Responding to Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic arrived in the US over the last few days. This week, both the NBA season and the NCAA Tournament were cancelled. The public school system in Denver and the local university have suspended in-person classes. Financial markets are plummeting. The government banned much international travel.

In the midst of all that, businesses and individuals are trying to decide how to respond. Here are the lessons I’ve learned about responding to crises.

First – Over communicate. Communication is essential, but always a challenge. In every crisis I’ve ever witnessed, the first reports were always wrong. Yet, it becomes more important than ever to communicate well. If you’re leading a team during this time, consider deliberately over communicating–starting with the most basic information–so that your organization knows the essentials of what is happening and how to learn more.

Second – make decisions based on a wise assessment of the future. In Tomas Pueyo’s spectacular post on the spread of the coronavirus, he points out something amazing about the Chinese government’s response: they decided to shut down Wuhan–population of 11M–based on only 400 diagnosed cases, then most of Hubei, with a population of 58M, only two days later. And, at the moment they made those decisions, the true situation was likely an order of magnitude worse than the diagnoses indicated.

I think a wise assessment accounts for three factors.

People downplay bad news – in the midst of crisis, most people’s first thought is to minimize it: “it can’t be this bad.” As a result, most initial reports will sugarcoat the reality of the situation, and make things seem less severe than they are.

Trends tend to continue – things that are unlikely before a crisis starts are still unlikely after. However, when a crisis follows a well-known pattern, it can be straightforward (but daunting) to extrapolate results. For example, in the US, we know that the flu kills 30-80k people each year–by spreading across 30-40M people. We can expect a similarly infectious disease to follow a similar trend.

Action can make a difference – A crisis presents an urgent and important decision.  And–since information in crisis is tough to come by–clear decisions have the opportunity to make a difference and influence others. For example, the NBA suspending their season was a courageous choice–and made every other organization’s decision to cancel a large gathering easier. Don’t underestimate the importance of a courageous action in the midst of crisis.

Third – Remember your values. Crises cause us to reflect and ask if where we’re supposed to be, doing the work we’re meant to do, in the ways that align with our values. If that’s the case, take the time to be grateful and savor the feeling of serving in ways you’re meant to. And, at the same time, use the crisis as a reminder to execute on the simple, important things that get neglected in easier times. Wash your hands, shore up your finances, focus on what matters, don’t overextend.

Fourth – Know that you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you’re in a leadership role, or actively working in the midst of a crisis, remember to take the time to care for yourself. Sleep and eat at normal intervals, even if you don’t want to. Find moments to smile, be grateful, exchange words with colleagues, and find encouragement or rest, even if it seems unnatural–you can’t give unless you take care of yourself first.

Lastly – there will be times for both massive action and patience. I have a vivid memory of Christmas a few years ago, in 2012. I was still in the military, in a staff job in Afghanistan, and I woke on December 25th to a massive rocket attack our base. As the rockets came in, after we had made it to the bomb shelter, all we could do was wait–the preparations done. But – as soon as the flurry of the attack was over, there was suddenly much to do. Both of these things can be true: as you experience the emotions and changes of a crisis, consider which moment you are in, and open yourself to the utility of both.

I wish you the best as we face this coronavirus crisis in our communities and businesses over the coming months. Take care!

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