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Staying in Control When Times Get Tough

How do you react in an emergency? Do you freeze, rush around to solve the situation, or flee the scene as quickly as possible?

None of those responses will help you or your team.

The word “crisis” conjures up images of floods, storms, wildfires, or maybe a banking crash or terrorist outrage. In business terms, though, it can be used for any number of situations, from an urgent product recall to claims of fraud – to a market collapse.

A crisis could be triggered at a local level by having critical team members simultaneously on sick leave or by rumors of layoffs. These may be minor issues in global terms, but they can critically impact your team or organization.

You need to be organized and swift in your response to any crisis. But, above all, you need to stay calm. This article will help you meet difficult times head-on and think clearly as you do so.

We look at crises in two stages: before they erupt and while they are in full swing.

Before a Crisis Erupts – Be Prepared

The better prepared you are for a crisis, the more effective your response will be if it happens. If you put in the groundwork and have a tried-and-true plan in place, you and your people will more likely be able to stay calm and levelheaded if you’re “blindsided” by a disaster. There’s comfort in knowing that there are procedures to deal with it.

These six steps can help you to prepare for a sudden and unexpected threat to your organization:

Get the Right People and Systems in Place

You’ll be less vulnerable in a crisis if your everyday operations run like clockwork. An organized, efficient, and coordinated team will likely be disciplined and function effectively under challenging circumstances.

Team members who work well together and know their processes inside out will be more aware of any “creaks and groans” in the system. Please don’t ignore these, as they may be warning signs of more serious problems ahead.

Recruit, train, and support enough skilled and motivated people to run your department or business effectively. This will give you a solid base for dealing with anything out of the ordinary.

Embrace Uncertainty

The business landscape changes constantly, and sometimes change is sudden and unpredictable. Such an unstable environment has been called VUCA, standing for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous conditions.

Managing in such times can be daunting and frightening, and you may be tempted to ignore or resist difficult change. But if you embrace that challenge, you’ll be better able to identify and manage potential crises.

You can counter the four harmful elements of VUCA by developing four positive qualities, also with the initials V-U-C-A:

  • Values, which you need to stick to even when times get tough.

  • Understanding of the situation that you’re in.

  • Communication with your colleagues and stakeholders.

  • Agility in the way that you react and adapt.

Plan for a Crisis

You need to understand what crises could affect your organization and develop strategies for dealing with them. It would help if you also planned how you’d recover from them.

There are four stages to preparing for a crisis:

  1. Establishing a crisis team. This needs to be in place before any trouble happens.

  2. Identifying the key risks. As well as significant potential catastrophes, think about what everyday situations could develop into an emergency and the likelihood of those things happening.

  3. Developing your crisis plan. Consider how you’ll respond to each fundamental problem.

  4. Planning for a full recovery. Determine how to bring critical operations back online after an emergency, so you get back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible.


The stages listed above are a basic outline of what needs to be a robust and effective strategy for dealing with disaster. For an in-depth look at identifying and responding to potential crises, see our article, Planning for a Crisis.

Plan Effective Communication

It can be challenging to think about communication when you’re in the midst of a disaster. So knowing how you’ll communicate in a crisis is essential to crisis planning.

A bad situation can worsen if rumors and speculation fill the void created when official communication is absent, unclear, or inconsistent. Effective, swift, and concise communication can calm and reassure team members, customers, and other stakeholders.

You need to think about the key message that you want to communicate. For example, you may like to reassure customers that you’re able to meet their existing orders or that the products you’re selling are safe.

Other steps that you can take to make your communication as effective as possible include anticipating people’s questions and preparing your answers to them, appointing an informed and credible spokesperson, and being honest and open about the situation.

If you can be clear, coherent, and sensitive, you’ll do the business of delivering and receiving terrible news easier for everyone involved.

Look After Yourself

A crisis strikes at one of our most basic needs – the need for security. A sense of insecurity, whether physical or psychological, can trigger strong emotions, such as fear and panic. You can protect yourself by developing resilience and learning how to manage stress.

Finding a good work-life balance and putting aside time for meditation, exercise, and journaling can also help you develop inner strength when things get tough.

Build Trust and Team Loyalty

A team that pulls together in a crisis is far more likely to come through it successfully than one of the isolated or self-interested people. You can boost your people’s confidence in themselves and one another with the help of our article, Building Confidence in Other People.

Naturally, your team members will look to you for guidance when a crisis strikes. Our article, Leadership in Hard Times, explores strategies that you can use to rise to the challenge.

How you and your team members respond to a crisis also depends on how much you trust one another. As we say in our article, Building Trust Inside Your Team, “A team without trust isn’t a team… However, when trust is in place, each team member becomes stronger [and] the group can achieve important goals.” You can earn the trust and loyalty of your team members by demonstrating high-quality behaviors such as honesty, integrity, respect, and dedication.

Having explored what you can do to prepare yourself, your team, and your organization for a potential crisis, let’s look at how you can stay calm and cope should the worst happen.

Coping During a Crisis

Laying the foundations for a theoretical crisis is one thing, but dealing with the reality of one is quite another.

Here are four fundamental things to do when crisis strikes:

Manage Your Feelings

You may experience a rush of adrenaline as you try to take stock of what’s happened. So, before you leap into action or make knee-jerk decisions, give yourself time to gather your thoughts and take an objective look at your situation. Take a deep breath – and another!

Calm your mind and body with physical relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, relaxing your muscles, centering, and harnessing positive thinking with affirmations.

Then, follow The TDODAR Decision Model to cut through the panic so you can make good decisions under pressure. Visualize a point beyond the crisis at which you’ll achieve success. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Put Your Plans Into Practice

If you’ve got a crisis plan, now’s the time to test it in an actual situation. It may be “panic stations” all around you, but this is the time for you (and your crisis team) to move your systems into “controlled emergency” mode.

Focus on managing the things that you can control. Don’t waste energy and effort trying to change something you can do nothing about.

Support Others

You’ll likely be dealing with worried and emotional people, so do your best to stay positive and confident. Your team members will take heart from the calming presence of someone who’s organized, prepared, and decisive. Show that you’ll stand up for your team.

Remember, while you may need to be assertive and strong and demand immediate actions from your team members to resolve a crisis quickly, try to remain aware of their feelings and concerns.

Guard Against Negative Behaviors

When the waters get rough, some people seek refuge in self-serving behaviors that can worsen the situation. Guard against the following behaviors in particular:

  • Abandoning the team to “cover yourself.”

  • “Clamming up” and forgetting the principles of effective communication.

  • Blaming others.

  • You are bypassing procedures or processes in a state of panic.

Instead, contribute wholeheartedly to meeting the immediate needs of your team or organization. And be flexible, ready to go beyond what you might generally offer.

CDPS Points

Crises can blow up suddenly. They can happen because of mistakes that you or your people have made, or they can be caused by events entirely beyond your control, economic, political, or natural.

Whether you’re a leader, manager, or team member, staying calm and in control is essential to your survival and success.

You can prepare in advance by:

  • Getting the right people and systems in place.

  • Embracing uncertainty.

  • Planning for risk.

  • Developing your communication skills.

  • Looking after yourself.

  • Building trust and loyalty within your team.

And you’ll cope better in times of crisis if you manage your feelings, put your plans into practice, support others, and guard against harmful behaviors.

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