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Change in Crisis

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How do you define a crisis? The words “unstable,” “dangerous,” “breakdown,” “unplanned,” “stressful,” and “unexpected” occur over and over again across every field from aerospace to finance and psychology, whether the crisis situation is professional, personal, or community-wide. 

Preventing a crisis in the first place is the best option, but often impossible to accomplish, especially if the crisis is due to external forces, such as (to quote recent examples) a downward shift in the economy or a universal threat to health. Almost every crisis requires some sort of change in response. The difficulty is finding the right response, avoiding mistakes, and learning from the crisis. 

Immediate Responses to a Crisis

Change is stressful, whether it is personal or organizational. During a crisis, that stress is ramped up not only in the person or group in charge but in everyone the crisis touches.

Denial, fear, avoidance, withdrawal, a sense of helplessness, anger against the parties perceived as causing or allowing the crisis, and even a desire to be at the center of the crisis can interfere with the progress of necessary change. The rumor mill goes into overcharge and individuals may take actions (such as quitting their jobs) that are counter-productive to solving the crisis.

Changes that are required during a crisis help if they restore stability, remove danger, build up resilience, follow a plan, and remove stress and the element of surprise as much as possible. 

Common Mistakes in Responding to Crisis

In Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model, the first step in promoting change is to create urgency. In a crisis situation, urgency is usually obvious. But Dr. Kotter also warns (in his book A Sense of Urgency) that urgency is not equivalent to running-around but instead “focuses on critical issues.” In one case cited in his book, “Instead of mobilizing people into action, the crisis led many managers into making fewer decisions because they didn’t want to be accused of mistakes.”

Research by various authorities  has identified six common mistakes in responding to a crisis situation:

  • Underestimating risks
  • Slowing down the decision making
  • Underestimating damage to stakeholders
  • Insufficient analysis
  • Underestimating past experience or neglecting to see the value in the current experience
  • Lack of reserve resources

Successfully Making Change in a Crisis

The success of any change in a crisis is governed by four factors:

  • Planning: Was anyone monitoring potential crises? Has any preparation been made to handle crisis situations? Will the proposed change(s) help resolve the crisis?
  • Communication: Is there too much or too little information? Can the information be trusted?
  • Leadership: Are leaders acting too quickly or not at all? Have they involved the right people? Are their choices compassionate?
  • Resources: Is everyone involved in the change committed to it? Do they feel manipulated, threatened, or complacent instead? Have appropriate resources been accessed?

Making Lasting Change after a Crisis

The changes made during a crisis should have a positive effect: new, stronger, and safer attitudes, processes, systems, and relationships. But how can you ensure that those positive changes last—whether personal or organizational?

Changes last when people understand them and the crisis that prompted them; the people in charge are honestly committed to and passionate about the change; everyone affected feels they have an essential role in the change; and the change is in line with values and goals.

The best outcome from any crisis is learning, so that planning, communication, leadership, commitment, and resources are strengthened before the next crisis occurs. 

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