Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Resolving the Crisis

By definition a crisis requires fast, confident decision making. But how do you make good decisions when events are moving quickly? During times of confusion? When it's hard to sort out what's important and what isn't? How can you stay on track?

Be aware of the effects of stress

Typically, three emotions can combine to create the stress you feel during a crisis:

  • fear of disaster
  • anticipation of a potentially positive outcome
  • desire for the crisis to be over
Under stress, you feel the pressure to make a decision. But the pressure can push you to a state of panic where you are making decisions solely to be "doing something." In reality, however, you are dispersing energy and resources—and this energy is your source of strength. Use the power of positive stress to handle the crisis as a confident leader.

Avoid toxic stress responses. Often people respond to these natural and conflicting feelings of fear, hope, and despair in ways that can aggravate—rather than relieve—the crisis.

Be sure to avoid these common ineffective and often harmful responses.

  • When in doubt, scream and shout. The noise may seem as though the manager is doing something, but it is a waste of energy and fails to lessen the crisis situation.
  • Hide your head in the sand. At times, the pressure to act becomes so stressful, a manager slips into a state of paralysis and can't make any decisions at all.

The leadership role

Whether acting as the CEO of a large corporation or a supervisor of a department, an effective leader finds out as quickly as possible what the real problem is. Often in a crisis, there will be a flurry of information, most of it inaccurate. It's your task to discover the truth and face it by asking the right people, listening to the most reliable voices, and going to the right places.

A leader in a crisis responds by

  • facing the crisis—turning fear into positive action
  • being vigilant—watching for new developments and recognizing the importance of new information
  • maintaining focus on the priorities—ensuring that people are safe first, and then assessing the next most critical needs
  • assessing and responding to what is in his or her control and ignoring what is not
Act. Once you understand the problem, there are really probably only a few realistic options open to you. If you have a crisis plan in place, use it.

Work together. A leader has the power to draw people together to act as a team. If your people know you are in charge, they will respond to your direction.

For example, when a catalog retailer that offered a large number of custom products—monogrammed bags, sweaters, and so forth—put out its holiday catalog, it was shocked by the positive response. From the moment the catalog was released in October, its phone lines were swamped. The company hired temporary help to work the phones, but still had a tremendous bottleneck: customizing and shipping the products. It was the holiday season. The head of distribution recognized that if they didn't get everything shipped in time for Christmas, there might not be a next season.

So the CEO put out a call for help and recruited management and administrative staff to work in the warehouse in the evenings—after they had done their regular jobs. Everyone worked together for six long and grueling weeks—everyone from the top down. By working as a team, the whole company eventually enjoyed astonishing success by growing 80% in that one year. What could have been a crisis and failure was turned around by teamwork.

Avoid blaming others. As the crisis heats up, the impulse to blame people can become irresistible. Certainly, a team member's incompetence or serious error may have caused the crisis, or may be perpetuating it. However, during the heat of the crisis, trying to find a scapegoat is counterproductive. Focus your people on handling the crisis, not on blaming others.

Later, after the crisis, it will be up to you to analyze whether or not a person should be reprimanded in some way. However, keep in mind that constant fault-finding lowers morale and stifles the creativity and commitment you need to solve the problem. Create an atmosphere where people look forward to what needs to be done, not backward to who was at fault.

Do what needs to get done. Rules, policies, structures, procedures, and budgets are created to maintain order and provide a productive process in the normal course of business. But most rules were not created with a crisis in mind. Do whatever has to be done, and don't worry about the "rules"!

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