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Business Journal
Managing During a Crisis
Business Journal

Managing During a Crisis

by Mick Zangari and Benson Smith

The next few weeks and months may be the most challenging time in any manager's career. Returning to "normal" will be easier said than done, as all of us try to cope with the horrific events of September 11 in our own way. For some, just trying to think about business at a time of tragic loss will seem inappropriate, while others will need to immerse themselves in work.

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Although Gallup has been studying managers and employees since the 1960s, it's difficult to find an event that compares to the terrorist attacks on September 11. Nevertheless, we have observed many companies navigating through their own crises. Companies that have done the best at managing difficult situations have used these strategies: They continually evaluated the circumstances they faced as a result of a rapidly changing landscape, and they engaged their employees by sticking to fundamentals of great management.

Evaluate your situation

One of the reasons returning to normal may be difficult is because we may not know what normal is. Everyday life has changed dramatically and will never be quite the same. Certain industries will see a potentially devastating impact. The airline and travel industries already appear to be in this group, and many other industries may feel a short-term impact as decision making slows. There will be a ripple effect throughout the economy as businesses with customers among the affected industries experience the impact of change.

Other industries will find themselves pushed to meet new customer demand. Governments and businesses are likely to spend more on security and surveillance, but other industries also will see an uptick in spending. If Americans are reluctant to take back to the air, or they postpone their travel plans, what will they spend those dollars on instead? What will be the ripple effects of any changes in spending habits?

At this point, no one knows the answers to any of these questions. Often the experts guess wrong, and circumstances turn out to be very different from what we anticipate. The best companies, when faced with a crisis, continue to examine the situations they face until they have a clear picture of what normal means. In the interim, keeping your employees engaged is critical.

Engaging employees during adversity

Setting clear expectations is important under any circumstances, but it's even more so in a crisis. People who deal with crowd evacuations, for example, find it necessary to repeat simple and obvious instructions over and over again. Phrases like "Keep moving" or "Don't stop" are essential elements of an evacuation process. Why is this so? Aren't these things obvious?

In times of confusion and uncertainty, people require crystal-clear expectations of what they need to do. No matter how carefully you set expectations for your employees before September 11, no doubt they have changed. Your annual budgets may no longer make sense. Your daily patterns may be interrupted, or your customers may need special help, reassurance, and assistance.

Redefining expectations in response to a crisis is absolutely essential. This takes work and thought, and sometimes we as managers dodge this responsibility with watered-down expectations. Don't tell employees, "Do the best you can." A crisis is no time for vagueness. Meaningful expectations, though, cannot be set without employee input.

Seek opinions

We know from our research that an employee's connection to an organization is linked to a sense that his or her opinions seem to count. As you try to understand a rapidly changing landscape and set new expectations, listen carefully to feedback from your employees.

While one of our client companies was going though a crisis, Peter M., a senior executive, made this observation: "More than ever before, we needed the information our workforce provided us. They were visiting with our customers and suppliers every day. We relied on them to tell us what was going on and to help us develop the right strategies."

Kathy C. worked for a company that took a very different approach when its industry was in trouble. "We kept getting memos from the home office that told us, 'Everything is okay. It's business as usual.' I wondered, 'Who are they trying to kid?' Everything was far from okay, and I was reminded of that on every customer call I made."

As you reshape your company's plans, you need to include your workforce in the information-gathering process and ask for their suggestions on what the best recovery strategies might be.

Use mission to unite your workforce

Your company's mission also can sustain employee engagement. We all work for many reasons, and a paycheck is just one of them. During a time of crisis, those other reasons assume paramount importance. We rally around the countries, causes, and companies we believe in.

In difficult circumstances, we can show our employees that our company's mission statement is not merely empty words. Instead, it embodies values that are important, ones we can fall back on when times are tough.

On September 11, U.S. citizens experienced an attack on our economy and our way of life, much more so than on our military strength. An important and vital response to this attack is to rebuild our economy. A short-term military action won't accomplish this. The process of rebuilding the economy will happen company by company, job by job, and person by person.

Great managers can find a way to harness each person's overwhelming desire to help by showing them how their job contributes to the rebuilding process.

Show employees that you care

Harnessing that energy takes more than a sense of shared values. It takes a relationship. Our research clearly shows that people don't work for companies -- they work for people. They work for their supervisor or their manager. They work for you.

All of us, in some way, have been touched by recent events. All us have a unique way to cope with our feelings and to put events in perspective. Great managers understand this, and they resist the temptation to rush their employees through this process. A manager who sends mixed messages -- who tells his employees, "You are important to me," but whose actions say, "I am much too busy to bother with you right now" -- will lose credibility with his employees.

A time of crisis is a time to build relationships. It can be a time to show what you and your company really stand for. And it can be a time to tap into values that are more important to us than the numbers on our paycheck.

Clarity, not complexity

If all this seems simple -- it is. Difficult challenges do not usually require complicated solutions, but rather straightforward ones.

Our role as managers and leaders is to minimize confusion, not add to it. No situation is so bad that it cannot be made worse by overreaction. Take stock of your situation, but understand it may change dramatically in a few short weeks and months.

Set clear expectations. No battlefield commander says, "Do the best you can." Instead, he says, "Take that hill," or "Knock out that bunker." Be clear. Be specific.

Don't pretend things are normal if they are not. Give your employees good information about what's happening, and ask them what they're hearing from customers or suppliers. They are often your best source of information, and they need to express their observations and opinions.

Finally, use this opportunity to show what your company mission is all about. You will build relationships that will endure long after the crisis has passed.


Benson Smith is coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths.
Mick Zangari is a former consultant of Gallup.

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