Today I want to share four observations about crisis, response and recovery. It has be a surreal couple of weeks. Before this, if you had told me we could essentially shut down the world in under a week, I would have laughed at the idea. But that just happened. It’s like a Tom Clancy novel just became reality.
The current situation reminded me of a time when managing crisis was my life. I spent the early years of my career as a plant engineer in a very large energy complex. While most of my job was boring and routine, sometimes it was anything but boring or routine.
I was on the font line when things went wrong, explosions, fires, people’s lives at risk, and the company bleeding money hand over fist. It was my job to put on my hard hat and coveralls, pick up a walkie-talkie, walk into the disaster, join the front line team, and get on with fixing things.
Anger and Crisis, Response and Recovery
It always amazed me that during a crisis the first response is anger, denial, and blaming.
I have vivid memories of sitting in smoke-filled meeting rooms, fuelled by coffee, everyone covered in bitumen and grime, and all of us scared to death of the things we didn’t know. At the beginning of the crisis, always folks yelled and screamed, pointed fingers, and stopped listening.
Crisis, Response and Recovery – Venting is Necessary
Over time, I concluded that this venting phase is necessary. It clears the air and, in a weird way, cements the team. But ultimately, somebody has to say:
“Folks, this isn’t going anywhere. Let’s focus on the problem.”
When somebody cuts through the noise and provides leadership, the team really focuses. We get to work; we recover. Ultimately, things get back to normal. We are seeing good and bad examples of leadership now.
Crisis, Response and Recovery and Sideline Sniping
There are always folks outside of the response team who make it their business to judge everything; every action and all the things we choose not to do. They interfere, insist that they have a better way, don’t offer any constructive advice, ignore the data, don’t listen to the experts, and moan and complain that they are out of the loop. They are emotional and obstructive. I call these folks sideline snipers. They make a lot of noise, but they aren’t very useful.
During a Crisis all Ideas Welcome
During a crisis all ideas are welcome, but blaming, gaming, shaming and self-promotion is unproductive and dangerous. It costs lives.
This is when I embraced the expression:
“Lead, follow or get out of the way.”
Though, I said it in a much saltier way.
Crisis Management is Difficult
It should go without saying, but crisis management is difficult. We make decisions with limited information and with life or death outcomes. I have huge admiration for the folks guiding us through the current crisis. As I learned during my time doing crisis management, these folks need as much support as we can offer.
People Don’t Change
Today, I am not surprised to see the same reactions to the COVID-19 crisis I witnessed all those years ago. People don’t change. Folks are scared, and they are venting. I see it in social media; I hear it on the news and see examples of it out in the street. Folks ignoring guidance to social distance, blaming, hoarding, and worst of all in this day of social media, promoting false information that endangers lives.
We need to get by this phase. This is a crisis. It is real, and we are all exposed. Denial is not an option.
But neither is it a time to panic. We must not let fear paralyze us. We need to focus and remain calm. We can be there for each other, do our part, and otherwise stay out of the way. We really don’t want to become part of the problem.
We Need to Get on with Response and Recovery
As in any crisis, the first reaction is panic. But then we must get on with the real work. The faster we get there, the better. Everyone has a part to play. Even staying home and keeping out of the way is doing something useful.