A crisis is, often, an impossible situation. You have to make immediate decisions without enough information. You need to keep people safe, but you don’t have the time or resources for the usual safety measures. The Guardian recently asked people who’ve handled extreme situations how they knew what to do. Here are their tips.
Drop Unnecessary Decisions
Multitasking is a myth. If you want to do a job well, you can’t also be doing a bunch of other things at the same time.
Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger says that he was trained to drop non-essential decisions in a crisis, so that you don’t clutter up your brain while you’re trying to think clearly. You’ll also have to drop some of your usual actions. As he explains:
We have a three-page checklist designed to be used when landing from 35,000ft and it usually takes half an hour. But I broke protocol and took only the actions we had time for: From the time we hit the birds until the time we landed was under three-and-a-half minutes.
When a crisis is developing, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Karim Brohi, a surgeon who was on duty during the London Bridge attacks, led the emergency department in evaluating and treating the patients that were rushed to his hospital. But the hospital’s work load depended on factors that weren’t under control of anyone there. He says:
We received around 30 patients and were expecting a second wave who had been trapped in Borough Market, but that didn’t happen. It’s important for us to not be flustered by information when it’s wrong because we have to be able to respond no matter what.
Prepare for the Next Phase of the Crisis
Julia Brothwell, a British Red Cross team leader, flew to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, but she didn’t wait to be called; her policy is to call the office and start packing when she knows there’s a crisis that could need her help.
She also paid attention to the aftershocks, wondering if the next one could be a real quake. And she was prepared with a go-bag for when that quake came:
Two weeks after the first quake, I was working in our office on the sixth floor of a building when a second quake happened. It was like being on a fairground ride where the floor moves under you. I got everyone out of the office, but we had to get down five flights of stairs. Most people ran without their belongings, but I always have my grab bag with my extra phones, water and spare clothes by the doorway of whatever room I’m in and I grabbed it as we exited.
Examine Your Biases
In a crisis, you might need to make split-second decisions on tiny scraps of information.
Brett Lovegrove, London’s former head of counter-terrorism, explained how he dedicated time to understanding how his brain filled in the gaps:
When I was a young firearms officer in the Met police, I had a number of situations where I didn’t shoot but could have done and it was important to me to understand why. The only way I could do that was to take myself into a dark room and look at what I had relied on.
I found it was a mixture of my role models and how I’d been brought up. I learned a lot from my father and, although we sometimes have different views, I have an appreciation of diversity and making decisions for the right reasons by seeing the person and not their background.
I strongly believe crisis leaders need to make fast and difficult decisions based on what’s right and not let their own prejudices come to the fore in their response.
Consider How Your Reactions Affect Other People
When people are depending on you, you don’t have the luxury of freaking out.
Several of the crisis responders that The Guardian spoke to mentioned the importance of not just staying calm, but appearing calm to the people around you, especially when you’re the acknowledged leader in the situation. Sullenberger chose his words carefully (“This is the captain. Brace for impact.”) because, he explains, courage can be contagious.
Keeley Foster, deputy assistant commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, points out that not everybody will respond the same way. To keep your team effective, you have to consider each person’s reaction:
I’m naturally calm but the way you lead the people around you is important, too, and you have to change your leadership style to handle different people in different ways. Because you’re being directive you can so easily alienate people and once they feel out of the loop, they might not feed you the information you need.