No doubt, you’ve heard of a team of rivals: the idea, popularized in a history of Abraham Lincoln, of recruiting your ablest rivals to positions of prominence and using their acumen in times of turmoil. Turns out, the theoretical concept isn’t that different from what actually happens in crisis management. Only, there, organizations staff crisis teams with business experts, rather than political rivals.
You see, when crisis strikes, leaders tend to convene (internal) experts, those with the requisite professional and technical expertise, from across the organization to deal with it. The usual suspects include General Counsel, IT director, PR professional, safety and security chief, human resources, etc.
The only problem with this setup is that outside of the crisis context, those people don’t work together all that often, or at all. Indeed, they head distinct business units not cross-functional projects. It’s odd to think, then, that in the throes of a crisis, they’ll naturally form a cohesive unit, one that takes and makes good decisions on the fly.
Sure, they individually bring a lot to the table, but as a collective, what can crisis leaders expect? How can leaders get the most out of their motley crew of experts?
Well, the crisis management literature offers a few answers, starting with the fact that expert teams aren’t just groups of credentialed individuals, assigned to the mission because they come from a relevant business line. Far from it. To be effective in the crisis context, teams of business experts need to display certain qualities. Some soft, and some hard.
The soft qualities include having a shared vision and values, trust in the other’s competence and intentions, and a commitment to learning from what’s happening and reviewing strategies taken. The hard qualities consist of understanding set roles and responsibilities, being flexible, adaptable, and cooperative, and above all, working to achieve shared situational awareness, a common relevant picture of the incident that’s distributed and assimilated rapidly.
Cultivating those qualities in crisis teams takes an outsized effort from crisis leadership. Specifically, it takes a set of leadership behaviors not dissimilar to those sketched out above:
- Soliciting ideas and options
- Keeping the team informed at all times
- Explaining in detail the reasons a decision was taken
- Reinforcing effective teamwork
- Being open to feedback
- Celebrating success
What stands out to me in that list is the centrality of critical thinking – of course, you can have accomplished, experienced people on your crisis team, but to be effective at the job, they need to be able to analyze crisis situations objectively. And one of the ways crisis leaders can facilitate critical thinking in their teams, even untested teams, is focusing on better decision making – rather than just better decisions.
Analogous reasoning, in particular, can be helpful in crisis situations. There, teams examine the current situation, reflect on similar situations, then make decisions based on what worked (and what didn’t) in the past.
Analogous reasoning isn’t perfect, though. And here’s where critical thinking comes in again. Leaders need to enable teams to work together to determine whether the references drawn (to previous situations) actually hold in the present. That means empowering members to point out weaknesses in argumentation, even if it’s your argumentation, and then pivoting (collectively) to finding better ways to understand the crisis situation.
Remember, a crisis team has to be more than a collection of credentialed experts. Crisis leaders have it in their capacity to maximize the business acumen on their teams for the mission at hand. But it takes cultivating, then rehearsing those qualities in your members.
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