Managing a Crisis: Ten leadership lessons – Dave Jepson

In my career I have been involved with two crises in which serious unexpected events threatened the health and lives of many people. A year  into the Covid crisis, I’ve watched the government navigate a course through countless issues and come to the conclusion that some consistent – and important – lessons about the challenge of crisis management stand out.

Managing a crisis well requires preparation – every organisation should of course put in place processes, guiding principles and training to equip key personnel to undertake emergency roles should they be required. Even so, the best preparation cannot mitigate against the issues and realities described below.

Should you find yourself managing a workplace crisis, I hope this list will help you make better decisions and keep a positive perspective across the unavoidably difficult days that come with crisis management.

  1. You cannot win! – crises are invariably ‘negative sum’, and something has to give. No matter what you do, someone (such as a lobby group, those with a factional interest, a political (or Political) organisation) will either genuinely disagree or simply take this opportunity to criticise you.

In the case of Covid-19 the interests of the health lobby vs the economy lobby illustrate this challenge.

  1. Your decisions will be influenced by factors that not everyone will know about or understand or even accept. You may not have time to explain these, but at least be consistent in making fact based, principle driven decisions.

Decision-making around prioritisation for inoculation is an example of this in practice.

  1. Your decisions will probably be influenced by two common psychological biases – a tendency to maintain the status quo and a tendency to work within your own comfort zone.

Understanding this scenario may allow you to make early decisions faster.

  1. In a fast-moving incident you cannot cover all the bases and all the detail –there will often be a delay between a decision point and being able to explain all the detailed implications.

Early in the Covid-19 crisis the media was full of issues and challenges that the Government seemed slow to respond to. The inevitable lag needs to be explicitly referenced and reasons explained.

  1. You will make some decisions that in retrospect could be labelled ‘wrong’. It is unlikely they were ‘wrong’ at the time – they simply reflected the best decision based on the information available at that moment.

Decisions around how and when to lock down illustrate this point. Revised decisions must reference new facts.

  1. You will change your mind – as you gather more and better information, you may need to revise your decisions and plans. Never be afraid to do so – you must take the best decision you can at the time and accept that criticism (see (1) above) will follow.

The promise of a normal Christmas 2020 is a case in point!

  1. Your messaging will get corrupted as it passes through your stakeholder groups. Make it clear, make it positive (focus on what you want people to do rather than what you do not want them to do) and make it consistent.

The Government quickly learned to adopt consistent three-point messaging.

  1. When you have nothing new to say, reinforce old messages. If your audience expects daily updates, any silence will be filled with rumour, conspiracy and other ‘garbage’ (both well-meaning and underhand).

After a short period, the government’s daily briefing process focused on reiterating core messages.

  1. Your audience/customers/population will be frightened – make certain to recognise and address the human aspects of the situation as well as the technical ones.

Over the 12 months of the pandemic, government announcements increasingly led with empathetic messages acknowledging personal difficulty.

  1. It feels hard because it is hard and you should cut those involved, including yourself, some slack. Very few people are ever called upon to manage a real crisis and dealing with them can be emotionally draining and all-consuming.

Many commentators have noted ministers appearing exhausted. Matt Hancock’s very public emotions on day one of the vaccination programme revealed the extent of the strain the previous nine months had put on him.

Are there any you think should be added? Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.