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Teams add value in a crisis

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All teams will experience crisis

Even the most high performing teams experience unexpected situations that can derail them if not addressed quickly and competently. At some point in every leader’s career, they’ll be faced with leading a team through a crisis. It may be a large-scale event that has global impact—think global pandemic—or a problem that affects just their organization or team.

Maybe the company changes strategy overnight or a project the team has been working on for months gets suddenly canceled. Whatever the circumstances, when a problem rises to the level of a crisis it is a time of heightened challenge and stress.

How we respond matters

Crisis can bring out the best and worst of us. We can rise to the occasion, freeze in our tracks, retreat, or even arise a hero.

Crises can trigger negative emotions and behaviors. But they can also trigger positive responses, like altruism, leadership, and teamwork. Consider natural disasters. While they trigger fear and alarm for those affected, they also prompt acts of heroism and helping those in need.

How we handle a crisis determines the outcome of the scenario which will have both immediate as well as long lasting effects.

We all respond differently

The first step in leading others through a crisis is acknowledging your own response and then understanding how to leverage that of others.

Our first response is instinctual

Imagine there is an alien invasion and mass chaos ensues. How would you respond? Do you remain calm and assess the situation before taking action? Do you jump in and eliminate immediate dangers? Perhaps you tend to the needs of those around you? Or begin your search for what triggered the invasion?

Regardless of your response, what’s most important is that you understand you have one and it’s unique to you.

In an interview with Russell Shilling, chief scientific officer for the American Psychology Association, Fast Company reported that “According to Shilling, people’s reactions to danger depend a lot on how they’re wired, what they’ve learned in the past, their exposure to stress, and their preconceived notions of what constitutes danger.”

Leaders can’t rely on instincts alone

HBR wants leaders to understand that “when a crisis strikes, we tend to respond instinctively, but those initial impulses may not be especially productive. They may even be counterproductive.”

As a team leader, it can also feel like the weight of a workplace crisis is on our shoulders alone. Heidi Gardner and Ivan Matviak point out in HBR that, “The desire to try to bring things under control can also lead to a go-it-alone mentality.” While it may feel like we should be solving any problems, it’s less effective to try to do this on our own.

Instead of trying to tackle a crisis alone, leaders can focus on how to facilitate others through chaos. Leaders can elevate their thinking about their role during a crisis, using techniques from Crisis Leadership, by Gene Klann. As covered in CCL, “Effective leaders are able to remain calm and maintain a sense of perspective...during a crisis, your goal is to reduce loss and keep things operating as normal as possible.’’

Crisis requires collaboration

Great leaders cultivate a collaborative team response and greatly improve short and long-term outcomes.

Approach crisis response like a coach would

One way to approach crisis response is like coaching a team sport. And like any good coach, you need to know your players. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What unique response skills do each bring to the team?

When a crisis hits, leaders should have an understanding of the roles each prefers to play.

Consider who prefers to:

  • Jump in and tackle immediate problems?
  • See the bigger picture and coordinate resources?
  • Challenge the long-term impacts of solutions?
  • Tend to the needs of other team members?
  • Identify the root cause of the crisis to avoid it happening again?
  • Keep others in the loop to ensure alignment and continuity?

HBR writes that “bringing together experts with diverse experience allows the response group to see risks and opportunities from different angles to generate new solutions and adapt dynamically to changing situations.”

Collaborative teams respond better

While we can’t predict crises, we can create an environment where team members can more readily collaborate when the time comes. HBR collected over a decade worth of data across multiple industries to understand how teams handled work during a crisis. Their research found that “As uncertainty and stress increased during the crisis, the highly collaborative people evolved their approach to developing business and executing work.”

Whereas they found that the “self-focused, uncollaborative people took a wholly different approach. They erected walls around their projects, pushed colleagues away, held their business and clients closely, and hoarded work.”

Cultivating a culture of crisis collaboration will enable the team to act quickly when a crisis hits and ensure a potentially manageable crisis doesn’t turn into an even bigger disaster.

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