- Respond to unexpected, threatening events
- Reduce the risk of making the situation worse for yourself
Forget the crisis you prepared for—that one never comes along. Whether the problem is an internal breakdown or an external danger, a genuine crisis is something that catches you off guard, and which you don’t have a system for. Due to the element of surprise, our own behavior in a crisis can often become an aggravating—rather than a mitigating—factor, as we respond in ways that make things worse. The people around us only add to the unpredictability: A crisis isn’t something you deal with on your own; it always involves managing the actions, reactions, and emotions of others.
Crisis management, therefore, consists in keeping our composure through a period of maximum uncertainty. The four basic principles below are designed for managers but also apply more broadly. They flow from lessons drawn by Synaps staff, as they experienced (or helped others handle) a variety of crises: personal threats, smear campaigns, digital leaks, economic failure, popular uprisings, civil wars, and armed conflicts between states, not to mention the covid pandemic. Safety, counterintuitively, features last in the list, because it depends on all the steps prior.
The first asset in a crisis is information. In a fast-changing environment, the most common mistake is to close yourself off. Just as a breakdown in law and order usually causes people to hunker down, reputational attacks lead their victims to surround themselves with people who agree with them. But the only way to build adequate defenses is to know more about the problem. In other words, a crisis calls for scouting: cautiously collecting every piece of information that may help you mount the right response.
That means taking calculated risks even when you already feel exposed. Depending on the problem you face, you may need to encourage dissenting opinions internally, turn to sources of information you usually distrust, or venture out into a city where the dynamics are changing unpredictably. The best way to do this sensibly is to rely on people around you: Neighbors, relatives, and friends often provide unforeseen support in a crisis. But you must also extend your efforts to less obvious suspects. A colleague you usually overlook may have just the right network or experience to help you out in a fix. And your cleaner’s commonsense may prove infinitely more valuable than your lawyer’s high-priced advice.
To keep up in the early stages of a crisis, you must build an information stream rather than an echo-chamber. Only through such diversity can you develop a sufficiently informed opinion of your own.
Yet fast-moving hazards pose a trap: They encourage constant agitation at the expense of poise, analysis, and decisiveness. The “fear of missing out” may push you to obsessively check for new developments. The quest for reassuring signs can do so, too. Casting a wide information net generates a lot of noise, as you trawl through verified facts and sound counsel intermingled with rumors and hysteria.
Keeping steady thus requires an element of process. If a slander campaign rattles your nerves, say, ask an associate, a consultant, or a relative to flag only what is important rather than compulsively following up yourself. Social media is particularly addictive and overwhelming, so establish a reporting system to avoid endless scrolling. Any crisis will require endurance; a constant, unstructured inflow of alarming updates, whether about an impending financial crash or riots nearby, is sure to sap your stamina in no time.
Hazards encourage agitation at the expense of poise
Information, rather, must be weighed and organized, to highlight new trends or the “weak signals” that forebode them. One approach is to break input down into categories that you compile in separate documents and folders. This helps analyze complex events, such as the outbreak of a revolution, by disentangling their dynamics into distinct timelines. In some cases, if you must communicate with a team, it is useful to set up a dedicated channel for internal purposes—just beware of letting it devolve into constant, chaotic updates. Another formula involves producing short summaries of essential shifts, what they mean, and what to do in response. This strategy forces you to firm up fluid data into more structured, consistent knowledge that you can make decisions about.
You will nonetheless stay paralyzed if you have the wrong setup for decision-making. Inertia generally comes from shunning or diluting responsibility. Don’t wait indefinitely for events to produce more certainty. Don’t turn to someone else to make the call. And don’t get bogged down in the back-and-forth of resolutions made by committee. Managing crises efficiently will typically depend on pulling together a tight circle of people with relevant skills—but one in which you continue to have the final say.
The biggest risk is to always be one decision too late, letting events overtake you repeatedly. The goal, on the contrary, is to evolve at least as fast as the circumstances you’re in, while trying to get ahead of them. This is essential to creating some sense of agency and direction, which in turn is crucial to avoiding a psychological breakdown—both for yourself and for those around you. If, for example, you must pull through a natural disaster, an economic downfall or a foreign invasion with your family or your team, their steadiness will depend on your own; yours, in turn, must be supported by a credible way forward. Lagging, ambiguous communication will guarantee more problems than you can handle.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most strenuous part of crisis management is that you must constantly project into a bleak future. Rather than seek reassurances, you must anticipate worse-case scenarios. The information system you built at the outset should help you do so: Take the trends you dread the most, which are usually those we try not to think about, and plan for them. Whether you worry about personal injuries, litigation, or theft, work on what could minimize the chances of seeing such a disaster occur. At the same time, take measures to reduce the costs if your fears were to materialize.
Rarely are drastic measures needed in a rush
Precautions are often neglected because they eat up resources when it would seem you have none to spare. To make things worse, the unpredictable nature of crises ensures your investments will enjoy uncertain returns. But the point is, precisely, to regain the upper hand by shoring up the areas that leave you most exposed. Depending on the threat, doing so likely will combine elements of the following categories:
- Solvency is the ability to meet new needs as they arise, which may entail reallocating budget lines, spreading your assets to reduce exposure, and setting reserves aside in one shape or another.
- Hardiness relates to whatever enables you to weather these challenges: That could mean anything from alternative sources of water, food, and heating to psychological support through to additional security.
- Communication must never fall apart, although to do so it may have to shift from email to sat-phones, secure digital channels, in-person meetings, or third-party intermediation.
- Agility, finally, reflects your capacity to reposition yourself in response to the crisis. This could be a matter of logistics—vehicles, fuel, and visas–or more intangible techniques: If you must move into the unfamiliar space of a courthouse, a television studio, or a social media blizzard, make sure you plan ahead for adequate grooming.
Once you’ve done all the above, you are already as safe as can be: You are informed, composed, and prepared, and you are making the best use of the resources around you. If then you opt to retreat—say, by relocating to a more stable location—you will do so for good reasons, at the right time, and with a plan.
Rarely is there need to take drastic measures in a rush, because crises don’t burst out of nowhere. They send advance warnings and accelerate only gradually. Even in the most extreme cases—a surprise military offensive, a sudden outbreak of popular protests, an economic bubble bursting, or a social media scandal—events virtually never warrant a response within the first few, frenzied hours. In fact, many don’t require urgent action during the first few days.
That time lag can be put to good use, to prepare for when things truly get out of hand. Successful crisis management is not about running for cover from the get-go, but is more of a back-and-forth: between catching up and sitting tight, between proactive decisions and defensive measures. To equip ourselves with the strength and shelter we need, we must start with facing the danger.
13 May 2020
Illustration credit: "Sister Anna", Guernica, a turning point via Wikipedia / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.