Seawise University (formerly RMS Queen Elizabeth) in Victoria Harbour (Hong Kong),photo taken July 1972 by Barry Loigman, M.D.

In the aftermath of last week’s horrific Boston Marathon bombings, many are struggling to set their lives right again. Victims’ families seek to comprehend the terror that has struck so close to home; innocent bystanders cast about for ways to offer comfort and support; and a thriving city seeks to restore itself after being immobilized, first by the tragedy and then by its aftermath. While everyone brings some degree of personal experience to bear in dealing with a disaster, those experienced in crisis management cite a few consistent steps that can help leaders in guiding a team through a catastrophic event.

Take a step-by-step approach

British Parliamentarian David Lammy got a dose of firsthand experience in crisis management in August of 2011 when called upon to respond to riots across the city of London that had begun in his constituency. Not only was Lammy dealing with a widespread crisis, he was doing so under the glare of the world media spotlight. Not a comfortable place to be in, admittedly, but Lammy asserts that it taught him a lot about “handling decisions in a crisis.” When a catastrophe is unfolding, Lammy advises leaders to take the following steps.

  • Listen to what’s going on and trust your instincts. While Lammy was upset by the outbreak of the London riots, he was not completely surprised, as he’d been listening to the growing drumbeat of discontent among his constituents for the previous two years and sharing his concerns with fellow Parliamentarians.

Professors Morten T. Hansen and Jim Collins call this behavior ‘productive paranoia.’ In their book Great by Choice, Hansen and Collins analyzed the ways in which CEOS and companies navigated a business terrain in which terrorist attacks and natural disasters were a very real threat. They discovered that the most successful leaders were those who were “hyper-vigilant about threats around them (the paranoia part) and also took action to mitigate those threats, whether in the form of building buffers or hedging (the productive part).”

  • Stay calm in stressful circumstances. When you find yourself in the midst of an unfolding crisis, you must be able to handle intense communications. Prioritize, stay clear, and keep your message consistent.
  • Think about how you will support the most vulnerable people affected by the crisis. When disaster breaks, many different groups of people may be harmed. In Boston last week, the bombings affected not only those physically injured by the blast, but also those who witnessed the carnage, shop owners whose businesses sit at the bomb site, and many more who call the city their home. It’s imperative, Lammy says, that leaders strongly support those impacted by the crisis—by giving them counsel, access to resources, a voice in the fray, etc.

Be compassionate and don’t assume that you know what others are feeling, corporate HR professional Suzanne Lucas notes. Don’t be afraid to ask people what they need, listen to what they’re telling you, and offer substantive help to alleviate their pain, stress or grief.

  • Prioritize. In the midst of catastrophe, chaos reigns. It is incumbent on leaders to stay calm and collected under these circumstances, so that problems can be dealt with efficiently and effectively. A trusted support team is invaluable in helping a leader navigate through these difficult circumstances.

Strategize the flow of information

In times of crisis, effective and efficient communications throughout an organization become more important than ever. The time to figure out protocol, however, is before emergency strikes, rather than in the heat of moment. Hansen outlines the elements for success in his book Collaboration:

  • Make sure that communications can travel horizontally as well as vertically. “A system cannot respond effectively when information has to flow up and down hierarchical lines: it is slow, and superiors often suppress the information because they do not see its importance or relevance or don’t have time to respond,” Professor Hansen explains. To achieve effective crisis management, he argues, the power to share information, and if necessary act upon it, must extend throughout the organization, rather than be restricted solely to senior management.
  • Make sure that your system can handle information overload. When crisis strikes, Hansen explains, both the volume and flow of data increase dramatically. “The ratio of noise to helpful information goes way up too, making it difficult to interpret and manage,” Hansen observes. This phenomenon was readily apparent in the aftermath of last week’s Boston bombing, when the media and social media were bombarded with information on possible suspects, new developments in the case and the like, many of them erroneous.

During such periods, it is imperative that leaders have mechanisms in place to increase the ‘attention capacity’ of their organization in order to evaluate and synthesize the deluge of data. Hansen recommends that leaders tap managers who can evaluate the data, draw meaningful conclusions and deliver the information to senior management in such a way that they can see the whole picture.

In the end, those leaders who most successfully navigate a crisis are the ones who have prepared. As Winston Churchill counseled, “Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.”

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