Handling a Crisis

It’s simply not possible to navigate your work and your life without experiencing a crisis or two. While it’s important to try and avoid them as much as possible, it’s even more important to cultivate your ability to minimize their impact.

Crises come in many different varieties and degrees of difficulty. Each one requires a smart, steady, and specific set of responses carefully attuned to the situation, the nature of the crisis, and your role.

There are, however, some general guidelines that will help you find and execute the best possible response, regardless of what crisis you are facing.

To handle a crisis most effectively, therefore, begin by focusing on the following:

The Cause

Crises don’t come out of nowhere. Whether it’s a fire, a flood, an unexpected turn of events, or anything else, something in the situation has changed – sometimes more than one. For several reasons, it’s important to identify the cause(s) of the crisis:

  • In some cases, identifying the cause(s) makes obvious the best way to react to the crisis. Think of a broken pipe gushing water, a sudden illness or injury, or a disgruntled customer pulling your company’s largest account.
  • Even when the best response is not obvious, identifying the cause(s) gives you a sharp focus on where to start looking for possible remedies.
  • In the longer term, identifying the cause(s) of a crisis provides a framework for making changes that can help prevent the crisis from reoccurring.

Most obviously, when you don’t know the cause(s) of the crisis, you have little or no chance of mitigating it.

The Threats

Sometimes a crisis is itself the biggest threat. For example, when the city of Hilo, Hawaii was inundated by a huge tidal wave, ten feet of water suddenly entering people’s bedrooms while they slept was itself the biggest threat.

But other crises may bring more subtle threats. For example, a power outage is an obvious threat to quality of life, traffic safety, and more. But it may bring along a bigger, more urgent threat if the outage shuts down medical equipment keeping people alive.

Similarly, a disgruntled customer canceling a company’s largest account may threaten cashflow and the ability to meet payroll or debt obligations. But if the customer’s complaint is valid and becomes widely known, the crisis may ultimately drive the company out of business.

When a crisis hits, therefore, it’s important to recognize all the threats, rank them in order of urgency and importance, and respond appropriately to as many as possible so as to minimize the damage that results.

Your Range of Responses

Knowing the cause(s) of a crisis and the threats it brings, your focus can then turn to remediation. This involves several areas of interest:

  • What elements of the crisis situation are controllable, and what elements are beyond control? Can you do anything to end the crisis before it runs its course?
  • What remedies are possible? What sequence of remedial actions, if any, is the most sensible to follow?
  • What resources are available to address the crisis? How quickly can they be deployed? Are the available resources sufficient or will it be useful to seek more?
  • What is your power to react? What can you do now? What additional authority or cooperation should you seek?

Your Best Steps Forward

Once you integrate all this information with a smart assessment of the crisis situation and the most desirable outcome that seems possible, you can begin to formulate a plan of action.

The most important part of any such plan involves your first steps.

These should:

  • Address the most pressing and dire threats,
  • Make good use of readily available resources,
  • Minimize delays and the need for preparation,
  • Leave intact the potential for additional remedial action(s) in the future.

Remember, in a crisis, time is usually of the essence. In some situations, taking almost any step quickly is beneficial. This is not only because a good first step begins to remedy the crisis, but also because it creates the twin hopes that: first, the threats can be avoided or reduced, and second, the future will – at some point – look a lot better than the present.

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