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
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.
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
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.