July 16, 2019 | By Kyle Bruce

Chill Out: How Crisis Management Can Save Your Office Culture

In most modern workplaces, there’s one thing you can count on: someone, somewhere, is in crisis mode. Maybe they’ve had an already-short deadline suddenly move up. Maybe a co-worker has just shuffled a huge pile of work onto their desk, onto the pile of work that was already there. Maybe a client is upset with them, and they’re not sure how they will remedy the problem. Their anxiety is probably palpable to those around them, too. Crisis spreads like a wildfire in close quarters. Anxiety is contagious. (source: https://www.spring.org.uk/2015/05/the-most-common-mental-health-problem-is-contagious.php)

It would seem our caveman brains mastered this one skill a little too effectively. An evolutionary aptitude for picking up on the fear and stress of those around us feeds into collective anxiety (source: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/11/how-anxiety-is-contagious/), the human equivalent of animals alerting each other to a nearby predator with a warning call. When one of us is frantic and fearful, so are we all, and it’s damaging to productivity, to workplace cultures, and to our overall mental health.

This served us in the past because our caveman brains were attuned to very real dangers, like large predators looking for lunch. Working away in our downtown office buildings, however, we’re relatively safe. The dangers we’re now attuned to are not going to kill us. No one is in harm’s way, and we all leave the office with our limbs still attached, and yet, we sometimes panic.

In marketing agencies especially, we’ve got practicing panic down to a fine art. It’s often heralded as just part of working in an industry that is gaining speed by the day. We’re no longer waiting months for feedback on the work we do. The data is at our fingertips, and it’s freaking us out. Time after time, we define any situation that threatens to knock us off our carefully project-managed path as a crisis. The problem is, if everything is a crisis, then nothing is. If we panic about everything, we never stop panicking. And that’s not only harmful to our culture, it’s harmful to ourselves.

And then what?

We’ve all been through countless fire drills, starting early in our school careers. We know what we are supposed to do when a fire alarm sounds. But what happens when the “alarm” goes off in your office? At the first chime, you probably brush it off. Slowly, you might start to question if it’s real, and figure that, if it is, someone will come and tell you. Fire drills simply don’t give us a good idea of how we will actually react in the case of a true alarm. One behavioural scientist (source: https://www.apa.org/monitor/sep04/fighting.aspx) observed that people’s reaction to a fire have a lot to do with our desire for clearcut definitions – “People’s natural inclination is to want to define a situation before they respond,” he explains, “and an alarm bell is inherently ambiguous.”

Calling something a “crisis” is the office version of a fire alarm, most of your team will probably ignore it at first. They have their own tasks to worry about, after all. But as the idea spreads, gaining momentum and recruiting more voices to its cause, it can easily snowball. It breaks down relationships, chips away at trust, and leaves everyone on guard.

So, what can we do about it?

We need to practice what to do when the “fire alarm” goes off. A big part of fire drills is in teaching everyone the steps to take in the event of a true emergency, to ensure everyone’s survival.

We need to ensure that our team members resist the urge to set off the fire alarms in the first place. When an email hits their inbox letting them know that the direction of a project is changing two weeks before delivery, they need the tools to help them resist crying crisis.

First, help your team members identify what rising panic feels like before it turns into a crisis. Panic is not the same thing as urgency, in the same way that smoke doesn’t always mean fire. As a whole, our society has started to believe that busyness to the point of overwhelm equals productivity and success. And while it’s true that stress is a powerful motivator, anxiety behaves in the opposite fashion, immobilizing us with doubt, frustration, and fear. We need to relearn as adults what it feels like when we’re no longer driving doggedly towards a goal, but instead reacting to our anxiety. For most of us, this makes itself known with rising temperatures and voices, and often a visual freak out that everyone nearby locks in on.

Once everyone has a good sense for the subtle differences between how panic feels vs. urgency, they need to be armed with coping tools. Encourage your teammates to stop and take a breath, with both feet planted firmly on the floor. Make engaging with content like this quick meditation (source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_N98E5-7jo) an office-wide cultural practice. Remind everyone to stand up from their desks, take a walk, and visit a nearby coffee shop while they think through the problem or challenge that has flipped their panic switch.

None of these tools will solve the problem. It will still be there when they return, but they’ll find that they are now better equipped to find a solution which should be the main goal. They’ll be able to see how immediately sounding the crisis alarm can actually make a problem worse, not better. It’s normal to feel a sense of failure when a client or teammate is disappointed or overbearing, but odds are that the challenge can be fixed. By encouraging a culture that encourages a measured response, everyone will see that the entire team can still rally around the challenge, but in a calmer environment, one that will solve the client’s challenge, rather than getting stuck in an endless feedback loop of alarm.

The most important thing everyone can do is to be a model of this practice. It’s likely the leaders you most admire are not easily agitated, remaining steady even in the biggest storm. Do the same for your team, and you’ll be rewarded.

After 16 years of experience, we know that panic doesn’t help us serve us, or our clients better. Our clients are under immense amounts of pressure to meet goals and deliverables on tight deadlines, too. A more measured response to problems that arise has enabled us to ensure that the solutions we provide aren’t reactionary. By slowing down just enough to take a closer look at the challenge, we’re able to adjust our plans to ensure those goals and deadlines are met with the high quality work our clients expect.

Ultimately we believe that happy, fulfilled people create better work for our clients. Better work than people constantly working in crisis mode. We recognize the toll working in a deadline driven culture has on everyone, which is why we offer additional days off, and the opportunity to work from home if needed. The perks of our employee retention program clearly speak to the value we place on the members of our team.

Kyle Bruce

Kyle Bruce is the Executive VP of Operations & Projects at WS. Connect with him on LinkedIn to share your top tips for chilling out.