Your Crisis Management Team Structure Must Consider Human Emotion

A blueprint for developing crisis leadership team structure to deal with critical incidents.

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A true crisis can take many forms. An employee has been murdered as a result of a workplace violence situation. A Category 2 hurricane is headed for your facilities. A never-before-seen infectious disease has arrived and is negatively affecting your operation due to the anxiety it is causing your employees and customers. These are just some of the critical incidents that I have been a part of managing over my 20+ years protecting people, assets, and brands.

Before each crisis, each company I was with had a decent crisis management plan in place. But through the learnings of each event, we built an even better plan to protect our people and our enterprise for the next critical incident. Regardless of the maturity of your organization, every crisis situation poses different challenges and yields different learnings.

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One of the most dynamic components of crisis management is the ability to recognize and effectively respond to the wide range of human emotions during the response and recovery stages of a critical incident. It is important to remember that when the crisis event hits, regardless of how well prepared your company is and how your crisis management team structure is organized, emotions will run extremely high. In drawing up and practicing your crisis plans, consider not just the practical but the emotional factors that will impact preparation, response, and recovery.

In crisis planning, layering response and crisis management team structure is both a practical and emotional consideration. I recommend that companies of any size maintain crisis response teams at different levels in the organization. Ideally, a company will have:

  • A local crisis response team (LRT) that acts as your eyes and ears at the site of the critical incident
  • An incident management team (IMT), often at the home office, that is comprised of subject matter experts like IT, finance, media relations, internal communications, HR, legal, security and facilities who can support the onsite LRT.
  • A crisis management team structure made up of senior leadership, who can make decisions regarding policy and the needed financial decisions driven by the crisis. (In smaller companies, the IMT and CMT might be combined.)

The layering is important for a number of reasons. Among them:

  • If you clearly lay out a set of specific roles and responsibilities for individuals at multiple levels during a crisis, not only will you avoid confusion and improve your response, you will help people to concentrate their attention on explicitly defined tasks or goals, which may make it easier for them to focus in an emotionally tense environment.
  • Having a local crisis response team ensures that the rest of the team doesn’t have to get their updates from CNN or online rumors. You will have a trusted inside source who can answer specific questions about the situation and the well-being of the people onsite.
  • A well-defined and clearly designated crisis management team structure and a checklist of responsibilities help people focus on accomplishing the critical functions assigned them with the assurance that there is someone else who is taking care of or checking in on the injured.

Choose your teams carefully. Don’t assume that just because someone is at a senior management level they won’t have an emotional response that could affect their judgment. Individuals on crisis response teams must be able to exercise their subject matter expertise with clarity and calmness under pressure. That could mean choosing someone further down the ranks who will be more comfortable performing in a crisis. A high level of comfort under stress can be gained from participating in practice critical incident exercises and roundtables. By observing participants in these exercises, you can validate the performance of team members and adjust your plans and teams if necessary.

Team and company roles, responsibilities, policies and procedures must be clearly documented and disseminated to all involved in crisis response and recovery. When you are in your first real CMT or IMT situation and your team is frustrated, afraid and anxious about the events happening around them, it will be easy for them to lose concentration. You can keep people focused by regularly referring to a document you have created that spells out exactly what everyone needs to be doing during the critical incident. The document will assist in reminding the crisis management team to stay focused on their roles in order to implement their response strategies most effectively. In addition, this documentation will allow the crisis management team structure to become sustainable as a company turns over its talent.

It’s normal for people to experience extreme emotions during a crisis. We must respect our colleagues’ emotions during a critical incident and we must stand behind a strong, defined response and recovery plan to help them manage their responsibilities and our own.

Don’t assume that someone on the crisis management team will handle a critical incident well simply due to their title or previous experience. The leadership and skills required to manage each individual crisis may be different.

This article was originally published in 2016 and was updated March 9, 2017. 

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