Crisis Management: A PrimerIndustry Safety
By Regional Supervisor Todd Walker
A Crisis Defined
We started the hike early on a beautiful, crisp spring day in Southern California, but clouds had been slowly building throughout the morning. By noon, a gray haze had engulfed the trail on our ascent to Mt. San Antonio summit, as if curtains had been drawn over the sun. The temperature and visibility had dropped significantly. Things were taking a turn for the worse as I donned my cold weather gear. Visibility continued to drop to 30 feet. A nasty, freezing wind howled as we continued up the exposed ridge.
Soon, I realized we were in the midst of a crisis. The wind had become so fierce the only way I could communicate to my hiking partner, Jeremy, was by yelling. On a quiet day, a whisper would have sufficed. This was no such day. Neither of us were ready to turn back but we were running out of time and options. The weather had become nearly impossible. Not wanting to become a statistic on the morning news, I yelled directly into Jeremy’s ear something to the effect of, “I THINK IT’S TIME TO HEAD DOWN!” He agreed, and we turned South to descend – crisis averted.
This was neither the first nor last crisis I would face. Merriam-Webster defines a crisis as “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending. especially: one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome” (Merriam-Webster, 2021). This being the case, there will likely be several variables, unknowns and a need for good decision making when a crisis arrives.
In what follows, my hope is to share some practical insights on how to manage crises. I say practical because I want to stay clear of the theoretical. Theories will not help you manage a crisis. Planning ahead and clear-headed thinking coupled with decisive decision making during the crisis, and intelligent post crisis analysis will.
Crisis Planning: The Calm Before the Storm
Take the time to identify the crises your organization may encounter in the field of utility arboriculture. A pre-inspector lost out in the field without cell service? A line strike during pruning operations from a removal gone awry? A bulk transmission circuit outage from an unknown cause? Now is the time to ask the hard questions and get answers on how to handle these situations as well as contingencies that could arise in the process. Crises often strike unexpectedly and without mercy. It is much better to plan and prepare when conditions are not nearly so stressful, pressurized and are much more stable – when time is on your side.
The military trains and performs exercises over and over. The goal is to be prepared ahead of time for any number of contingencies that may arise. In Marine Combat Training, for example, we became fully proficient in operation, disassembly and reassembly of multiple weapons to the point it became second nature. This cross-training on multiple weapons not only produces a high level of proficiency in each Marine, thereby maximizing overall tactical efficiency, but minimizes time and effort needed to address malfunctions that can occur during critical operations — where there will likely be a very high level of stress and confusion. Learning how to operate a weapon or address an associated malfunction under enemy fire is the wrong time to learn. The very same principles apply to crisis management.
Imagine one of your climbers has a medical emergency while roped in at 60 feet up in a Deodar. With little to no warning, they become incapacitated. What do you do? Better yet, does the rest of your on-site climb crew know what to do?
Are they trained for emergency aerial rescue or First aid? Is there a pre-established crisis communication plan? Have they trained for this sort of event, so as to not compound the crisis by becoming a casualty? The answers to these questions could be the difference between life and death. Planning here will not eliminate unknowns and variables altogether, but it is a good start in minimizing them so when such a crisis strikes, there will be less guesswork involved in how to respond.
Your first line of defense is to plan, prepare and get ready before the crises reach your shores. The next time someone reminds you to “hope for the best and expect the worst,” remind them, as my colleague Wright Tree Service Safety Manager Wes Tregilgas did some years ago, that hope is not a plan. Hope will not prepare you for a crisis. But effective, constructive planning will.
Crisis Response: In the Middle of the Storm
Once you find yourself in the midst of a crisis, the first thing to remember is focus. Focus on the crisis at hand and leave behind such questions as how did I/we get here or what could I/we have done better? There will be time for honest introspection once the smoke clears. Now is the time for decisive action predicated on good decision-making.
On that note, avoid decision making characterized as paralysis by analysis, which is really a failure to make any decision at all. Overthinking will be of no advantage. Likewise, avoid snap-decisions that can result from a panicked mind. Take time to use your reason. Evaluate what you do know in light of unknowns and variables, and make the best decision possible. Immediately assemble your crisis management team or be ready when called to assemble as a fellow member of the team.
Review and execute your crisis management plan. Remember the following:
- Gather all available intel and base your decisions on the facts as they stand. Keep speculation to a minimum.
- Act quickly but not rashly. If you can critically look ahead, spot the warning signs and act quick enough, you may be able to divert the crisis altogether or at least the blunt the impact.
- Get ahead of the spin and control your messaging. Manage the crisis – do not let it manage you. Be proactive to avoid an unnecessarily protracted crisis.
- Do not compound the crisis by avoidance or dishonesty. Both may be tempting in the heat of the moment, but they are poor long-term solutions. Both involve subterfuge, the first is a lie to oneself (denying the gravity of the situation or crisis) and the second is a lie to others (covering over the crisis to save face).
- Be flexible and ready to think outside the box. Crises are often fluid situations characterized by uncertainty. Your crisis management team should be both flexible and Both are worth their weight in gold, especially in an extended crisis that requires endurance.
Crisis Analysis: Lessons Learned
Once the crisis passes it is imperative to reassemble your team and evaluate final outcomes. Open and honest introspection is a must. Many questions will need answering – What are the fundamental take-aways? Could better foresight or management have helped to avert the crisis? Was the crisis management plan sufficient to the task and executed well? How exactly did the crisis occur and who, if anyone, needs to be held accountable? This applies to the bad as well as the good. Those who performed exceptionally well in crisis management should be recognized and praised for their efforts. Likewise, those who were involved in wrongdoing that contributed negatively to the crisis need to be held to account. The future of your organization may depend on it.
Finally, inventory the crisis-induced damage and begin rebuilding. The damage may not be tangible in many cases. No one can see your damaged reputation, but it may still be a very real problem that needs redress. If the crisis was overwhelmingly stressful, those who were directly or even indirectly involved may be under psychological trauma yet to manifest.
Everyone copes with stress and trauma differently, so knowing your people and proactively engaging them may be critical in helping them cope or getting them the help they need to process their experiences from a trained mental health professional.
An employee or co-worker struggling with crisis induced stress or trauma will likely not be able to focus and think clearly. Anxiety, panic attacks and a host of other symptoms can interfere with everyday tasks. If you notice substandard work or other irregularities from an otherwise upstanding employee, say something. You may well avoid another crisis in doing so.
In the movie The Edge, Sir Anthony Hopkins reminds that, “We’re all put to the test, but it never comes in the form or at the point we would prefer, does it?” (Tamahoru, 1997). You may not be able to stop your next crisis, but you can make ready and learn from the aftermath or, better yet, learn from crises others have gone through. Take a moment and examine similar scenarios others have faced and learn from them.
Finally, remember that crises can actually have a positive outcome. Personal and professional growth, heroism and new opportunities previously hidden may well present themselves if you can steel yourself for a moment enough to recognize the possibility of such opportunities.
Merriam-Webster. (2021). Crisis. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crisis
Tamahoru, L. (Director). (1997). The Edge [Motion Picture].