25 Practical Tips For Managing a Crisis in the Workplace

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Here is What You Need To Do When the Sky Is Falling

If you have not yet experienced it in your career, you will at some point. Managing a crisis is difficult for even the most skilled of leaders. Every time I think of such situations, I imagine that scene in the movie Apollo 13, when NASA controllers place all the available materials on a table to try and find a way to fix the injured spacecraft. They’re sweating, under pressure and people are depending on them to succeed.

You don’t have to be in control of a space capsule to find yourself in the midst of a crisis. Rather, chaos can be triggered when you learn your software has been hacked and a quick fix needs to be developed. Perhaps you learned a product had a defect after you shipped thousands of units and you now need to figure out what to do. Or maybe a world event has had a major impact on your firm, and you need to shore up the company to maintain stability.

In all such instances, crisis management typically follows the same four steps:   First, there is the initial containment and understanding of the issue. Second, once the problem scope and scale is understood, work generally shifts towards investigating the cause of the problem. The third step uses the previous two activities as a means to outlining and testing theories to resolve the matter. Finally, the fourth step is to implement changes or controls for the long term.

However, when you are in crisis mode there are time pressures, financial challenges, customer impacts and more than enough stress to go around. So while there will be a sudden blizzard of activity and urgency, use these tips to make sure the resolution comes as cleanly and efficiently as possible:


1.  Establish a Core Team


When managing a crisis, a great deal of cross-team interaction is necessary. Your specific circumstances may require involvement from process specialists, quality specialists, customer service representatives and supply chain personnel. The first step in resolving crisis is to create a core team of leaders who will ‘own’ their function’s actions. Place these names on an organizational chart so roles and hierarchy are clearly understood.  The core individuals will serve as the leads for each respective sub team and will be responsible for all activities within their jurisdiction throughout the process.


2.  Identify a Support Team


Identify additional individuals who support each functional leader. For example, if your crisis involved software, the Programming Leader should have an adequately sized team of supporting software specialists helping that Lead complete actions and run tasks to ground, rather than having the Lead handle all the issues by him or herself. Without a support team, the Lead will struggle to focus on coordination and communication because he or she will also be responsible to complete various tasks.  Place the names of the supporting team members on the org chart and align them to a given functional leader.


3.  Lists Are Your Friend


When you’re engulfed in chaos, you will be involved in numerous discussions from which a variety of suggestions and ideas emerge. Make lists of these thoughts to serve as a record for revisiting later. Place them on a white board in the room for all to see, or just on a piece of paper in your notebook. Bring in a scribe to help if necessary. Simple lists will help you keep track of activities when you find yourself jumping from topic to topic throughout the day.

4.  Create Isolation


Classic management theory tells us that when large change is being introduced into an organization, that the team doing the day-to-day work should be decoupled and independent of the team implementing the change. The same approach must be used when working through a crisis: the team that is managing and supporting the crisis needs to be removed from the day-to-day to ensure they can clearly focus on resolving the issue. Equally, the team that remains assigned to the day-to-day needs to remain focused on those activities. Added resources from elsewhere in the organization are typically needed to allow the respective teams to remain productive.


5.  Standardize Communication


Communication to key stakeholders – internal executives, customers and supporting personnel – is paramount during a crisis. Everyone will want to know what progress is being made, and a great deal of time is often consumed simply by keeping others up-to-date.  Establish your standard protocol for communication to these stakeholders that will be followed throughout the process. By setting a clear communication strategy early on, you can ensure all parties know what to expect and when they can expect it.


6.  Identify Priorities


For a crisis resolution team to work well, it is important that priorities are established, and are clearly understood by everyone involved. The last thing you need is to reduce efficiency by having team members work on unrelated tasks. Further, the established priorities of what’s important and what should be deferred to a later date must remain consistent. If changes in priorities are necessary, clearly communicate such changes to the team instead of relying on the communication to trickle out.


7.  Set a Clear Schedule


Because of the multitude of meetings and activities that need to happen, set a consistent schedule and expectations of time when the core team will meet on a daily basis. An early morning meeting everyday can help establish alignment for things to be completed on that day. You may want to consider meeting again in late afternoon to verify progress and to uncover any issues that may prevent closure of actions. Regardless of what schedule you establish, make sure the schedule is clear and consistent, and outline your expectations of each participant. Particularly if weekend work is required, establish the plan in midweek so that people can have time to rearrange personal plans as needed.


