The art of successful crisis management

Of survival and prosperity –
the two modes in the crisis

Reading time: 9 minutes

The common experience for all in the Corona pandemic is probably that everything can change at any time. This also means that companies have a clear need to move and adapt quickly. Anyone who is now a C-Suite leader, i.e. sits at the top level of an entrepreneur’s hierarchy as CEO or CTO etc., and has to lead projects, employees and companies through the crisis, has no protocol and no standard process at his disposal.

When the context changes so radically, it is almost impossible to act in a correct and timely manner. Those who react too early can provoke panic reactions, those who act too late must expect other significant consequences. But in addition to making the right decisions in each situation, managers must now also address concerns and fears, create trust and help employees to achieve a kind of normality in which they can continue to function with confidence, be productive and, as far as possible, be satisfied.

The role of the C leadership is particularly in demand in times of insecurity and crisis, as people now implicitly or explicitly desire authority figures who give them security and point the way. And this in the most empathetic way possible, with a clear understanding of the current challenges and a convincing confidence that together we will successfully overcome the crisis and calmly plan the business for „afterwards“.

Whoever is currently C-Suite and has to navigate as a manager team, project and company through such unfamiliar times of crisis, on his way significant findings from evolutionary and brain research can help. We are talking about the two modes in a crisis: the survival mode and the growth mode – but one after the other.

The mode for survival

Man has evolutionarily developed into an artist of survival. He is equipped with a powerful mechanism that helps him to be almost perfectly prepared for extreme situations. After many thousands of years, this mechanism seems to have become part of our brain-body networks. One could imagine it as a survival channel, with a very powerful radar.

When the human survival radar detects something that it perceives as a threat, many things happen very quickly. Chemical signals shoot out into our bodies to prepare us for „flight or fight“. Our minds switch to quick problem-solving mode and immediately focus on the source of the threat – and this happens fully automatically. What once developed as a mechanism against physical threats to our lives also takes effect when threats to our health, property, status, ego, psychological security and other aspects of our well-being arise. Whether a confrontation with the sabre-toothed tiger or a loss of status – the reactions that are set in motion are biologically identical.

This makes it understandable that the threats of the current pandemic crisis can provoke strong survival mode reactions, because it is a physical threat that is also invisible and that each individual cannot eliminate at first.

However, the powerful mechanism appears to work less perfectly when the human being cannot find a solution to the problem or is confronted with repeated threats, e.g. because messages and information keep appearing, which trigger the survival mode again and again. In this case, fighting and escape impulses can cancel each other out, which can lead to a standstill reaction, desperation, demotivation and complete inactivity. In companies in which the effects of corona appear particularly acute, this phenomenon must be expected, which is associated with, among other things, serious losses in productivity. At this point at the latest, C-level management must act and significantly reduce fears and anxieties.

How to counter constant survival mode triggers as a C-Suite leader

Of course there are real threats from the corona virus. But there are also perceived ones that do not have to be real, the effects of which can be prevented for a company. So, for now, Chiefs..:

Reduce threats by identifying and separating real and perceived threats

The perceived ones relate to the question of what measures the C-Suite takes in the face of the corona virus. What support is there if children also need to be looked after in the home office? Will there be redundancies or reductions in working hours? Will I be forced to physically report for work? What happens if an employee falls ill with Covid-19? This is where leaders who understand crisis management are needed. Who can clearly answer these questions to dispel concerns about it. By reducing the number of threats, leaders can help to significantly reduce the triggers for survival mode.

The keyword „clear clarification“ brings us to the next step.

Avoiding ambiguity wherever possible. The lack of clarity of what is said is one of the greatest sources of threats

Leaders should make transparent which criteria are used to make decisions. They can make clear which changes are due when and why, as well as their effects. It is important in this communication that questions that cannot (yet) be answered are also clearly identified. This alone can reduce the degree of uncertainty enormously, because it enables a team to be based on a common denominator of not-knowing, and it creates the certainty that answers only to them will not be communicated. Consistently open communication can prevent social anxiety.

The special communication culture thus created should be firmly established and constantly lived out in times of crisis

When the environment and context are constantly changing, even C-level managers need as many reliable sources of information as possible to give clear instructions and make good decisions. As a consequence, this means proactively expanding your own information network. A management team may believe that it is communicating consistently and appropriately about a new situation – but for employees in the lower organization, this communication may be perceived as insufficient or inadequate. C-Leadership should always be aware of this.

Executive decisions

Once uncertainties and fears have been contained, the next step in crisis management is to decide how to restructure the operating business in the current situation in the short, medium and long term. Of course, the context and need for action is exclusive to each company and is therefore different, but there are universally valid principles on which the C-Suite can base its decision-making.

