Dealing with a crisis

Fashion gurus say to wear clothes that are in proportion to your figure. That’s good advice for dealing with a crisis, too — keep it in proportion. Don’t panic, because that’s when you’re likely to make matters worse. And don’t stick your finger in the proverbial dyke and pretend you’ve dealt with it, because that makes it likely that it will blow up in your face sooner or later.

Take a deep breath and assess the situation. You need to get out of your ‘reptilian brain’ and into your ‘thinking brain’. Once you’re there, you can decide what you need to do – right now – to minimise the fallout and get on the road to recovery. For example, if a project is in danger of missing a deadline, maybe you can offer some incentives to speed things up, bring someone in to help with the workload, or eliminate some of the non-essential tasks in order to get back on track.

Now analyse. What actually has happened? How many people, and who, are affected and how are they affected? What assumptions are you making? What are the key variables? What is the most important issue, the one that by solving it, will significantly remove or diminish the others?

Next, plan.What are your objectives for resolving the major issue? What actions do you need to take to achieve those objectives? How can you assess your success? What other action can you take to remedy the situation or at least, make it ‘less bad’? When the crisis is a hum dinger, you might want to develop some best-case, worst-case and most-likely-case scenarios and develop plans for those.

A good plan helps you act confidently and effectively, especially when you’ve protected it with a force field analysis to capitalise on the forces working to help your plan succeed and mitigate or remove the forces working against your plan’s success.

Let your stakeholders know what’s going on and what your recovery plan is. They may have some good ideas to add and some other perspectives to consider. When the crisis is your fault, a sincere apology is a smart move.

When you have time to catch your breath, figure out what caused the crisis in the first place – not to lay blame but so that you can make sure a similar crisis never happens again.

How to think through a decision

One way of looking at how we make decisions is called the ‘story model’, or ‘explanation-based decision making’. When we face a situation that calls for a decision, we recognise some of its elements from similar past experiences and we create a story, or explanation, about what’s going on and what will happen. We do this intuitively, without really thinking about what we’re doing, and based on our story and how things worked out in those similar past situations, we make our decision. This can happen quite quickly.

The trouble with that is twofold: sometimes our stories are less complete than we realise and sometimes we overlook differences between our ‘previous experience stories’ and the situation we’re currently facing. Then we make a poor decision.

To avoid that, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What other information do I need?
  • Does any of my evidence or information conflict with other evidence or information or not make sense?
  • What other ways of looking at the information or evidence are there?
  • What could a different story, or way of looking at this situation, be? How does that compare with my first story?
  • What decision am I leaning towards and why?
  • What are the likely consequences of this decision?

Then it’s a good idea to write down why the decision you’re leaning towards is the best one, compared with your other options, along the lines of: Why is this a smart decision? (Yes, write it down.) This further helps you build a more complete picture of the situation and look at it from different angles and on top of that, it gives you more confidence in your decision.

When you think things through deliberately and thoughtfully like this, you generally make a better decision. Which, of course, saves time and tears in the long run.

Discussion questions

How does this compare with the way you usually make decisions?

Healthy leaders lead better

Do you need to make an important decision? Get a good night’s rest. Do some aerobic exercise and eat a ‘good square meal’, as my mother would say.

Your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for solving problems and making decisions (as well as other executive functions like abstract thinking, managing your emotions, planning, and regulating your behaviour) needs to be exercised, fed, rested and watered to work properly.

Located just behind your forehead, your prefrontal cortex also helps you learn, adjust and react to changing situations, and concentrate on your goals. So don’t make any important plans or decisions or hold any difficult conversations when you’re feeling hungry, thirsty, tired or stressed.

As a leader, you need to make calm and well-reasoned decisions and control your emotions and to do that, you need to take care of yourself with proper rest, aerobic exercise and nutrition.

Discussion questions

When are you at your freshest? That’s probably when you’ll be most creative, able to deal effectively with challenging situations and make sound decisions.