8.  Use a Disciplined Problem Solving Method


Even with communication and schedule protocol in place, you will need to conduct the investigation systematically. You can accomplish this by employing a structured problem solving technique. Many formalized problem solving tools exist; one such example is known as the 8 Discipline (“8D”) method. Doing so will create some much needed structure around the problem, and provide a controlled path towards resolution. Other options include the Shainen technique and a 5-Why analysis. If you are not familiar with these methods, call an expert. The money you spend on an expert facilitator will save you cash and aggravation in the long run. Regardless of which problem solving method is best for you, it is vital that you agree on a method and stick to it. This will ensure all team members are aligned to the steps and process being followed.


9.  Prepare to Spend


Any organization that finds itself in the middle of a large-scale problem will very likely have its back up against a wall. Time will be of the essence. In almost every case, costs associated with the investigation – expediting fees, shipping fees, travel costs, equipment costs, liability fees, etc. – will quickly add up. Most organizations have standard protocol for expense approval (usually someone in the Supply Chain or Finance departments). Once the crisis management team is formulated, be sure to identify the individuals who must approve and track cost expenditure, as well as issue any purchase orders or sign off on related expenses as necessary. If these roles or individuals are not clear at the onset, it can lead to delays in progress.


10.  Drive Action and Progress


No matter how complex the situation or how difficult the circumstances may be, all major problems are resolved by making incremental progress. When managing a crisis, emphasize to the team that completion of short term actions is necessary to resolve the bigger issue. Time spent looking for a quick fix and ‘silver bullet’ as they say is likely to be time that is wasted. Repeatedly emphasize the need for controlled and methodical progress, and avoid losing time pursuing quick fixes and responding with knee jerk reactions.


11.  Create Simple Diagrams


A great way to organize plans in a chaotic environment is to make the flow of activities visual. Box diagrams and flow charts serve as a great way to outlined the major activities in a simplified form so that it can clearly be communicated to the outsiders, and more importantly, to help align the team members to various activities being worked. A visual diagram does not replace a full up schedule, but certainly takes the complexity out of a large Gantt chart, boiling down the tasks to a small list of key efforts.  Visualizing the effort at a high level helps show the sequence in which various tasks will be completed and how they relate to one another.


12.  Focus on the Right Solution, Not the Fast One


When you are facing a crisis situation, it is natural to look for the smoking gun or silver bullet. We all want to make the problem just go away. Unfortunately, this sort of miracle does not happen often, so it’s is important to remain focused on the right resolution and avoid jumping to conclusions. Taking short cuts typically results in more trouble. Band-Aid solutions and ‘fix-it’ plans should only be used to address short-term needs, and not be relied upon as the end-all resolution.


13.  Don’t Skimp on Ethics


Depending on the circumstances, your executives may be pounding on you for closure, customers may be asking questions faster than your team can answer them. And perhaps the media is aware, and critiquing your every move.  As mentioned in #12, when the pressure is on and the hours a long, there will be a strong urge by many to put the issue to rest and put it in the past. During these times, though, remaining true to ethical business practice is of utmost importance. Taking short cuts, avoiding difficult questions, and omitting facts will only lead to more issues, making the situation worse. Actively engage each individual from time to time to make sure that all team members are comfortable with the decisions being made and the level of rigor with which you are conducting the investigation. If you sense discomfort, be sure to speak with any individuals privately if necessary.


14.  Take the Time To Listen


You’re surrounded by empty take-out boxes, sitting alongside your colleagues in the conference room late at night. Inevitably, opinions will be expressed with passion. People will talk over one another as a result of the stress the team is under. When leading and managing a crisis team, promote equal participation and facilitate tolerance of ideas and opinions. Encourage everyone to speak. Not only is such behavior exemplary of good leadership, it helps bring stability and professionalism to an environment that can otherwise be tense and overwhelmed by stress and emotion.


15.  Distinguish Between Short Term Needs and Long Term Objectives


Confusion and miscommunication are the most frequent difficulties you will encounter when managing a crisis. Amidst this, the team may frequently lose sight of how all the puzzle pieces fit together. In terms of efficiency, be sure to map out and distinguish between short term activities and those that may either take more time.  Some tasks will have several predecessors and thus cannot be completed until sometime in the future. The last thing you need is for team members to get confused and spend precious time answering longer term questions when there are more imminent, critical path tasks that need attention. Block diagrams can help you articulate the difference.


16.  Promote Break Out Sessions


Adverse circumstances that threaten a business often consume a large number of people and team members. Remember that the most productive teams are in the range of 5 to 9 people. So while there may be temptation to pack everyone into one large conference room to work through the issues, this will only inhibit progress because there are simply too many people and too many opinions being offered. Though standing meetings with the whole group are necessary, encourage sub teams to break out into separate meeting rooms or areas, such that each team can focus on their specific task.


