How Prepared is Your Company for the Next Crisis?

We face a new era of uncertainty, and we need to be prepared to handle it.

by Diana Hendel, PharmD and Mark Goulston, MD
a viral crisis
Pandemics aren’t the only business disruptor, not by a long shot.

We all wanted to think the worst was over—that those early pandemic days of stress and uncertainty were behind us and our companies could get back to normal. But with COVID cases rising and some companies rethinking return-to-work plans, it seems that “normal” may be distant dream. From now on, we can expect one disruptive crisis after another.

Eventually, trauma will impact your company. It’s not if, it’s when—and the when is sooner than you think. COVID is the most obvious example, but it’s not the last. We all face a new era of uncertainty, and we need to be prepared to handle it.

Pandemics aren’t the only business disruptor, not by a long shot. Over the past few decades, organizations have been rocked by technological shakeups, shifting consumer habits, and political and social unrest, not to mention internal upheavals like harassment, violence and scandal. That’s why careful preparation is a must. Organizations that will stand the test of time are those that put a plan in place to deal with the kinds of disasters that could create traumatic stress in their people and destabilize their culture.

What does such a plan look like? While it varies from company to company (and is too comprehensive to describe here), here are seven of the “must-haves.”

1. Get a firm grasp on the difference between trauma and stress. While stress upsets our balance in the moment, we still maintain a feeling of control over our lives. Most of us deal with routine stress daily and are able to manage it (up to a point, anyway). Trauma, on the other hand, overwhelms our self-protective structure and sends us scrambling for survival. It leaves us vulnerable, helpless, groundless. It shatters our sense of safety and security and changes how we look at the world. And unaddressed, it can result in long-term harm. 

2. Launch a rapid response process the moment a crisis occurs. You might think of this as a “Code Blue.” It’s a standardized, preplanned approach for dealing with disruption. Getting one in place helps everyone know exactly what to do so decisions can be made quickly, efficiently and with a focus on safety. Here are the components to focus on: 

  • Gather your rapid response team. Appoint people to this team before a crisis happens and make sure they know their respective roles. It should include all senior leaders and leaders of key functions such as operations/logistics, security, finance, HR, communications/PR facilities, etc. 
  • Allow the leader in charge to delegate. You need a central commander to manage response activities such as assigning personnel, deploying equipment and obtaining additional resources. This leader must be fully present, visible and available in the heat of crisis. 
  • Have the team report to the command center. This is a predetermined location (physical and/or virtual) for monitoring and reacting to events. You should also select a codeword that puts the rapid response process into action. 
  • Gather relevant information. In a crisis, it’s critical to centralize information, facts and data. What’s known? What isn’t known? The goal is to organize and coordinate response activities, ensuring the most pressing needs are met and that resources are properly allocated. 
  • Promote a unifying message. It is vital to deliberately shape and disseminate a message of unity. Make sure your message is one of “we are all in it together.” This helps people transcend the impulse to split into factions.

3. Name, claim and frame trauma from the onset. This helps everyone understand what is happening to individuals and to the group. It gives us the language to talk about it so that everyone is on the same page. It helps people say “Aha, this is why I am feeling so bad!” And it gives everyone permission to finally seek real help.

4. Know the red flags of traumatized employees. When people are traumatized, they experience the “Fight, Flight, Freeze” survival response. This is the body’s natural response to danger that enables us to defend ourselves, flee to safety or freeze as a means of survival (much like playing dead in the animal kingdom). 

Fight, Flight, Freeze can manifest in different ways. Some people might become hostile, belligerent, aggressive or otherwise “difficult”—often seemingly without adequate cause. Others might cling to their “competence zone,” blindly doing what they’ve always done even though it no longer works. People dig in and resist change. Or they may insist they are “fine,” even when it is clear they are struggling. 

Meanwhile, leaders may behave in distinctively un-leaderly ways as well. They might hide out in their office instead of jumping into action, or make rash, knee-jerk decisions when they were previously known for levelheaded steadiness.

5. Get super focused on communication. Think: “VITAL.” In times of crisis, employees need frequent, real-time, transparent communication more than ever. The acronym VITAL will help you remember the tenets around communicating in the aftermath of trauma: 

  • Visible. Leaders must be highly visible and take the lead in communication. Don’t hide behind a spokesperson. Communicate quickly and clearly to reduce ambiguity. 
  • In it Together. Double down on messages connected to teambuilding, camaraderie and purpose. Acknowledge fears and worries as normal. Let people know what to expect.
  • Transparent. Align leadership in how they see the external environment and make sure everyone agrees on what success looks like so messages are cascaded consistently. Don’t create voids by waiting to communicate. Tackle rumors head-on. Share bad news the minute you have it. 
  • Accessible. Use all modalities (video, email, intranet, text, town halls, etc.) to convey messages from the senior leader. Have a central repository or FAQ where people can get info and ask questions between regular communication sessions. 
  • Listening. Ask questions and leave room for inquiry. When listening, stop talking. Resist the temptation to just listen for what you want to hear (your job is to hear and deal with the hard stuff, too).

6. Leverage the power of the Fourth “F.” You already know about the Fight/Flight/Freeze response. You may not know about the lesser-known “fourth F.” This stands for friend. It represents the bonding that occurs in response to trauma due to the presence of oxytocin (the “love” hormone that fuels friendships). This hormone causes people to bond in the aftermath of trauma. If leaders can leverage this camaraderie early on, it can bring the entire organization together. However, if they fail to do this, the fourth F can work against your organization as individuals bond with like-minded coworkers and end up splitting into factions. People begin to question other peoples’ motives and start taking sides. This division can lead to deep polarization. 

7. Use “both/and” to stop post-trauma polarization. When a traumatic event occurs, opposing views can divide the organization. People believe the right course of action is either “A” or “B.” They see themselves as right and the other side as wrong. Leaders succumb to pressure and choose one option over the other (say, Choice A). When the downsides of that action appear, they reverse course and go to the other extreme. Naturally, the downsides of Choice B then appear… and leaders swing back to Choice A. With every swing of the pendulum, the division deepens. This is incredibly damaging to your culture.

A both/and mindset helps us manage polarization. Instead of approaching issues with an either/or mentality, organizations can leverage both sides of these polarities with a both/and approach. The idea is to maximize the effects of both sides and minimize the downsides of each. For example, in a crisis, effective leaders can both take charge and build consensus. They can be direct and candid AND diplomatic and tactful.

It actually is possible to recover and go on to thrive in the aftermath of trauma. But it’s a process, and the process starts long before the disruptive event occurs. Don’t be caught unprepared. When trauma shows up at your front door, the sooner you take action, the sooner you can make things right—and the sooner your employees can be on the road to healing. PM

Drs. Diana Hendel and Mark Goulston are the authors of Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side.

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