It seems that the need for crisis leadership capabilities has increased dramatically.
We are in an age of ‘normalized unprecedentedness’, or ‘predictable unpredictability’. The new normal is ‘never normal’. Collins Dictionary has nominated ‘permacrisis’ as the word of the year. A recent Financial Times article introduced the term, ‘polycrisis’. A UK government department is advertising for a Head of Uncertainty. We live in interesting times.
Crisis leadership may not be on the textbook list of HR responsibilities. But it should be.
We consider how HR can contribute when the rules, precedents, protocols, and standard operating procedures that worked yesterday don’t apply to the crises we will face tomorrow.
Who will you turn to?
The traditional HR spec for an effective crisis leader is someone who is assertive, charismatic, confident, courageous, decisive, determined, empathetic, and fast-acting. But is this really who we are looking for?
Studies have shown that domineering leaders discourage those around them from questioning their decisions. This can lead to fatal outcomes. For example, directive leadership was the main cause of the Mount Everest disaster in 1996 in which eight climbers died. In 2001, the USS Greenville – a nuclear submarine – collided with and sank a Japanese trawler, killing nine of her crew.
The charismatic submarine captain’s directive leadership style meant that his crew were reluctant to challenge his disastrous orders.
Not all crises are the same
The ‘best’ crisis leadership style is therefore not obvious. Hard skills may be required in some cases, and soft skills may in others circumstances.
This argues for an approach that adapts to changing conditions, which may also mean changing leaders – or leadership teams.
We will probably see this as the new UK government struggles with the many problems which they face, and as the nature of those problems develops when new and unforeseen pressures come into play.
Some crises are episodic, like a major fire, which has a defined ending (fire extinguished). Other crises are continuing, like a global pandemic, which does not have a clear end point. The current global cost of living crisis (rising inflation and energy costs) is another continuing crisis, with no end in sight.
These different crises may need different leadership and management approaches, varying over time as events unfold. This means flexibility and adaptability, rather than rigidly following rules and protocols based on past experience.
The Piper Alpha problem
Effective crisis management often means relying on front line staff who are close to the problem. But those who are on the spot may be on the bottom rung of the organizational ladder. What happens when the organization does not rely on front line expertise?
The movie Deepwater Horizon (2016) tells the story of the BP oil exploration platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, when a blowout and fire killed 11 crew. The movie shows BP management more concerned with maintaining production than safety. In one scene, a junior control room operator decides to seal the oil well which is fueling the fire. But her colleague stops her because ‘We don’t have the authority’.
This also happened in the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster in the North Sea in 1988, where the fire would have burned out if it were not being fed by oil from two neighboring platforms. Those platforms kept pumping oil as their operators did not have company permission to shut down; 167 died in that incident.
Like a dictatorial boss, inflexible rules can be fatal. It’s a management oversight if staff dealing directly with a crisis don’t have the skills and knowledge to respond appropriately.
But what if a junior staff member makes the wrong decision? As Piper Alpha shows, no decision (‘I’m not allowed to do that’) can as damaging as an error of judgement. When events are unfolding rapidly, ‘no regrets decision-making’ has to be the norm.
Step aside boys, women do it better
Research during the COVID-19 pandemic found that countries and US states led by women had lower infection and death rates than those led by men. Countries led by men had twice as many deaths.
Why? Women were more likely to adopt proactive, coordinated policy responses, to act decisively, and to lock their countries down faster. Women were more risk averse than men when lives were at stake, but were more willing than men to take risks with their economies.
In the US, female state governors showed more empathy and understanding of others’ feelings, and displayed greater confidence than male governors. Their ‘stay at home’ orders were thus more compelling, and more likely to be obeyed.
We are talking ‘on average’ here; there are some great male and some awful female crisis leaders. However, the balance of evidence challenges conventional wisdom by suggesting ‘think crisis, think female’.
Making a significant HR contribution
We don’t know what the next crisis will look like, but we can outline basic preparations, and critical HR contributions. Let’s look at these under four headings.
Crisis management team
Emergency services use an Incident Command Centre (ICC) model. You need to consider something similar. Who will take overall charge of the team (not necessarily the CEO)? What other responsibilities will you need to allocate? Ensure senior HR representation on this team, because work redesign, reskilling, compensation, and health and safety issues may arise.
For a continuing crisis, is this team ready for the long haul? Will you need to switch members in and out of this team over time? HR facilitation skills can help the team to decide how it will function.
Crises will test a communications structure to destruction. Yet crises can affect many stakeholders: employees, shareholders, suppliers, customers, the public, regulatory agencies, government, the media. Who will be responsible for liaising and communicating with these groups?
Think through the logistics: what is the appropriate media mix? Nominate a coordinator who is sensitive to the needs and responses of different stakeholders. Again, this is not necessarily your chief executive, who may be overloaded with other pressures, and who may not have the necessary skills.
For example, following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Tony Hayward, BP’s former CEO, took personal responsibility for providing information. But he was slow to respond, and made a number of mistakes. With oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico and ruining fishing businesses, Hayward went to watch his yacht compete in the UK Isle of White race.
Under pressure from all sides, he complained in a television interview that ‘I want my life back’; 11 employees died in the Deepwater incident. Hayward’s lack of communication skills damaged his reputation and that of BP, and cost him his job.
Learning and development
The short answer to the question, ‘who do we need to prepare to deal with the next crisis?’, is ‘everyone’. This sounds costly, but for many staff, awareness training may be sufficient. Consider the potential cost of not offering this training. For anyone who could be directly involved – from the front line to the board – crisis leadership and tailored management development will be valuable.
Will all this talk of crises cause unnecessary anxiety? No. Most of us are already familiar with the current permacrisis. And what are the likely staffing implications with regard to numbers, skills, and deployment?
As the next crisis could take us all by surprise, don’t rely on past events as a guide to the future. Get creative. Think unconventional. ‘War game’ or use simulations of different possibilities that could affect your sector and organization.
Start contingency planning and review your business continuity strategies. With police services, we have used television and movie accounts of disasters to trigger creative approaches to crisis leadership.
The change agenda
Never waste a good crisis. Make the most of the learning experience. Use this to develop a change agenda – not just to prevent a future crisis, but to increase crisis preparedness, and potentially solve other organizational problems.
Typically, the recommendations from ‘after action reviews’ sit on the shelf. Don’t let that happen. Use a fresh team and not the (probably exhausted) crisis management group to drive the agenda before the sense of urgency is lost.
Leave orthodoxy behind
HR is a crisis management function. And the age of permacrisis is not coming to an end any time soon. Dealing with the unexpected requires fresh – unorthodox – thinking. HR must ensure that staff, at all levels, are ready and able to deal with whatever the next crisis brings. For some, this could involve hazardous new roles, as happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
HR is responsible for developing crisis management capabilities across the organization. And HR staff themselves must possess those capabilities.
The International Festival of HR is back! Discover amazing speakers from the world of HR and business at UNLEASH America on 26-27 April 2023.