Thinking long-term as well

However, everyone should be aware that Corona is a pandemic that will drag on for months. This means that decision-makers are not only developing the immediate measures needed, but also making long-term plans that take into account the impact of short and medium-term measures. What is the impact of new measures if they drag on for months? Resources must also be planned for the medium and long term – also with a view to creating confidence for employees.

Helicopter view of all stakeholders

Many companies are currently proving that necessity is the mother of invention by adapting their product range to the crisis situation. Here, too, what works well in the short term and satisfies customer needs does not have to inspire all stakeholders in the long term. Long-term planning must necessarily also take into account the (additional) costs for employees and shareholders.

Centralised action and communication

A message and adaptation perfectly tailored to each individual team group is less effective in times of crisis. In times of high uncertainty, clarity and consistency in communication and action is of utmost importance and requires more centralization than usual.

Partial answers are now better than no answers

In precarious times, even the C-level does not have all the answers completely at hand. Leaders can now show strength by not waiting for ultimate answers and fully developed plans, but by communicating progress and setting direction early and at all times. It is far more damaging not to give direction than to change direction when a new situation demands it. This demonstrates lived flexibility in strategic power and ultimately creates confidence and trust.

Realistically specify the timing of the measures

The timing of measures should also be communicated in a realistic manner. To call a team unrealistic periods of time, in order to put it off again from week to week after the deadline has passed, is not conducive to achieving the goal. It has been shown that the naming of hard but realistic time horizons is better accepted and tolerated in the sense of avoiding the survival mode than leading a team from one termination to putting it off for a while and then rescheduling. The emotional rollercoaster of persevering and hoping, to the disappointment and new setting on persevering and hoping, is a tour de force for employees and teams. Whoever deals with it, loses his credibility.

The mode for growth

Of course, crises always bring with them opportunities to grow and prosper. But this is only possible if you resist looking inwards and consistently look outwards – in other words, move away from the rigid survival mode and towards the thrive or growth mode, by which the crisis mode two is meant.

Leaders who sustainably invalidate the survival mode of their teams by convincing and conveying trust and composure can activate the growth mode in their teams. The more skillfully they succeed in ensuring that everyone focuses on opportunities and common goals, the more likely they are to help their employees and companies to successfully master the current crisis and emerge from it stronger. But let us fill this somewhat tired statement with life.

Setting new priorities

Crises provide an opportunity to question whether the way things have been handled so far is the best. First of all, they provide an opportunity to set new priorities and to focus on important but non-urgent matters. In the „faster-higher-further“ mode, in which most companies operate, many important tasks fall chronically by the wayside. The opportunity to redirect some of the now underutilized resources to these initiatives should not be underestimated. It enables the company to prepare itself for future success. Those who proactively rethink their priorities now with a view to the time after that can recover much more quickly and successfully and prepare for future growth.

Experimenting with new working methods explicitly desired

The world of contributions and blogs is full of positive reports about the home office. What forced many companies as a necessary measure to stem the spread of the virus turns out to be a new revelation. This is because companies are discovering that certain aspects of their work are better done remotely or that they can achieve significant cost reductions, higher employee satisfaction, fewer absences due to illness or significantly greater effectiveness. What previously seemed unthinkable in companies could become a model for the future as companies continue to encourage more employees to work from home.

Another example is the breaking up and reorganisation of working methods. The way employees in most companies currently pull together, support each other and stand in for each other when circumstances make it necessary. That rigid responsibilities dissolve and functions are broken up so that things can be done without delay and much more. Without a conscious effort to stop the C-Suite leadership, experience shows that these new ways of working will return to the old ones once the crisis is over. If you are alert now and convey a basic understanding of why and how the new behaviors and actions should continue to be established, you have a great opportunity to change your corporate culture positively and sustainably even after the crisis.

Develop measures that serve long-term interests

The scepticism of some progressive leaders towards an economy geared to ever faster growth is gaining new momentum in times when the first priority is to defend market positions. C-Suite leaders now have the opportunity to take action that may be in the best long-term interests of their business, and that was previously difficult to communicate and implement due to the pervasive short-term market pressures. Such visionary measures are certainly the most courageous, but also the most far-sighted. The fact that a paradigm shift is also imminent in the face of other global and no less explosive problems may perhaps indicate that we are seizing the moment.

Whatever course the C-Suite management will take – it will now set an important course.

The Corona pandemic is a reminder to everyone that all good things may pass away – but all bad things will also. Let us not forget this in all our actions and communications and let us plan the future with consistent conscientiousness.

Georgia Fuhrmann

Author: Georgia Fuhrmann
Senior Key Account Manager

The Senior Key Account Manager has already supported well-known and internationally active companies in marketing and sales.

Georgia Fuhrmann