Optimal performance in crisis management


I work with a wide range of organisations - small and large - and one thing they all ask is "How can we stay match fit, ready to face the next inevitable crisis?" It requires a range of capabilities, some of which are understood, others misunderstood, so I thought it would be helpful to explore this in more detail.

Where are we starting from?

First, we need to look backwards to move forwards. How have previous incidents or crises impacted on professionals? Let's look at resilience professionals as an example. 

Many Business Continuity and Resilience professionals will feel like they have been truly tested over the course of the past three years, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its various implications for organisations. They may have also seen their role within the organisation change, with many recognised as the glue in supporting the facilitation of their organisation's response.

It’s important to reflect on how this change and the scale of the challenges impacted upon the wellbeing and personal resilience of these professionals. People were absolutely shattered. They had no sense of their ability to control their time, and felt completely at the beck and call of others. I think anyone working in this space will have found the first six months of the pandemic truly hard. It felt like the first time our community recognised just how important the wellbeing of resilience professionals, i.e. their ability to feel good and function well, is to their capability to sustain their performance over the longer term. There were also two sides of the coin.

While resilience professionals felt drained by the experience of the pandemic, it also helped them to recognise their strengths, and realise how they perform under pressure. These people now have an experience where they have learnt how they respond to and navigate challenges and stress, and also understand the resources they now rely on to fuel their performance personally and in the workplace. Optimal performance comes from knowing ourselves, knowing what fuels us, knowing what energises us, knowing what drains us, and how to use this to sustain a high level of performance.

How can we prepare to handle the next crisis?

It's worthwhile stepping back to reflect on what it would have been helpful to know before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The first point would have been to pace ourselves, recognising that this was going to be a long-term issue and that we'd need to be able to sprint at various points during this long marathon. The second aspect would have been to consider the types of support we'd want or need from our teams and line managers to help pace our delivery.

The next priority would be to not spread ourselves too thinly or expect to be involved in everything. Consider our priorities. I have often felt that resilience professionals are naturally supportive people who want to be of service. But, ultimately, you can't be the one to get your sleeves rolled up every time. We have to drop the ‘superhero’ cape, and we also have to balance the kindness we often over-use by taking on things that we shouldn’t, by recognising that we’re not being kind to ourselves or fair to those who are making the time to do the work themselves, rather than simply expecting us to do it for them.

A final tip would have been to consider how we were going to manage our working day. As dedicated professionals in a long-term crisis or incident, many will say that they don’t take breaks during their working day, but we have all seen the potential long-term implications of this over the past few years, e.g. burnout. Boundary setting is something I would have talked about earlier on in the pandemic. I would have said, "Look, over time, everyone is going to learn to set boundaries during this pandemic. How are you going to set yours?”

A culture of wellbeing and resilience to enable optimal performance

More leaders now recognise the importance of wellbeing and personal resilience as fuel for our performance because they were themselves tested during the pandemic. However, before working on building a culture of wellbeing and resilience, it is important to clarify what exactly resilience means to these leaders.

You can be working for a Head of Finance who thinks that resilience is just about ‘toughing it out’. That it’s ‘mind over matter’. So, if you work in finance, this is what resilience looks like. Whereas, in the Operations team, you have a leader who thinks that resilience is about flexibility, agility, and finding different ways of doing things. The issue here is that you aren’t creating a singular resilience culture within the organisation.

You have lots of people who are expecting their parts of the organisation to be resilient in very different ways. So, firstly we need to help leaders to have a common understanding of what the human essence of resilience actually is – and how it shows up personally, and in the context of being an employee.

Leaders also have a role to play when it comes to considering how the organisational context and operational environment fuels or undermines employee wellbeing and resilience in daily working life. Many organisations are currently operating with too many demands, insufficient resources, and a requirement to deliver at pace, contributing to excessive workloads. It doesn’t help that some have lost or had to reduce staff numbers as a result of difficult decisions made during the pandemic.

I invite leaders to reflect on “How are we making it harder for our people to sustain their resilience at work? And, how do we not only think about our own resilience as leaders, but also how wellbeing and resilience play such a vital role in enabling the performance of our incident and crisis teams?”

Only once this has been considered, can we begin to focus on what individuals need to do to enable their performance. There still isn't enough focus on what the system needs to do, or how the system and the leaders need to change.

So, what can we do collectively? 

Resilience culture during a crisis

Before the incident takes place, there is a lot we can do to prepare our Incident Management community to use their strengths, skills and resources to sustain an optimal level of performance. This includes helping them to understand how they generally respond to pressure, how they could moderate some of their behavioural tendencies (e.g. perfectionism, micro-management, self-sacrifice) and how to spot when they or others are in difficulty, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally.

We need to ask ourselves if we know what it looks like for a colleague to be under considerable stress, or if we would notice if our colleague’s behaviour changes. How are we checking in with people in a way that enables them to feel comfortable about being open and showing vulnerability? Coming back to pace, how do we pace ourselves and set expectations for how others pace themselves in terms of breaks, meeting frequency, and duration?

Finally, post-incident, it’s important that those involved in the incident recognise that they've been through something. Whether it's the resilience team who facilitated the response or it's those bronze, silver and gold teams — how do they recognise in themselves that they are fatigued? There are still teams in organisations across sectors who say that they haven’t been given the dedicated time and space post-pandemic to reflect on their experiences, consolidate their personal learning, and work on any unresolved issues. There are great debriefs out there, but they usually focus on the process and the plan, not how we as human beings came together and solved this difficult thing. How do we change that?

This becomes critical in the event of a traumatic incident when those involved may be experiencing post-traumatic stress. Time is of the essence here, given the different interventions and debriefs required at specific intervals post-exposure to trauma. Too few organisations have thought in advance about the resources they need to put in place to ensure they have the right specialist support to follow up immediately after a traumatic incident. How are resilience professionals working with Occupational Health and HR to ensure that anyone that's been involved in this incident has support? Saying we have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) just isn’t enough.

What resources should be available for those dealing with a crisis?

As we’ve now seen, developing a culture of resilience requires a combination of structures, processes and resources. We see the need for resilience professionals to work closely with stakeholders in different functions, including People and Culture, Learning & Development and Wellbeing, alongside leadership, to understand how these stakeholders can help employees develop the smart skills to be able to navigate change and complexity and, when they need to be involved, the next incident or crisis.

One of the biggest gifts you can give someone is the ability to understand what their own skills, strategies, and resources are, as well as helping them to see what fuels their own wellbeing, resilience and performance, and what drains it. Then they can come up with their own toolkit, know how to use it and also know how to adapt their approach when those skills and strategies aren’t working.

Since the pandemic tested the resilience of us all in many different ways, we can now reflect on this time and use the lessons learned to improve our own performance toolkits. Indeed, while the value of processes and frameworks in resilience in general can’t be denied, you can't process or framework your way through optimal performance.

In an ideal world, there would be 1-2-1 work with people to help them reflect on their performance toolkit, but this is unlikely to be scalable. So, gather colleagues in a room and facilitate these kinds of discussions, so that everything we've experienced and learned from the pandemic [or other crisis within the organisation] — the good, the bad and the ugly — can be used to inform how we resource and support our optimal performance moving forwards.

We need to think about how we're actually creating the time and space to support people pre-incident, mid-incident and post-incident, and create the conditions to bring out the best in them.

If you're interested in exploring our Optimal Performance in Incident and Crisis Management workshops and masterclasses, talk to us. We'd be delighted to explore a tailored approach designed for your people, your leaders, and your organisation.