Crisis Management | How to Choose Adaptive Leadership when Things are Out of Control
In the midst of crisis management, our instinct is to control anything we can control.
I find myself majoring in the minor details. My strategic brain shifts to focus to what’s small and actionable.
I’m not the only one. I’ve spoken with a wide range of leaders this week. Their emotional response to the current crisis is all over the map — much more than they thought it would be. (Not that everyone reveals this outside of close relationships.)
It’s like we are all working through the stages of grief.
After all, the loss is real.
The market is down.
Our companies have dropped in value.
I’ve heard the term “expectation hangover.” It describes the way we feel when we thought things were going one way, and they go another. The term seems to apply. Whatever expectations we had for this year have been 100% rewritten.
In crisis management, justifying emotional decisions with logic is a losing proposition.
When we are responsible to make decisions which affect the people we lead, we are caught in the tension of control vs adaptability. And control is seductive. Like processed sugar, it’s a quick fix for our emotions.
Control makes us feel safe (even if that safety is an illusion).
In crisis management, parameters are constantly changing. Whatever control you put in place today becomes irrelevant tomorrow.
And here’s the thing…
It’s easy to make control-based decisions to ease personal tension. But if you do that, your team has to will wind up making business decisions based on your controls rather than the realities of the current situation.
A simple example from the COVID-19 crisis with everyone working from home:
A leader (fearing loss of team productivity) institutes a rule requiring hourly check-ins from employees to prove they are available during working hours. (This communicates to the team that the leader is worried about people slacking off.)
An employee (navigating the new normal of having kids at home because there is no school or childcare available) focuses on the check-ins to look productive, when the better move would be to propose work outside of office hours when they could be more productive.
In a crisis, adaptive leadership feels counter-intuitive. But having a framework simplifies it.
When faced with a crisis, there is no time to delay in figuring out what to do. Your strategy has to be immediate. You need emergency tactical responses. Your team needs a plan, and you can’t waffle about it.
You need a framework for to free yourself to triage and pivot as the situation changes.
USAF Colonel John Boyd came up with a framework which has become an important concept in military, legal, and business strategy. The OODA loop (observe-orient-decide-act) is a decision-making process. It is about speed. Whoever can run this cycle the fastest responds to unfolding events more effectively than an opponent.
The OODA loop is a smart framework for anyone making decisions in a crisis.
Here’s what this looks like for leaders who need to respond adaptively to manage a crisis.
Step 1: Observe (Assess yourself)
Part of the problem of making objective decisions is that you are an irremovable part of the equation.
So, factor yourself in.
Understand your emotional reaction to the crisis — and be unflinchingly honest. What fears may color your decisions? What frustrations cause knee-jerk reactions? What goals do you need to let go of?
Observe your own emotional state and reactions. This step will give you a clear view for the next one.
Step 2: Orient (Assess Reality)
What is the current situation right now? Base this on what you know now without projecting forward. (And don’t let your brain feed you worst-case scenarios.) Focus on what’s real in this moment.
Then ask yourself, “What does success look like in the context of our current reality?”
Your definition of success will be different to what it was pre-crisis, but it’s important to define it. This definition of success will orient you for the next step.
Step 3: Decide
Whatever you decide won’t be the perfect decision, but it can be a good one. (Most of us lack the requisite trait of omniscience required for perfect decisions.)
There is no time to overthink. Choose and be confident in it. (Your team needs your confidence.)
Step 4: Act
Once you’ve decided…act.
In fact, a key factor in the OODA loop is speed, and the space between steps 3 & 4 is where people win and lose.
Inaction drains confidence fast. It makes your team think you can’t see the crisis, or worse, that you don’t care. Once you’ve decided, act.
The thing about crisis management is that you don’t do this once. You go back to step one, and run the loop again and again until the crisis passes.
The physiological response that will stop you from running the loop
When reading an article like this, the OODA loop sounds great. The hard part is implementing it in real life when the pressure is on.
You see, if you are unaware, the thing that will stop you from running it is you.
Don’t underestimate the gravitational pull of your amygdala.
The amygdala is that little part of your brain designed to keep you alive in response to a threat. It exerts substantial control over you by triggering the fight-or-flight system. If while managing a crisis, you find yourself in arguments with your team or avoiding conflict completely — you can bet this little part of your brain plays a role in it.
Normally, you operate out of your brain’s frontal lobe — the part that helps you think clearly, make rational decisions, and controls your responses. But, in response to threat, your amygdala is perfectly capable of taking your frontal lobe offline. (This process is sometimes called amygdala hijack.) The amygdala doesn’t just control how you think, it impacts your emotions and physiology.
And here is the key that most leaders miss when it comes to crisis management:
Your fundamental instinct — courtesy of your amygdala — is going to be to get control of all the things outside of yourself.
Even though that is completely impossible.
The control lever most leaders miss, and a simple way to engage it
In his book, Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership, Dr. Alan Watkins discusses the impact of physiology, emotion, feeling, and thinking on the results of leaders. While the book covers a wide range of performance factors, one section unexpectedly deals with breathing. Watkins writes, “If you control your breathing then you are in charge of your physiology.”
In short, breathwork is the quickest way to get control of yourself.
While there are a wide range of methods — everything from box breathing to the wildly popular Wim Hof method, just pausing and breathing smoothly and deeply can do the trick.
In crisis management, we start moving so quickly that we don’t even realize the amygdala is in charge. Especially if we aren’t looking for it.
A couple of years ago, we hired Michelle Kinder — previously of Momentous Institute — to speak at Idibri about amygdala hijack and its role in emotional intelligence. During her talk, she handed each of us a plastic bouncy ball — the clear kind with water and glitter inside.
Then she asked us to hold it in front of our face and shake it up.
“Look through it,” she encouraged. “What can you see?”
We could only see glitter.
She then took us through a breathing exercise to calm the body. By the time we were done, the glitter in the balls had settled and we could see clearly through them. She pointed out that our bodies do the same. Our emotions and physiology get triggered and we can’t see things clearly. Breathing settles both.
(“Settle my glitter” is now part of the lexicon in our office.)
Crisis management isn’t just about external conditions. It’s about the internal ones.
While the factors of the crisis are outside of you, the only ones you have control over are inside. Get that wrong as a leader and you will not only make yourself crazy, but you will make your team crazy too. (And minimize their effectiveness.)
Leaders who acknowledge — at least to themselves — the internal component to crisis management are better able to see reality, use frameworks, and inspire teams to follow them.
Because here’s the thing…
You aren’t the only one having to manage your internal conditions. Each member of your team is waging their own internal battle as they respond to the crisis as well.
We all have a driving need to exert control in the middle of chaos.
The best leaders understand that they have full control over the internal and very little on the external.
Then they run the OODA loops like crazy.
This article was originally published in The Startup on Medium.