18 Critical Rules To Deal With A Crisis/Disaster At Work

Losing Control In A Crisis Has A Devastating Effect On Your Workforce. Read These 17 Rules To Maintaining Your Ethical Leadership Under Pressure.

This article will highlight a real example of a crisis and the lessons learned from dealing with it. It will provide you insights and tips for dealing with a disaster when it occurs.

The email came through from an anonymous email account, sent to over 600 people in our IT center in Asia, including the complete leadership team and global leaders in Europe and the USA.  The email did not waste words; it launched into a devastating attack on our center manager.

The communication was a well-rounded attack on his:

  • Knowledge of IT Outsourcing – claiming “he knows nothing about technology and cannot even talk on the same level as the employees.”
  • Interpersonal skills – “he shouts and bullies his employees,” and “his favorite people get promotions; everyone else gets nothing.”
  • Challenging Ethnicity – “why do we have to be managed by an Indian when we are all Malaysians? This company does not like Malaysians.”
  • Interaction with the Global Leadership – “he sucks up to the global leaders, doing everything they say and telling them everything is great in our center when it is not”
  • Global Leadership Attack – “the global VP in charge of all IT centers is a disgusting fat pig who only cares only about numbers, not people, and he rules by fear.”

Upon receiving this email, I spoke to one of my most trusted team members at the center and asked her what caused all the outrage in the center.

This situation almost turned into a workplace riot.  Let’s take a look at the lessons learned.

1. Don’t Contribute To The Crisis

The story goes as follows.  There was a service outage for one of our major customers.  The team responsible for fixing the issue was having problems restoring the services because there was no backup of the servers’ data.  When informed of the problems, the center manager approached the team and started screaming at them, insulting them, and, in general, being rude.

This manager, for a single moment, lost control in a crisis, and the backlash was hard, and the crisis was deepened.

I had met this manager previous to the crisis, and to me, he was a well-liked and respected leader in our company and the industry in Malaysia.  He had no track-record of unprofessional behavior and had an exemplary record previously.  So, what went wrong?

2. Understand The Snowball Effect Of Losing Control

The email personally attacking this leader came out six months after this event.  It took time for the feelings of ill-will and resentment to fester and become a significant issue.  Those who were insulted by the attack on their professionalism, knowledge, and maturity spread poison amongst their colleagues and friends, to the point where most of the staff were now fearful of this manager.  They were afraid that if they made a mistake, they would be verbally attacked and insulted.

When the fear in a workforce grows, this has knock-on impacts on teamwork, collaboration, and the people’s working culture; fear breeds resentment.

If you lose your temper at work and raise your voice, swear or act disrespectfully, the snowballing impact can be hugely negative, and your days are numbered.

3. Know The Causes of Stress & Pressure At Work

Stress and pressure at work can cause you to lose control during periods of crisis.  Know what causes stress and create a plan to remediate the problems

Causes of Stress Potential Solutions
Long Working Hours Reduce working hours, ask for extra resources
Workload Too Heavy Delegate more tasks, ask for more resources
Micro-Management Speak with the Boss or Team Leader about building their trust, so they do not over manage you.
Relationships with Co-Workers A problematic area to fix.  Like any good relationship, it takes time to develop. Be sociable, attend work functions, go to team lunches, never smack talk people behind their back. Behave with integrity.
Harassment Report harassment to human resources or your manager
Discrimination Report any discrimination to HR or your manager
Unhappy Customers Providing poor service to customers can have a detrimental effect on your well-being; how can you deliver a better service?
Lack of Skills Make a self-development plan which will place you in a more confident position
Lack of Promotion If you are looking for a promotion but cannot see the opportunity, speak with your manager.  Good managers always need people who want more responsibility.
Crisis Incidents Crisis incidents can trigger you to lose control, and use the checklist below to manage the situation.


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4. Prepare For Crisis By Knowing Your “Go-To” People

If you do not know how to fix a problem, you need to know someone who does.

Your network of relationships is one of the most valuable things you have in any organization.  As a leader, manager, team leader, or individual contributor, it is “who you know, not what you know” that gets a crisis resolved. If you do not know the right people to involve during an emergency, you need to at least know someone who has a great people network to call upon.

5. Understand The Task At Hand

When you are tasked to fix a crisis, the first thing you need to do is try to make a rudimentary assessment of the cause, scale, and duration of the crisis.

