Managing in a Crisis

From private to public to non-profit organizations, many of us often find ourselves either tasked with or forced to take the lead in emergency preparedness efforts for our institutions. Given this task is generally beyond the scope of our, already lengthy, list of responsibilities we often have little time, support, experience, or even interest in prioritizing a task with an undetermined deadline and uncertain nature.


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When we think of emergency preparedness, we think policy and plans, roles and responsibilities assigned, and call out lists designed. Although these measures are fundamental, even the best laid plans will fail in a crisis without the people to back them. As such, preparedness is also about developing a culture of buy-in. Those who are delegated to lead in times of crisis must champion developing this culture. Much like the mood of a leader can either alarm or calm their staff during a crisis, a motivated leader before a crisis can help trickle emergency preparedness from the heads to the hearts of the organization. As Sheffield states explains, people are motivated by responsibility, accountability and peer pressure. And driving that motivation lies the question “Who Depends on You?” Whether it is your staff, your colleagues or your friends and family, the reality is when a crisis hits people will look to you for guidance and the way you respond can drastically affect how well or poorly a response will go.


Although we cannot predict when and how an event will happen, one thing that is certain is that things WILL fail. Whether a staff member making a mistake, a technology malfunction, or a natural event, we will face abnormal situations that can deviate or halt normal operations and shift us into a entirely different state of operations. It is important, therefore, that we a) don’t fail to plan but also b) we plan to fail. Instead of preventing the things we cannot control, why not prepare for that which we can… we can control how we respond and manage failure.


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So what is failure? We often think… disasters.. emergencies.. but failure can also be linked to the unexpected i.e. the little crises that individuals and organizations face on daily to weekly basis. These events, as well, require operations to shift outside of normal procedures, require timely response and in many cases additional resources. If we shift our thinking from planning for the unknown events of tomorrow, to the unexpected events of today, emergency preparedness efforts become much more valuable to day-to-day operations. Adopting this approach also helps to build a culture that is more change ready, and thus more capable to adapt to larger scale events.


In their book Managing the Unexpected, Weick & Sutcliffe (2011) explore High Reliability Organizations (HROs) i.e organizations that exhibit “high performance in settings for error and disaster is overwhelming” (pIX). Examples include air craft carriers, hostage negotiation teams, or nuclear power plants. Specifically they explore and identify factors that allow them to minimize their likelihood to experience crisis, and function through crisis.

At the core, they suggest that HROs exhibit mindfulness. Much like individuals are encouraged to adopt mindful practices to manage crisis, they explain that organizations can also benefit from similar practices. And that doing so can be broken down into five principles that apply before and after a crisis: anticipation and containment. Anticipation aims to prevent unwanted outcomes before an event, and containment is focused on after the event.

1. Preoccupation with Failure — as mentioned earlier, HROs acknowledge failure as the inevitable. They reward those that report on failure. They emphasize what went wrong, not who went wrong. They are concerned with early detection — the earlier something is detected, the more options in being able to manage it. To do so, they avoid silos. They acknowledge that ongoing success leads to complacency… and encourage focusing on failures instead of successes to maintain a state of readiness.

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2. Reluctance to Simplify – although a gasoline can may be labelled empty, many of us would not light a cigarette near one. Categorization systems, although helpful, can limit the ability to detect signs of a growing crisis. They omit qualitative information, and narrow the scope of detection. Categorization systems can be useful with a) more detail i.e. more sub-categories, but b) a cultural awareness that we only test what we can test, and that failure can occur outside of test conditions.

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3. Sensitivity to Operations – Communication and meetings are frequent between committee members — all members are constantly in the loop. A close call is not deemed as a success but as a failure. They distinguish between mindless routine and mindful routine. Qualitative and quantitative forms of monitoring the organization is encouraged.

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4. Commitment to Resilience – Unlike anticipation which encourages thinking then acting, resilience is about acting while thinking. Resilience is about a) being able to absorb, b) respond to and c) learn from an event. Staff are well trained and practiced or familiar with a variety of response repertoires. Learning occurs without knowing what will be learned, in real-time. The organization plans for what it “springs back to” after a crisis i.e. what is the new normal.

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5. Deferral to Expertise — during a crisis, decision making should migrate up and down the organizational hierarchy not based on power or position held, but on expertise i.e. from those who truly understand the nature of the crisis. The hierarchy of knowledge does not equal the hierarchy of power in an emergency. This implies decision making should rely on those one the ground.. on the factory floor.. those that truly understand the nature of the operations. During this time, CEOs and management need to be available and supportive to facilitate these decisions.

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In a crisis, it’s inevitable that either you or your staff will be psychologically affected. And in many cases, the psychological impacts last longer than the physical recovery of operations. As a leader, it is important to stay calm during a crisis response – acting calm will exhibit that the situation is under control and also help your staff also stay calm. Also, watch for indicators that your staff might be affected. Indicators may include:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Confusion
  • Guilt
  • Pre-occupation
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks
  • Sleep Disturbance
  • Anger
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Pessimism…

To maintain a healthy mental culture during a crisis, follow the ABCs for protection for yourself and others:

Awareness: Is it happening to you?
Balance: Balance energy between work and play
Connect: Stay connected to self and others

Other tactics to help others include:

Be Present – your role is not to take the pain away
Listen – acknowledge loss before attempting to address the present day
Normalize – It’s normal to be feeling anything but normal
Organize – focus on small next steps
Coping – assess how the person is coping  Resources
Beware of Cliches – e.g. “There is always a silver lining”

To learn more about how to manage a crisis, I’ve included some resources below:

Managing the Unexpted – Weick and Sutcliffe
Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
The Unthinkable: Why Survives When Disaster Strikes

Emergency Management Magazine

Intentions to Action: Tips for Creating a Culture of Preparedness
The People Side of Disaster Recovery – 10 Things Managers Should Do
Forget Sustainability, it’s about Resilience – Andrew Zolli

Academic Articles:

A Primer for Resiliency: Seven Principles for Managing the Unexpected

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