students to deal with the news. The lecturer couldn’t ignore the issue any longer.

– Pat Kua’s first-hand experience during 9/11

The Crises You’ll Face (Eventually)

If you’re in a leadership role for some time, it’s not a question of *if* you’ll face a crisis. It’s more of a question of *when* and *what*. Here are some examples of crises you may face:

  • Your company not doing well financially, and that means you’ll have to reduce roles and jobs;
  • A black-swan event such as a volcano erupting (e.g. Eyjafjallajökull from 2010) that disrupts travel plans, 9/11, or some sort of pandemic);
  • A key staff member quitting;
  • A controversial event about your company that blows up in the media; and
  • A major service outage affecting many customers

Your role as a leader is to manage the situation, prevent panic and create clarity.

How Not to Handle a Crisis

If you’re looking to develop your leadership skills, a crisis is a great time to observe leaders in action. Based on my own experiences, here are some poor behaviours you want to avoid:

  • Carrying on as if nothing was wrong – Leaders struggle with information overload everyday. Good leaders look for trends in data they receive. Bad leaders continue to work ignoring the mounting set of evidence.
  • Starting panic – We’re all human and we all react differently to bad news. A crisis is very bad news indeed. A good leader acknowledges their own emotional response. They can often name their emotion (e.g. anger, panic, stressed). A good leader focuses on preventing this response clouding their judgement or thinking. Bad leaders add fuel to the fire by spreading their emotional responses unconsciously. They talk about unconfirmed facts, worse case scenarios and trigger panic and stress. Avoid this!
  • Pointing fingers 👉 – Good leaders know that a crisis is often uncontrollable or unpredictable. Often, it’s a small set of factors, amplifying and interacting with each other that results in a crisis. Good leaders know that there is rarely a single person or reason why the crisis exists. Human mistakes occur and are natural. Bad leaders start looking for someone to blame. They start the hunt for the “perpetrator.” Bad leaders destroy psychological safety (the building block of high-performing teams). Focus on building safety, not fear.
  • Overreacting – A crisis requires quick thinking and demands action. Good leaders know action should happen quickly, but only based on facts. They balance taking action with potential consequences of that action. This is particularly important if an action might amplify the crisis. Bad leaders rely too much on their “gut feel.” Under too much stress (e.g. a crisis), people don’t think clearly. It makes sense to double check facts and consider options to pursue. Be quick, but don’t hurry.

How to EAT in a Crisis (the 3-Step Recipe)

Here are 3 easy steps for dealing with a crisis:

Empathise – During a crisis, people will feel stressed. They will be emotional. They will be uncertain. Many will worry about what it means for them, for their job, and more. A good first step for dealing with a crisis is to recognise and show empathy for how people are feeling. Not sure how people are feeling? Ask them. Use 1-1s, email or messages in group chats to sense what the general mood is. Make sure you explicitly acknowledge how people are feeling by giving these a name.

Acknowledge – The first step with dealing with a the panic people feel is to share facts. Focus on facts rather than opinions because everyone has an opinion during a crisis. They’re also often very wrong. Too many opinions conflict with each other as people pretend they are an expert. Focus on gathering facts from the source and acknowledge the source. If it’s an external event, look for an official research or scientific body. Be wary of newspapers or media, who often amplify “newsworthy” titles. Many do not fact-check. For internal events (like an incident), redirect people to dashboards or metrics that stay neutral. Be careful not to let your opinion or perspective influence this.

Take Action – During a crisis, everyone asks the same questions: What happens next? What does this mean? What does this mean *for me*? Your role as a leader is to build a clear action plan to establish some certainty. Build a credible plan with input from others (don’t do it in isolation). Communicate the plan in simple, easy to understand language. More importantly, show visible progress on the plan.

Every Crisis is Different, but the Same

You can’t predict *when* a crisis will hit, or how a specific person will react to it. But take comfort knowing that humans react to the crisis in many common ways. Notice these patterns of behaviours as a macro level. Address these with the 3-step recipe to EAT -Empathise, Acknowledge, Take Action.

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