Determining the cause of the crisis is critical; is it losing a critical customer contract, a severe drop in sales, or even a virus attack that brings down half of your IT services in a datacenter?

The scale of the problem is also critical to understand, does this affect your team, department, or the whole company.  Knowing the scale of the problem means when you move ahead to building the crisis response team, you have vital information from where to draw the staff from to potentially fix the issues.

Knowing the estimated duration of the crisis is also important.  Will you be able to fix the problems in a few days, weeks, or even months?  Knowing this will enable you to set the right expectations on the crisis team and their management, who are freeing up those resources to work the issues.

6. Be Clear About the Stakeholders

It is important to know exactly who the most important stakeholders are.  A stakeholder is usually a peer or more senior member of staff that has control of the resources needs to do the job or a vested interest in ensuring the crisis is resolved. By including the stakeholders in initial meetings and regularly reporting out to them on the status and any requests for resources or finding you a securing major backing to resolve a crisis.

7. Assemble the Crisis/Disaster Response Team

The bigger the issues, the higher profile you need your team to be.  You will need to raise awareness across the business units and organizations that there is indeed a big problem.  As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step.

Call and email the managers of the people you will need to utilize to resolve the crisis and provide them with a simple call to action.  You need [name], for [percent of their time] for the next [X weeks] to perform this [action/role] in the team.

8. Forming The Crisis Resolution Team MeetingCrisis Resolution Team

This is essentially team-building under but under time pressure.  But like any team, even this temporary gathering of people needs to go through a process of forming, storming, norming, and performing.

Take the time in the first meeting to welcome everyone and state the problem.  You will then need to formally and individually introduce everyone, name, department, role, and say something positive about each person.  If you do not know many of the people, ask them to introduce themselves and go around the table.  Take the time to do this; it is important.  Read our article on managing remote teams for additional information.

9. Storming The Crisis Team & Understanding the Issue

The second stage of development of any team is the storming stage.  This means the people within the team will typically try to find a place where they fit in and work through any issues or disagreements they may have.

To power through the storming process, you can use the actual crisis for people to vent their issues and get clarification.

Explain the crisis and share openly what information you have so far.  Ask the team members to add any extra thoughts or information they have to help with the assessment.

Ensure to communicate clearly that the goal of the team is not to apportion blame for the crisis but to resolve the crisis.  Avoid blamestorming at all costs.

10. Using Team Work To Resolve Crisis Situations

No serious crisis is ever solved by one person alone.  The larger the crisis, the larger the impact usually means you need a larger team to fix it.

You can even manage and resolve a crisis even if you do not have the technical skills to understand it, although having the right skills does help.  That is where teamwork comes in.

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11. Establish What A Solution Looks Like

So, you have established the scale and cause of the crisis; now, you need to work together to establish what the solution looks like.  The solution is the main goal of the team. what does a solution look like

You can start the solution discussion by going around the table in the meeting and ask individually for potential solutions.  Get each person to suggest a solution and what the potential pros and cons of the solution are.  Save your opinion for last unless you are already crystal clear on the best solution.  My experience is that if you have formed a great crisis team, you will get a diverse set of potential solutions that you yourself had not considered.

Believe it or not, you do not always have all of the answers.

So, let the team speak and add your solution at the end.  The roundtable approach to solution creation also allows you to size up the team members and their motivations.  This, in turn, allows you to assign tasks and roles better later in the process.

12. Choosing the Right Ethical Solution

Let’s take the example of the car manufacturing industry in 2007.  The financial crisis heavily affected the stock market and the demand for new cars.  This was a serious crisis that threatened immeasurably the profitability and existence of the biggest auto assemblers and all of their suppliers.

Here are two solutions that were being utilized:

US Car Makers – Aggressively reduce the workforce and reduce the manufacturing output, to maintain profit margin and offset the drop in revenue.  Positives: Instant fix and increases the chance of company survival.  Negatives:  Social impact of mass redundancies on towns, cities, and families.

German Car Makers –  Reduce manufacturing output and costs to offset the reduced demand for cars.  Achieve this by giving the workforce an option, reduce working hours by 30% for the next 12 months, and keep your job, or 30% of the jobs must go.  Positives:  Fewer redundancy payments, less social impact, reduced output, and costs.  Negatives:  The automakers did not know when the recession would end; therefore, they were backloading the risk to a later date.

