Coronavirus (COVID-19), Learning & Development

What Has the Pandemic Taught Us About Crisis Management?

The pandemic has changed the business landscape as we know it. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons it has taught us is how to manage during a crisis. During these past 12 to 14 months, we have seen some organizations succeed, as they were able to pivot their business models and mitigate internal risk, while others had to shut their doors. But one thing has been clear: At its core, crisis management is about managing organizational resiliency.

crisis management

Below are a few specific lessons about crisis management that organizations should keep in mind moving forward.

We Need a Better Plan

Some organizations create contingency plans for natural disasters such as earthquakes or fires. Most organizations didn’t have a plan in place for the possibility of a pandemic. The truth is, it’s nearly impossible to plan for every contingency. However, organizations should plan for major disasters, data loss, and people issues (strikes, protests, threatening employees), just to name a few. While we don’t know when the next crisis will arise, we do know one eventually will, whether big or small. Leaders should start preparing today for that possibility by doing a debrief on how COVID was handled and improving on what went wrong, as well as noting what worked well.

Eliminate Complacency

It’s not enough to have a good plan. Contingency plans should be reviewed and updated regularly, especially if your business undergoes rapid growth or other changes. Additionally, with new advances in technology, it’s essential to understand what products and services may exist that would make communicating with employees easier and more efficient. When was the last time your organization updated its employee notification system or reviewed cell phone numbers to ensure they were up to date?

Agility is Key

Agility is a key characteristic in not only organizations but also leaders. During a crisis, and especially during COVID, what we think we know about crisis management and planning is thrown out the window. Organizations that were able to quickly pivot and be flexible in how they operated during COVID were able to adjust rapidly to the many changes that came with the pandemic.

Rather than being mired in red tape or bureaucratic processes, organizations like local craft breweries or fashion brands were able to move production to make hand sanitizer and face masks. We even saw this agility with organizations, like Facebook, that were able to seamlessly move to remote work in short order. Leaders also need to be agile in their approach to managing remote teams, as well as while handling situations, big and small, that may be outside of their control.

Leaders Need to Lead … And Make Decisions

If you’re a leader, regardless of whether there is a crisis, you need to lead. It’s that simple. Don’t be an ostrich with your head buried in the sand hoping that either the crisis will go away on its own or someone else will step in and handle it for you. Leaders’ ability to make decisions was tested during the pandemic. We saw this at a local, a national, and an international level. It’s easy to fall into analysis paralysis during a crisis, trying to obtain and make sense of countless pieces of data, all of which may be constantly changing.

Reality is, leading isn’t about making the perfect decision every time; it’s about making the best decision with the information at hand in order to keep moving forward. If you are unable to make decisions, it may be time to do some soul searching on whether you should be in a leadership position.

Communicate, Then Over-Communicate

A crisis is not the time to shut down and be silent. Silence is not golden. Employees want to hear from you. Even if you don’t have all of the answers, it’s OK. Employees want to know they are not alone and that you, as a leader, are trying to make decisions and do what is in their best interest, as well as in the company’s best interest. Having a consistent voice and ensuring leadership is on the same page and messages are aligned are key.

The list of lessons the pandemic has taught us about leadership, crisis management, how people work, and our health and safety is too long to describe. Hindsight is always 20/20 when looking back on how we could have handled COVID, or any crisis, differently. It’s not about placing blame or pointing fingers but rather how we can be ready when the next crisis hits—and it inevitably will.

Our responses and reactions during times of uncertainty and stress are a critical factor in shaping our organizational culture. Take the lessons learned, and make them part of your go-forward crisis management plan.  

Hema Crockett and Jamie Jacobs are cofounders of Gig Talent and coauthors of “Designing Exceptional Organizational Cultures: How to Develop Companies Where Employees Thrive”. With more than 35 years of combined experience, they have built strong reputations for creating and developing high-impact HR teams that drive business results within tech, biotech, and global Fortune 50 companies.