Home Leadership Enduring Lessons for Leaders Navigating Crisis Situations

Enduring Lessons for Leaders Navigating Crisis Situations

by Guest Writter
Bill Tibbo, Author, Leadership in the Eye of the Storm

As a leader, no matter your business sector, product, or service, you are faced with playing a major role in helping your people heal after a critical event. While healing is a complex process, you don’t have to be a counselor or therapist to put the right structures in place. You will definitely be engaged in returning your employees and your business to a functional state after a crisis, but your expertise need only be in people-focused crisis leadership, which is, at heart, a form of organizational healing. The following lessons are enduring: there are basic approaches you need to follow before, during, and after any organizational crisis.

Lesson #1: A Crisis Causes Intense and Lasting Emotion

I define a crisis as a complex and unexpected event that creates instability, damage, threat, or risk to the company and its people. The effect of a crisis is always measured in human terms. As a crisis leader, keep in mind that this kind of event will cause significant emotion that shapes everything that happens afterwards. These emotions extend across a broad range and include fear, uncertainty, grief, guilt, shock, confusion, and a deep sense of loss. People will be thrown out of their equilibrium and looking for answers. Whatever losses there are, whether the situation was directly connected to people or not, they will feel them deeply and personally. On top of that, your employees will be faced with the reality that things can never be the same again.

Lesson #2: Recovery Takes Time, Happens in Stages, and Is Non-linear

There are many famous models of coping with grief and loss that emphasize stages, but you don’t need those specific details. Hold on to the idea that no matter how calm or together someone appears, that person is going through a process that takes time. Different people will achieve different levels of operational effectiveness at different times, while all proceed through a personal coping process. The process will unfold in its own way, and will not fit into a neat and tidy agenda. Even when someone seems to be doing well, there can be unexpected setbacks or regressions. There can also be sudden moments of joy and surges of output. Unanticipated moments of insight and confidence will erupt within a general confusion, and then recede. Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line. It isn’t simple. Having fixed ideas about who should recover their composure, how much, and by when will lead to conflict with your team.

Lesson #3: People Need Control over Their Own Coping

No one expects a patient in counseling to be told what to think or how to feel. There will be support, influence, and suggestions, but not direction and orders. That’s because people’s internal emotional reality is of their own making, and only they can shape it and respond to what is happening around them. It’s the same for your employees. Accept that you are in a supporting role. You can order the number of widgets that come out of the machine, but you can’t dictate how people feel. You are on the sidelines of their healing and need to turn the reins of the process over to them. This doesn’t mean putting your employees in charge of the organization – far from it. The leadership team is needed now more than ever. It just means giving employees a degree of autonomy and control over anything that connects to their process of returning to work and regaining health.

Lesson #4: Healing Is a Social Process

Togetherness is a defining feature of healing. It is a social process that mostly happens in groups of different sizes and rarely in isolation. This is why support groups are such a staple in our world. Your employees’ emotional connections to their families, to each other, and to you as their leader are the foundation of their recovery. These relationships need to be fostered and developed through live, in-person interactions where people can connect to each other: meetings in coffee shops, hotel bars, living rooms, and conference centers – anywhere people can sit and talk. More than anything else, do all you can to be yourself, open and authentic, because every employee’s sense of connection to you matters enormously.

Lesson #5: Coping Occurs in Language

Unless we can put our experiences into words, we do not have full access to them. Not everyone processes emotion out loud in the same way, but all of us need some form of interaction in language beyond the typical conversations and stories that happen in daily life in order to do so. Whether focused on the minute details of the event or on the significant emotions in play, people need to talk. The leadership can help by creating times and places for dialogue about a wide range of topics connected to the event and individual experiences of it. Your role in providing people with quality information and communicating frequently on behalf of the organization is critical. The content you offer helps people to connect to each other through shared information and to process emotion through conversation. From talking with people yourself to ensuring they can talk to each other, make it a priority for words to be spoken, heard, and shared.

Lesson #6: People Need Meaning, Purpose, and Action

Everyone wants to do something in the face of a traumatic event. But when an organization is putting itself back together, only so many casseroles can help. It’s up to you to think about ways to involve people in the relief and recovery effort, and to make those options available to the employees. They look to the leadership for meaning and purpose. They need to feel that your organization stands for something beyond its quality products or services. They also need to know how they can connect to its meaning, even through simple activities such as collecting clothing, offering a personal taxi service, bringing coffee to the clean-up team, helping run-down parents with free babysitting – whatever is the right fit for your particular situation. Your employees can become even more committed to your organization after a crisis if real steps are made to connect them to the cause and involve them in the recovery. When your employees come to you with suggestions about how they would like to help, support those efforts as much as possible.

In over thirty years of supporting organizations and individuals, I have found that a crisis can become a strangely inspiring event because it illustrates the power of the human spirit. There is nothing quite like what is possible when we come together in the face of loss and devastation. By putting people first and combining forces as honestly and openly as possible, we can heal and grow. We can create a sense of purpose and organizational strength that did not exist before. When the storm comes, exceptional leaders access a deep commitment to community and togetherness that elevates people to new heights and keeps them there long after the calm returns.

Adapted with permission of the publisher, Rotman – UTP Publishing, from LEADERSHIP IN THE EYE OF THE STORM by Bill Tibbo.  Copyright (c) 2016 by University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

[Image courtesy: Pixabay]

About the Author

Bill Tibbo, author of LEADERSHIP IN THE EYE OF THE STORM, is the President and CEO of Bill Tibbo & Associates.  Over the past 32 years he has led post-disaster teams for numerous events including the 2014 RCMP shootings in New Brunswick, the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2001 World Trade Centre attack.

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