Ultimately, it is widely understood that German car companies had a better solution.  When the financial crisis ended and the global economy started to function properly again, demand for cars started to grow.  When the market recovered, Volkswagen stepped in to claim the customers; it could ramp up production and capitalize on new markets because it still had its workforce.  Volkswagen is now the world’s biggest car producer.  They turned a crisis solution into a competitive advantage.

13. Establish The Path To A Solution

So, you know what the solution is, how do you get there?the journey to a solution

Again, there are multiple paths to reaching a goal, and your new team might have a great solution hidden away in their minds.  Perform the same roundtable discussion, table the solutions, and choose the best.

The best solution will account for one or more of the following criteria:

  1. Cost of Implementation
  2. Timescale
  3. Resources Available
  4. Least Negative Impact or Most Positive Impact (Utilitarian decision making)

14. Break Down The Solutions & Assign Team Roles & Tasks

Now you know the solution and the path to the solution, it is time to break down the solution into manageable chunks.  Those chunks are the logical units of the solution.  For example, if the solution requires negotiations with Unions on workforce matters, the senior leaders and HR will need to own it.  If part of the solution is to communicate with customers on contracts or services, then sales teams, legal teams, and account managers will need to own it.  Either way, assign the tasks to the right people and be sure they understand they are responsible and accountable for fixing that chunk of the problem.

15. Setup Regular Follow Up Meetings

Any crisis of magnitude is not solved in a single meeting; therefore, it is important to establish a regular date and time that all team members can attend.  So, negotiate the regularity and timing of the meeting with all members and ensure you get confirmation from all required participants that attendance is compulsory.  There is nothing more annoying than 80% of the team meeting up to discuss progress when the team’s important members with critical tasks do not show up.  It slows the resolution and impetus of the team.

16. Report Results & Needs Regularly Up To Senior Management18 Critical Rules To Deal With A Crisis/Disaster At Work Leadership & Management Guides

As discussed in one of the first steps, you have your stakeholder, ensure you communicate regularly with them.

Highlight the following:

  1. Overall Percent Complete
  2. What is going well?
  3. What is not going well, and how to get back on track?
  4. What is the estimated date of resolution?

17. Job Done – Crisis Resolvedproblem resolved

Well done, you did it; the crisis is resolved.  Make sure to run a final meeting and send out communications to ensure all are on the same page.  Ensure you clearly thank all participants and show appreciation for their work.  Spend the time to send feedback to their managers that highlights their contributions.  This motivational patting on the back and positive feedback will have the following consequences.

  1. It will highlight your maturity and appreciation of people and their value.
  2. People will have an increased appreciation for the way you work and who you are.
  3. People leaving the crisis on a positive note will tell stories about the adversity they overcame and who they were successful with.  This boosts their standing and yours.
  4. In the event of another crisis, those people will be more likely to get involved and support you to succeed.

If the team does not succeed, no one succeeds.

18. Post-Mortem & Follow-up

In the final meeting, it is worth establishing a post-mortem team to assess how the crisis started and how to avoid it happening again.  In my experience of large corporations, this step is often missed out.  But that is a huge mistake; well-run organizations will seek to avoid any problems that are likely to reoccur.

I have seen the same issues reoccurring time after time because the post-mortem recommendations were not followed up with enough support and effort to eradicate the problem.

For example, one company I worked for intentionally underpaid its staff compared to the country’s employment market.  This led to a very high turnover of staff.  The staff turnover of 20% per year meant that in 2.5 years half the staff had left the company, and by five years you can expect pretty much everyone to have changed.

This short-sighted thinking has knock-on effects that are unimaginable at the beginning but cause real issues down the line.  For example, your customers see that they have different account managers or support contacts every few months.  They see they have to build a new relationship with a new person and that the new person does not know enough about their business or service requirements.  The problem of knowledge management is at the forefront; you will get brain drain and knowledge drain at an unacceptable rate.  So, when your customer finally has had enough because of low service or product quality, and they stop the contract.

Then you have another crisis.

Ethics in Crisis Management Summary

The fact is that behaving ethically in a crisis is good for all people involved and good for business. Integrity is always respected and honored.  Those people or companies hiding from the truth or blaming others will eventually be found out.  Behave ethically, and it will always work out better.

Barry D. Moore
Barry's 25 years of experience with Silicon Valley Corporations such as IBM, Compaq, Hewlett Packard, Hewlett Packard Enterprise & DXC Technology enables him to share his knowledge of succeeding in today's professional corporate environments and develop a great work life for yourself.