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Leading Your Company Through a Crisis

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In times of crisis, people need leaders more than ever. Your expectations and actions can help your company recover, hurt your company, or even lead to its failure. The time to plan is now.

Pre-Crisis:
1. Have a plan.
As a leader, it is your job to implement a disaster plan before a disaster happens -- and to communicate that plan to employees. John Call is the founder of Crisis Management Consultants in Oklahoma City, a group of professionals that provides consulting services to clients seeking prevention and management of threats of violence, as well as to those who need help managing the aftermath of a crisis. " Most organizations don' t close the barn door till the horses have been stolen," says Call, a psychologist and attorney. " Of course, by then it' s way too late." The more you and your staff have thought about what to do in an emergency, the less confusion there will be should disaster strike. This in and of itself will help you lead your people through the crisis. They will have more confidence in you if they know you' re prepared. Grace Burley is director of sales and marketing at Crisis Management International, Inc. in Atlanta, the nation' s largest network (1300+ professionals) of crisis mental health professionals, former FBI agents, and former Secret Service agents trained in the human side of crisis preparedness and response. With the recent terrorist attacks and other disasters, " even companies that had thought about it a little ahead of time were better off than those who hadn' t thought or talked about it at all," Burley says.

When Crisis Hits: First Steps
2. Hold a " de-escalation meeting" -- as soon as possible.
The moment when crisis hits -- and the immediate aftermath -- will be the most important moment for you as a leader. The sooner you can get everyone together when disaster strikes, the better. " It' s essential to communicate with employees before they go home, if it' s at all possible," says Burley. For example, if you have a bomb scare, gather everyone outside the office at a safe distance (your disaster response plan should include a meeting place where everyone should go if disaster strikes). Next, set the stage for how you' re going to lead your people through the crisis. " People really need leadership in these moments," explains Burley. Take advantage of this meeting to communicate expectations, and to give direction. Tell people where to go: Should they go home? Should they wait to return to the building? If they' re going home, tell them when they' re expected back in the office: Should they come tomorrow, or should they wait for a phone call?

" Let people know what you expect, reassure management, and communicate next steps. If it' s appropriate, explain briefly what PTSD [ post-traumatic stress disorder] symptoms they or others might experience, and that you' ll have experts available to help," Burley recommends. You should make it evident that your employees can expect clear decisions and clear communication from you. " Use this moment to convey strength and a sense of security to them," says Burley, " security in the sense that they are being led by someone who deserves their respect and whom they can trust to do what' s best for them."

When Crisis Hits: The Aftermath
3.Open communication is critical.
In the aftermath of a crisis, let employees know that it' s OK to talk about what' s going on - and provide them with the means to do so. " Set aside time for conversation. It can be as a large group, or in smaller meetings," says Rich Caldwell, CEO and founder of the Planned Success Institute in Santa Monica, California. He works with company leaders to develop more effective and productive workplaces by focusing on company purpose, values, and culture. " Be available personally if you sense that people need to air their concerns," he says. Plan an all-company retreat. Don' t ever give employees any reason to feel that communication is unwanted.

4. Bring in the professionals.
In the aftermath of a crisis, leaders should provide help for people who need it. That means bringing crisis experts on site to work with you and your staff. " Get someone from the outside, an expert, to facilitate some meetings," recommends Caldwell. " Leaders and owners participate in these conversations to demonstrate to the rest of the staff that communication about the event is OK, that it' s expected, safe, and encouraged."

Call agrees. " Employers need to be proactive about making sure employees are OK, and providing adequate education outreach so people know what symptoms to look for and where to go. Hire a crisis management or crisis response consultant, bring in a mental health expert, for employees to talk to. It' s part of the cost of doing business now. And it' s the business owner' s responsibility to make sure it' s done." What is that cost? It varies, depending on where you are and the type of experts you bring in. But on average, Burley estimates that bringing in a crisis management consultant to run a few sessions with employees costs between $200 and $300 per hour. She cautions that it is essential to make sure such sessions are conducted by well-qualified people. " If it' s done improperly, it can actually be harmful," she warns.