17.  Identify Where You Need Help


Asking for help – from specialists, senior leaders, and even customers – is a common occurrence in crisis management. The key, however, is the be very specific with what help is needed. Don’t just say you need a financial analyst. Say you need an experienced financial analyst to review the calculations to confirm there were no mistakes made. Don’t just say you need a programmer. Rather, state that you need someone who knows a given software language in order to troubleshoot a specific issue. While you may feel you just need a warm body, you run the risk of losing time if you do not get the right person involved. When it comes to asking help, make sure you are clear with the specific skill set or experience you actually need.


18.  Create a RAIL


If lists are your friend, RAILs are you best friend. A RAIL, or Rolling Action Item List, is a simple continuous list of actions that the team members and other individuals need to complete. While a variety of a tracking tools can work, an effective RAIL is simple and consolidated to be easily updated and managed. If the RAIL document becomes too difficult and cumbersome to manage, it will lose its value. The most important component of the RAIL are the specific names assigned to each action or task.   During the investigation, actions will quickly amass for a number of a people. Not only does the RAIL help you keep track of who is doing what, it can also help you identify areas where help is needed. If one team member has three times more actions or tasks than other team members, for example, he or she would be a good contender for needing help.


19.  Stay Calm, Keep it Professional


There is more than enough stress and pressure to go around when managing a crisis. If the overall crisis manager or leader doesn’t handle him or herself well, it will impact the morale of everyone on the team. No matter how frustrating the situation may get, be sure to keep your cool about you. As the manager of the team working hard to fix the issue, your demeanor and ability to keep calm and focused will help the team do the same.  Don’t forget that once the crisis is behind you, you’ll still have to work with those team members.


20.  Require Protocol and Discipline


Despite the natural desire to run wild in pursuit of an immediate end to the chaos, the most effective approach to crisis management is to methodically go about executing the various tasks. Require the team respect the protocol, scheduling and communication mechanisms outlined at the beginning. The same goes for the functional leaders, who must follow the protocol established at the onset. Failure to maintain discipline and follow through on protocol will only make matters more difficult. If there is a status meeting scheduled for 3PM, make sure all participants are aware and present. You are not doing anyone favors by repeating the same discussion more than once.


21.  Remember Fatigue


When crisis hits, it will instantly lead to an increase in the working hours of the team. While initially this may not have an impact, after several weeks or months, such circumstances will wear significantly on the team members. At some point in time, productivity, clarity and the ability to make decisions effectively will suffer as a result of fatigue. While the resolution is needed quickly, make sure the team gets adequate rest. If weekend work is required, give the team one day off to recharge. If you cannot afford to let a day slip by, consider two shifts to get more productivity out of the team and allow or sufficient rest.

22. Respect Personal Boundaries


Similar to the matter of fatigue, if the investigation does last multiple weeks or months, be sure to respect and adhere to personal boundaries of the team members. When a team member takes some time off to spend with family, have the discipline to let that individual enjoy that time and get a break. This helps offset fatigue, and allows them to come back refreshed and ready to jump in again. If you absolutely must disturb a team member on a holiday or on vacation, be sure to have a specific reason or purpose, and not just an update.


23.  Compensate for Hardship


Very likely, your situation will place some hardship on the employees and team members. To get the most focus and dedication from the team, be sure to offer compensation in some form for that effort. This is not necessarily a monetary entity, but something noteworthy to compensate them for the significant number of extra hours being worked.   For example, let the team members know that if they have to forego a planned vacation, that the company will pay for ticket change fees. Alternatively, you can offer some extra days off to make up for lost weekends once the crisis is in the rear view mirror. And if it’s the end of the year when employees need to burn any remaining vacation days before they’re gone, work with your HR department to ensure the unused days are not lost if people are unable to use them.  Such activities will not only make the team members feel valued, it will also help serve as a way to help them focus at the task at hand.


24.  Share The Knowledge Gained


When major issues or crises emerge in business, they are rarely the result of a single failure in process or protocol, but rather the result of several breakdowns in control. Further, most of these instances reveal a number of important facts and lessons over the course of the investigation. Once a resolution and corrective action are implemented, share that experience, those mistakes and the learnings you discovered during the investigation with other employees and teams to pass on the information for awareness. Unfortunately, that invaluable list of lessons you learned the hard way will inevitably be called up again at some point in the future.


25.  Recognize Contribution


Once all is said and done, and the crisis has been resolved, recognize the effort of the entire team. A team dinner, public recognition and an all-around demonstration of sincere appreciation are all valid options. It’s likely that during the crisis and ensuing investigation, tempers flared, emotions overwhelmed and frustrations boiled over. Proper and effective recognition is a great way to let those low moments subside and to help transition the team from panic mode back into business as usual.

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