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Crisis Leadership

Updated: Jan 28

Crises are all different. Unlike incidents, organisations may not possess the capabilities and processes to immediately deal effectively with crises. Leaders therefore must be confident dealing with sometimes high levels of ambiguity and rapidly changing circumstances. Crisis leaders must be comfortable, effective and display decisiveness during periods of uncertainty and in situations where no playbook exists. At such times leaders must often be creative and innovative, designing new methods in the moment as they are unlikely to be able to rely upon standard procedures, rules, existing plans, rehearsed actions or being surrounded by people that have “done it before”.

Effective Communication and Soft Skills are crucial during these periods. Appropriate communications to both internal and external stakeholders can influence both the performance of teams and therefore organisations during crises, but also positively influence the way that the media and the public frame a crisis and the ramifications of it. Rather than adopting process driven, hierarchical command and control esque updates, communicating with honesty and empathy, and ensuring that messages focus on both the people affected and the people being communicated to, may improve performance during the crisis and the way it is viewed during the reviews carried out by both public organisations and the media. It is imperative to get this right, so as to mitigate or at least to reduce the reputational damage that can potentially occur in the post-event trial by media.

Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable through exercise testing and table top crisis exercises. Exposure to periods of uncertainty and stress, applied in controlled environments can help to prepare individuals for leading during crises. Such exposures can provide experiences of maintaining a constant awareness of rapidly changing circumstances, working with the tools and resources available and recording the justification for the decisions which had to be made at the time, in order to get the job done.

Maintain your Critical Distance in order to allow operational teams to perform the tasks that they need to, in order to deal with the threats at hand, mitigate further damage and fundamentally continue to perform critical services. Remaining at the strategic level of action, rather than risking tunnel vision by becoming immersed in tactical and operational activities will allow a crisis leader to deploy and direct resources appropriately.

Manage your Cognitive Biases as they can result in flawed decision making. Crisis leaders need to remain conscious of the risk that exists from selecting or disregarding information that supports a decision that they have already made. While intuition and experience can support quick decision making, decision’s during crises can impact people and organisations in an irreversible way and so should only be made based upon information which has been assessed as diligently as circumstances will allow. Similarly, continuing to pursue a crisis management strategy because it is the one that you originally put forward and may have followed for a period of time, can be damaging. It takes a strong leader to accept that a plan they previously supported was wrong or is no longer effective. Only then can a new and potentially appropriate approach be adopted.

Trust your Intuition….Sometimes as the feeling that an approach is the right one is based upon something called analogous reasoning. This is when we rationalise a decision based upon previous experiences and are therefore able to respond to a situation quickly. This can be incredibly effective during periods of crises but it should only be relied upon with an awareness of some caveats. The key thing to remember is that no two situations will ever be ‘the same’. When we follow gut instinct, we risk making decisions based upon our cognitive biases, which reduces our ability to make a truly objective decision.

Be Able to Defend Your Decisions, both the ones you made and the ones you didn’t. A decision log should record the rationale for decisions and provide the evidence that formed it. Decision logs for crises should be a contemporaneous record, reflective of one’s thoughts as close to the action as possible, but should still consider whether decisions were necessary or justified, proportionate and legal.

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