5. Stop to reflect.
The instinct for a lot of companies is to return to " business as usual" as quickly as possible. But that' s not always the best way to lead through a crisis. " Ignoring it by staying busy will just postpone the time when you' ll have to deal with it - and the problems will only escalate in that time," says Caldwell. " Stop and reflect. Give your employees time to pause and reflect. There' s not a lot of support in a lot of organizations for this. In general, leaders should expect that less attention will go directly toward work for a period of time." There isn' t an across-the-board solution for everyone - some people may need time off, some people may need a break from the normal routine at work, some people may just need more time with peers or managers to talk about what' s going on. Sure, business has to continue, and you need to stay solvent, but if you don' t stop to reflect, productivity can drop, making business suffer even more. " Insisting on ' buckling down' and putting peoples' noses to the grindstone in the hope of assisting workers is a losing strategy, period," says Caldwell.

6. Have a plan for dealing with the media.
Tell your employees how to respond if the media contacts them. " Lay out defined media rules," recommends Call. " List the do' s and don' ts. Clarify who talks to whom." Tell employees to whom they should forward media requests. Tell them what kinds of requests and calls they might expect. For the people who will be speaking with media, be clear about what' s OK to discuss, and what' s out of bounds. And explain to your staff why you' re taking the position you are on this subject.

Post-crisis & recovery
7. Keep your eyes open for displaced anger and other employee productivity problems.
" When crisis strikes, people are going to displace their anger about it - often on the company," says Burley. " Be prepared for outrage. This can happen especially in the case of industrial accidents, or other situations where employees can find a way - a way that may very well seem irrational to you -- to place blame for an incident onto the company itself." So, even quite some time after crisis hits, she recommends keeping your eyes peeled for disgruntled employees.

Also, keep your eye out for signs of other problems. Problems like alcoholism and drug abuse commonly rise in the wake of stressful events and disasters. " Frequently, people won' t show signs of these problems in obvious ways," says Burley. " But these kinds of things can go on for years after an event." What to do about it? Ask your line managers and supervisors to watch for unusual behavior among employees. " Be open to the warning signs. Usually warning signs come in the form of people behaving irregularly. Tell supervisors what to look for, and who to talk to if they suspect something is wrong."

What kinds of warning signs should they be on the lookout for? If someone who is always punctual starts coming in to work later and later, with no explanation why, that could signal a problem. Or maybe someone who has always been a strict nine-to-fiver starts working very long hours, without a significant increase in workload. Perhaps someone starts having a lot of trouble with criticism, when criticism never bothered them much before. Maybe it's a sudden difficulty in recalling instructions, or suddenly missing more deadlines than usual. In short, keep an eye out for anything that seems to demonstrate a significant deviation from what was formerly " normal" behavior for that particular employee.

8. Anniversaries are stressful. Be ready.
The effects of a major disaster on you and your employees can be long-lasting. Keep in mind that it' s not just in the few weeks after a crisis that employees can be affected - emotionally, health-wise, and from a productivity standpoint. Sometimes you can see the effects years later. In particular, anniversaries are high-risk and stressful periods, Call warns. Take, for example, the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. One month after the bombing, Call founded Project Heartland to provide counseling, support groups, outreach, and education to individuals affected by the bombing. Project Heartland was America's first community mental health program developed in response to a terrorist event. Recent statistics he has collected clearly demonstrate the long-lasting effect that such events can have. At the 6-month point, in October 1995, 19 rescue workers were seen for reasons related to the bombing. In November 1995, 17 workers sought counseling. By contrast, a full 103 rescue workers sought the help of Project Heartland counselors in April 1999 -- the 4-year anniversary of the bombing. " It' s important to remember that fallout will be seen, even years out," he says.

9. Don' t expect productivity to get back to normal for a while.
Grace Burley explains that it' s common for companies affected by a crisis to see a pattern in productivity levels: first, a dramatic drop in productivity, followed by a spike back to close-to-normal levels, and then another drop-off that takes a long time to creep back up to nearly-normal levels again. Sure, you need to keep your business running, and cash coming in the door. But the experts say that it can actually be detrimental to your company and employees if you push too hard to get back to normal. " Give employees time; don' t expect normalcy. Use disaster experts if you need them to help speed up the process, by starting the individual recovery process for all of your employees. That way, as a group, you can start to move forward." If you don' t start this process, then people will tend to internalize their stress and anxiety, and you might see symptoms like increased absenteeism, increased turnover, and depression. " Especially in the wake of a tragedy like September 11, business will probably never be the same again. So as a leader, you need to adjust your expectations based on that new reality," Burley says.

Copyright © 2001 Inc.com LLC

Last updated: Oct 25, 2001




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