How to train your team to respond in a crisis

Crisis Management is hard.

It’s stressful, complex and sometimes even dangerous. There’s an image that exists in the popular consciousness. The calm and collected leader, who steps up and single-handedly saves the day. This is fine in Hollywood fiction, but in a real crisis, the reality is quite different.  

In the real world, a crisis can’t be managed by one person. You need a well-prepared team around you, who understand their role and how to respond.  

The role of a Crisis Leader then is not to ‘save’ the organisation, but instead, to unite people in their efforts and goals as valued members of a cohesive team. This requires a holistic approach where the organisation acts as a complete organism rather than isolated cells. 

When you train your team how to respond in a crisis, it helps ensure the safety of your employees and customers. It can also minimise damage to your reputation and bottom line. There are several key topics to cover to ensure your team is prepared for a crisis. 

Calming the fight or flight response 

Fight or flight is our body’s natural reaction to a situation of perceived danger or extreme stress. A fundamental challenge in any crisis is moving yourself and your team away from the initial panic stage to a stage of productive action. 

The Business Continuity Podcast (The BCPcast) guest Eric McNulty talks about this in his research carried out for the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University. He calls it being in the basement. When you’re in the basement you’re not acting rationally or thinking clearly. As a leader, it’s not just you who needs to manage your own emotions, but you also need to bring others around you ‘out of the basement’. 

You can do this through delegating tasks to each member of the team to work through the process and keep them out of the basement. Get yourself thinking clearly first. Then, establish what is happening and make sure your team know what the next steps are.  

Getting enough information (and being comfortable with incomplete information)

It’s essential to have accurate and timely information when responding to a crisis. However, in many cases, information may be incomplete or changing rapidly. Train your team to be comfortable working with incomplete information and know how to assess the credibility of the sources.  

Focus on how to gather information from multiple sources and make decisions based on the best available information.  

McNaulty notes that effective leaders ask good questions. No one knows everything and others may know something you don’t. Good questions to start with are What do we know? And what do we know we don’t know? 

The answer to these will clarify what’s happened and you give you a list of items to address methodically. In a crisis, it pays to take a moment to think. You might think the team that wins is the team that makes the decision the soonest. But it’s actually not the case. Taking time to distribute responsibility so everyone knows what they are doing is paramount.  

Trust your team - Don't try to do it all yourself 

Identifying incidents and responding quickly can limit problems and help you get control of a crisis faster.  

Crisis events are rare. Our brains have a bias where if we perceive something as highly unlikely, there is a tendency to assign the likelihood of it happening to 0. Basically, you stop looking for it. According to Moran Cerf, neuroscientist and professor at Northwestern University, this happens because the brain cannot comprehend a probability that low. 

This means your team can miss the early warning signs of a crisis, not because of incompetence but biology. They don’t expect to see it and so they don’t. You need to train your team to be actively looking for these signs. Cerf has addressed this challenge in airport security staff. Most will never see a real bomb in a passengers’ luggage so there is a tendency to dismiss the possibility. By adding ‘dummy bombs’ into the process it forces the screeners’ brains to stay responsive.  

Use the same method with your cyber and facilities teams to help stay vigilant, catching and escalating incidents quicky.  

Testing and exercising 

The easiest and simplest way to improve your team’s response in a crisis is to practice. James Crask is the Managing Director and Head of Strategic Risk Consulting at Marsh and another former guest on The BCPcast. He reiterates this - “The more you prepare and practice how you’re going to respond, the better you are on the day.” Key decision-makers should repeatedly practice emergency drills and analyse their team’s responses and allow them to learn from their mistakes. 

Testing and exercising will help your team to become more familiar with the procedures, their roles and responsibilities. This can be done through table-top tests, simulations or full plan exercises. 

By regularly practicing your response, you not only prepare your team on a practical level but also can understand, gauge and adjust your own and your team’s reactions.  

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