Faculty Advisor: Dealing with Stress in Crisis Management When Emotions Are Running High

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Q. Can you offer me any advice on managing employee emotions during a crisis event such as a fire or flood or a weather catastrophe that hits multiple facilities across a region causing damage, injuries or even deaths?

It’s important to remember that when a crisis hits a company, no matter how well prepared that company is, emotions will run high. So, in business continuity planning consider not just the practical but the emotional factors that will impact preparation, response and recovery. Following are just a few examples.

Layering response and management teams is both a practical and an emotional consideration. I recommend that companies of any size maintain response teams at different levels in the organization. Ideally, a company will have:

  • A local response team (LRT) that acts as your eyes and hands at the site of the emergency
  • An incident management team (IMT), often at the home office, that comprises subject matter experts like IT, Finance, Media Relations, and HR who can provide support to the LRT on site
  • A crisis management team (CMT) made up of the senior leadership of the organization, who make decisions regarding policy and the financial aspect of the crisis. (In smaller companies, the IMT and CMT might be combined.)

This layering is important for a number of reasons. Among them:

  1. If you can clearly lay out a set of specific roles and responsibilities for individuals at multiple levels during a crisis, not only will you avoid confusion and improve your response, but you will help people to concentrate their attention on explicitly defined tasks or goals, which may make it easier for them to focus in an emotionally fraught environment.
  2. Having an LRT ensures that the rest of the team doesn’t have to get their updates from CNN; you have a trusted, inside source who can answer specific questions about the situation and the well-being of the people on site.
  3. Well-defined and well-designated team responsibilities help people to focus on accomplishing the critical functions only they can accomplish with the assurance that there is someone else who is responsible for taking care of or checking in on the injured.

Choose your team members carefully and don’t assume that just because someone is at a senior management level they won’t have an emotion response that could affect their judgment. The individuals on the various response teams must be able to exercise their subject matter expertise with clarity and calm under pressure. Sometimes that means choosing someone further down the ranks that will be more comfortable performing in a crisis. A high level of comfort under stress can be gained from participating in mock exercises and roundtables. By observing participants in these exercises, you can validate the performance of team members and adjust your plans and teams if necessary.

Team and company roles, responsibilities, policies and procedures must be clearly documented and disseminated to all involved in response and recovery. When you’re in your first "live" CMT or IMT meeting and your team is frustrated, afraid, and anxious about the events happening around them, it will be easy for them to be scattered. You can keep people safe and on point by regularly referring to a document you have created that says exactly what everyone needs to be doing in the situation. This document will assist in reminding the crisis management team to stay focused on their roles in order to implement their response strategies most effectively. Also, this documentation will allow for the crisis management function to become sustainable as a company turns over its talent.

It’s normal for people to feel emotional during a crisis. We must respect our colleagues’ emotions in a crisis, and we must stand behind a strong, defined response and recovery plan to help them manage their responsibilities and our own.

Response provided by Dean Correia, Security Executive Council Emeritus Faculty, Business Continuity Lead
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