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Managing Crises

We often hear that a leader’s job in a crisis is to keep the environment calm enough so that people can get their work done. Followers also have this responsibility—to be productive and supportive while a path is charted through the crisis. Often, events unfold too rapidly for a leader and followers to fully consult with each other before acting. Trust and morale can be strengthened or shattered depending on responses made in these trying conditions.

Crisis preparation is a key tool in crisis management. For example, we can determine likely scenarios in which the leader or followers may need to make important decisions. Then we can develop and record guidelines for emergency responses which adhere to our values. In addition, in an acute crisis, we must be prepared to give the leader or acting leader complete support. In a rapidly unfolding situation, we may need to suspend our responsibility to fully understand what we are being asked to do before we act. This itself is an act of courage.

If normal decision-support processes are suspended, it is important that the group reassert these at the earliest possible moment. We must be careful the curtailed consultation demanded by an emergency response doesn’t become a new norm due to recurring crises. Recurring crises are a glaring sign of poor management, which must be analyzed and remedied.

There is a distinction between recurring crises and a prolonged crisis. A prolonged crisis, such as one stemming from a faulty product and the years of litigation and adverse publicity it generates, may reflect a specific management error that has long since been corrected. Nevertheless, the duration of the fallout from the error may erode the leader’s and group’s morale through constant buffeting. The instinct for self-preservation may well up and threaten to pull apart the organization. If stress has attenuated the leader’s capacity for facing the public and rallying the organization, we may have to compensate for the leader.

Our actions to support the leader and hold the organization together should include:

reaffirming the group’s sense of purpose as a context in which to absorb the crisis;

unburdening the leader of usual or extra duties if the emotional stress of the crisis is threatening the leader’s ability to function;

keeping the group fully and honestly briefed on actual and anticipated developments to reduce rumors and shocks;

isolating the contact points in the organization to those designated and trained to specifically deal with the crisis, so the rest can get their work done;

using the crisis to spur self-examination by the organization so that reforms to address underlying causes can be initiated;

helping the group, after the acute phase of the crisis has passed, to process any trauma.

If we assumed leadership prerogatives during a crisis we should be attentive to relinquishing them when the crisis is over unless our formal authority has been expanded. Failure to do this can generate confusion and mistrust. An organization that manages a crisis well strengthens the bonds between leaders and followers. An organization that doesn’t may simply form painful scar tissue.