You probably don't remember reading "putting out fires" in your job description when you first got hired, but it was written in the subtext, and you probably deal with your fair share. For many of us crisis is a daily event.
When you think of a crisis the obvious scenarios come to mind: Power outages, environmental catastrophes, terrorism, and medical emergencies. But crises come in much smaller packages. A crisis is any unexpected event that needs immediate attention. That can mean a breakdown in equipment, an angry client, a staff shortage or a volatile argument between two colleagues.
Rule number one in crisis is an oxymoron: Stay calm. If you've ever wondered why it's so hard to be rational and level headed in a crisis, you're not alone. In a stressful situation your autonomic (involuntary) nervous system takes over. Your body releases a flood of hormones, primarily cortisol, that suppress your immune system and get you ready for action. You know the symptoms well: An increased heart rate, cold hands and feet, increased blood pressure, an inability to think clearly.
But remember, stay calm, right? In a crisis your body and mind are literally at odds. Here are four tips for you to practice the next time you deal with a crisis, big or small.
1. Have a plan B: Systems without backup inevitably break down. We can't be prepared for every crisis that comes our way, but we can use forethought to troubleshoot in advance. Most work places have a plan for a fire, violence and even a protocol for dealing with angry customers. Most of the time, however, people don't know it. Strong leaders and managers make sure their staff is trained and updated on procedures and back up plans.
2. Use stories to prepare people: In the 1980's a scientist named Gary Klein published studies on how people react in emergencies showing that people do not resort to the rational thinking model in crises. Instead they use a nonlinear type of thinking, recalling stories, analogies, and relying on intuition.
If this seems strange, think about which you would recall easier: A story about how someone handled a fire in your office successfully or steps one, two and three from your employee handbook. People create a visual image from a story that can be recalled quickly in an emergency. Klein suggests using stories of past events to teach employees how to react in a similar situation.
3. Give orders: Emergencies are the one time that a leader can ignore everyone else's input. People are waiting for direction and they will panic if they don't get it immediately. Be specific. Keep it short and don't ask for opinions unless you know someone else has the knowledge to provide a better solution.
4. Convey calm: You may not be able to feel calm, but you can convey it. Your voice and body language will give you away every time, so remember to speak in a clear, authoritative voice. Talk as if you are fully confident about what you are saying. If you seem unsure people will be reluctant to follow.
Use your body carefully. Stand straight; if you are directing people show them with your hands where you want them to go. If you feel like you are shaking, hold your hands clasped behind your back. Above all, remember to breathe. You may not have the time to mediate, but studies show that three deep inhalations actually slow the heart rate and begin to reverse the stress response in our bodies.
No one wants a crisis, but since they are a part of our lives, we might as well be ready for them. You don't have to be the big boss to take the lead. So when the time comes any of us should be ready and willing to step up to the plate.
Elisa Levy conducts seminars on conflict resolution and anger management. For more information, contact her at 305-296-5437 or visit http://www.elisalevy.com.