Leading Inspiration: Q & A About Crisis Management

Q: I have seen a variety of leadership styles displayed this past month related to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. What tips might you have for leaders dealing with a crisis?

A: Thank you for a very timely question. Here are a few thoughts from Dr. Robert D. Cohen, Maverick, LLC, Behavioral Integration Management director. Maverick, LLC, is a global business consulting firm (www.maverickllc. com).

Whether it’s a natural disaster like a hurricane or flood, an accident, death, product failure, internal fraud, sabotage or executive misconduct, planning and preparation can help you recover quickly, and may just mean the difference between the survival or demise of your business. One key to surviving a crisis is displaying strong leadership. In times of uncertainty, your employees will take their lead from you. And, if mishandled, the aftershocks of a crisis can last for years.

Unfortunately, people in leadership positions think they need to delay or spin the facts – usually in an effort to avoid blame – even when there is no fault. Despite all the evidence, some bosses still don’t get it; you need to communicate what you know, when you learned it, how you learned it, and what you’re going to do to fix it as quickly as possible. Tell the truth and don’t spin it. The facts are bound to come out eventually and people have long memories when it comes to such things.


Crisis Leadership From the Top

During a crisis, people tend to be confused, anxious and highly suggestible. Good leadership and clear communication can help people cope. It’s important to direct people – staff, customers, vendors, community members or anyone else affected by the crisis – to provide guidance on how they should conduct themselves. It’s important to inform them about what you know and what you don’t yet know. But people in crisis need more than just information; they also need “emotional leadership.” Rationality doesn’t convince people; emotional resonance does. Great leaders move us, and that requires a relationship between leader and audience.

So, what would a great leader do in a crisis beyond giving information and direction? He or she would help manage our expectations, touch us and inspire us. As a leader, you can help people in crisis manage their expectations by conveying that, as much as possible, the very best is being done. Messages such as this can help people maintain perspective and tolerate uncertainty longer.

Competent emotional leadership also speaks to and about shared values – those things that bind us as a company or as a community. When we remind people what we are about, we inspire them to function at their best. And to do this, you need to be visible. You must have the courage to share your reactions with the people around you, so people know you care about them, and they feel an emotional bond.

Your company will probably never have a crisis as severe as what happened in New York on September 11, 2001. But New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, is almost universally admired for his handling of that crisis. Even under that extreme duress, he was able to exemplify those qualities that help people cope better during times of crisis. He stayed calm, but not dispassionate or disinterested. He stayed visible and was as close to the scene of the tragedy as he could be. He communicated what he knew to be accurate information as soon as he knew it. And he made sure that there was a steady stream of communications from his chiefs of fire and police. He gave the people of New York and the people of the entire country the sense that as dreadful as this event was, their leadership was functional, in control, and dealt with events as they unfolded.

Effective crisis leadership requires the same level of planning and commitment that it takes to run the rest of your business. Whether it’s disaster planning or acquisitions strategy, product development, human resources or marketing, you need to create a playbook (with expert outside advice, if necessary), practice it, determine who will speak for the company and be prepared for the worst.


Traumatic Incident Stress

The effects that a traumatic event can have on employees are the most difficult to ameliorate. Data can be restored, computers rebooted, equipment replaced, roofs and walls rebuilt – but your people can’t recover unless they feel safe. Many will experience emotional, cognitive, behavioral and even spiritual reactions in response to the stress of critical incidents.

Your first step is to understand that reactions to a critical incident may not always be universal. Several people may witness the same tragic event and have different reactions based on a number of factors, including past exposures to trauma, coping skills, support systems and preexisting beliefs.

Most people exposed to a traumatic event will experience some symptoms for a short period of time, usually days or weeks. Professional traumatologists explain this reaction as “a normal reaction to abnormal events.” This simple phrase normalizes predictable reactions and restores a sense of community among the witnesses of trauma. In other words, people see their own reactions play out in others and realize they’re not alone or losing their minds.

No one looks forward to preparing for a crisis, but the fact remains that disaster preparedness is critically important for every business. Every organization needs to prepare for traumatic events by preplanning, training and securing the appropriate resources in advance. That way, if and when disaster does strike, you’ll be ready to respond quickly and decisively to help your people – and your business – move forward.

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