How to Respond to Crisis: Four Steps for Leaders

As a leader you will have to respond to crisis.  The plan will get off track, a key person will not show up, the weather will change, key assumptions will be proven wrong.  It’s inevitable.  How you respond will determine whether you overcome the crisis, or become a victim of it.

Today we’ll talk about four things you can do when that teammate comes up to you and delivers the bad news.

Respond to Crisis

“Utterly Imperturbable”

On the 9th of March, 1864 Ulysses S. Grant, famous American Civil War commander, was in Washington D.C. where he had just been promoted to Lieutenant General by President Abraham Lincoln.  That afternoon he went to famed photographer Mathew Brady’s studio to pose for his official picture.

Not happy with the lighting conditions, Brady sent his assistant up on the roof to adjust the large skylight.  But the assistant slipped and fell partway through the window, sending a shower of heavy glass shards falling all around Grant who was seated directly below.

Grant barely flinched.  As close as it was, he saw the glass wasn’t going to harm him; he was ready to get on with the picture taking.

As historian Gary W. Gallagher from the University of Virginia puts it, “I think his secret was his utter unflappability and his ability to keep his eye on the ball no matter what else was going on.”

Known for his steely resolve and singular focus, this brief incident is a window into Grant’s leadership style and how he responds to crisis.

When the inevitable crisis comes, you want to be like Grant:  imperturbable and focused.

You may not have command of an Army or be trying to keep a nation stitched together, but it doesn’t mean you won’t have to face crisis as a leader.  It’s going to happen.  How you react makes all the difference.

When your teammate comes running up to you breathlessly with panic on his face, here’s what to do.

1. Smile

That’s right, smile.  Your teammate is in full crisis mode, the sky is falling, nothing is going right and he’s come to you in a panic.  The last thing you want to do is join him in a hand-wringing contest.  Don’t let him pull you in.  Here are three reasons why smiling makes sense.

Don’t panic the troops.  The British Army had a saying

Officers never run, it might panic the troops. – British Army saying Click To Tweet

The thinking was that if the troops saw their leaders running, they might conclude something was wrong, and they would start running too.  Chaos ensues.  That’s not what you want, especially in an army.

As leader, your job is to remain calm and keep your eye on the ball.  Emotions are contagious.  A smile can help calm the troops and restore confidence.  If the leader isn’t wigging out, maybe they don’t need to either (even if you are freaking out on the inside!)

Communicate Calm Confidence.  Another benefit, researchers say, is that the act of smiling sends a signal to the brain signaling safety, lowering heart rate and stress levels.   This simple act can distance you from a fight or flight situation and enable calmer thought.

Maintain your perspective.  And smile because you knew something was going to go wrong.  You’re a realist; it’s just inevitable.  It’s a human enterprise, after all.  Instead of falling apart, embrace the idea that life is happening and you are being given an opportunity to face an obstacle and find a way around it.

When you look upon the crisis as a challenge you will be in the right frame of mind to solve a problem, not react emotionally

2. Calmly Get the Facts

Clearly you need to find out what is going on so that you can respond appropriately.  But how you grow your understanding of the situation will also influence your ability to resolve it.  Here are two key things to keep in mind.

Now is not the time to try to fix blame.  Worry about “who shot John” later.  The minute you ask a question that appears you are trying to fix blame on someone, you will stop getting useful, actionable information.  Instead, people will seek to avoid the line of fire, be unwilling to speak up, and won’t want to get caught up in whatever drama is about to take place.

Do ask open ended questions that reveal facts.  Ask questions like:

• What makes you think so?
• How did you become aware of this?
• What do you think the impact will be?

Calmly asking questions like these will help further reduce the stress, bring your teammate back down to ground level, and force both of you to begin thinking instead of just reacting.  The answers you hear will also help you gain a better understanding of the situation.

3.  Make Sure it’s Really a Problem

There is a truism in the American military that I have seen bear out time and time again:

The first report is always wrong. -Army Axiom Click To Tweet

If report of a problem crops up, you should absolutely take note and seek to verify and prepare to act.

But so long as humans are involved in communication, the facts will get garbled, ground truth will get distorted, and incorrect assumptions will magnify the perceived extent of the problem.  The word that gets to you may not reflect reality on the front lines.

Realize, too, that what may seem a looming disaster for one person may not be a crisis for the team or the mission.

So ask this critical question before going into problem-solving mode:  How else can we verify exactly what has happened?

Crisis? Be sure to get the facts before jumping into action. Click To Tweet

You will find that many so-called “crises” will resolve down to a small problem easily handled once you get the actual facts.  Sometimes there’s really no problem at all, just a misunderstanding.  Good idea to make sure before calling for the Cavalry.

 4.  Act Promptly, but not Hastily

If it really is a problem, then you need to take action.  As Coach John Wooden has said,

Be quick but don’t hurry. - Coach John Wooden Click To Tweet

Rapid but measured response is what you are looking for.  Recognize that you need to get the problem-solving process started, beginning with making sure you understand the problem.

Think about who needs to be involved in developing a solution and bring them in.  If your planning has been thorough, maybe you are just confirming the need to switch to Plan B.  If not, you need the right people in the room to develop viable alternatives for going forward.

As you gather your team, be sure you continue to communicate to them verbally and emotionally the importance of thinking and acting rationally.

Respond to Crisis:  The Takeaway

If your teammate comes to you in a panic and you get all fired up too, you risk responding emotionally, prematurely, and may actually end up making the situation worse.

Better to defuse the tension, and allow for rational thought.  Respond to crisis by smiling, calmly asking fact-seeking questions and making sure there really is a problem.  If so, then embrace it as a challenge to be overcome and bring in the right people to start solving it in a way that keeps the vision intact.

That’s what leaders do.

Question: What other things have you seen great leaders do when facing crisis?

Share your comments below.  And be sure to sign up now for twice-monthly Leadership Updates with more tips and exclusive content not available elsewhere on the site!

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