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Under Pressure - Initial Crisis Management

Pressure. It’s a word with many nuances, both good and bad. Pressure can form and shape things, like pressure moulding in manufacturing. Pressure can inflate and bring life into things, like tyres. And yet, pressure also has the ability to damage and break things when the load exceeds the item’s capacity. Pressure can also be applied by people, whether to make improvements or to encourage or coerce others to conform or behave in a certain way. For many of us, of a certain age, the word pressure is intrinsically tied to a certain song by Queen and Bowie – it likely conjures memories of good friends screaming, "Let me out!"

Being a leader means that we must sometimes operate under pressure. So, in these next four blogs, we will explore four steps of leading under pressure and managing both the situation and your own mind in those high pressure moments. We will look at:

1. Initial crisis management

2. Thinking correctly under pressure

3. Bringing things under control

4. Problem solving

The thing about a crisis, is that it often comes out of nowhere – with no warning. Of course, we can plan for potential crises and have protocols in place. In fact, there seems to be an ever-growing list of things that we need to prepare for like fire, terrorist threats and bomb scares. Every organisation will have a fire drill and an evacuation procedure, and endless risk assessments to reduce the chance of such things happening. Yet, however much we prepare, an inevitable crisis will hit, and it is how we manage the crisis when it first happens that can make a big difference to how things go. So, what are the key elements of managing the initial crisis? I think there are 4 key components:

· Pause

· Protocols

· Plan

· People – Communication


The brain is hard wired to look out for threats. When it senses a threat, it will signal to the adrenal glands to release cortisol. This chemical is part of the fight, flight or freeze mechanism and triggers organs like the heart to prepare to react to the threat, such as by increasing your heart rate. Cortisol can affect our frontal lobe, the place where cognitive thinking and processing happens. Therefore, when the initial crisis happens, it can trigger a threat response in us. This can make us think that we need to make a quick decision to get rid of the threat. It is easy to think that we have no time and must force a decision immediately. The truth is, even in those intense moments, there is time to pause and take a moment to think. The brain responds first with its stored memory experiences, followed by the emotional centre… The frontal lobe – which manages our rational thinking – is the last to react. So, taking time to pause allows your logical brain to catch up with the emotional brain. David Marquet, in his book, ’Turn the ship around’ suggests that before you take an action, to state, ‘I intend to...’. This allows you time to consider the action you are about to take and thus reduces the chance of making an error of judgement. Pausing before action enables a well-thought-out process.


Proactively planning ahead and preparing protocols in the event of an emergency makes things easier when crisis comes. When I was a headteacher, we prepared an evacuation protocol in the event of needing to evacuate the school, e.g., if there was a gas leak. In all honesty, we never thought we would need to use it. But, in May 2016, a bomb threat was phoned into the school whilst I was off site and 70 miles away. Because we had the protocol in place, my staff were able to safely get the children off site to another local school, and – though it was of course stressful moving 670 primary age children off site – it was made easier by having a protocol in place. Fortunately, it turned out to be a hoax, but the critical takeaway was the value of having that protocol in place. So, if you face a crisis, the first thing is to think about the protocols you have in place. If you don’t have an exact protocol for a specific issue, do you have a protocol for another situation that could be applied here? Using similar protocols that people are used to helps people follow your action more easily. It is also worth noting at this point the language that you are using. Even using the word ‘crisis’ tells our brain that it is an issue that is going wrong. By switching the word to ‘situation’, it immediately enables us to see it as something solvable – considering the protocol for the language we use can also be important.


Even in a sudden emergency, you can plan. Thinking through these key coaching questions can help you to plan:

· What do we want to achieve?

· What is the current situation?

· What could we do?

· Which of these is the best way forward?

When you have planned what you are going to do, then these three key questions can help:

· What needs to happen?

· Who is responsible for what?

· How do we best communicate this?

People – Communication

In any crisis situation, people’s emotions will kick in. Steve Peters, in his book ‘Chimp Paradox’, talks about people’s emotional centre brain being like a chimp that needs reassuring. Two key things help this:

1. Acknowledge the emotion the ‘chimp’ is feeling. Don’t dismiss it.

2. Remind the chimp of a time when it has been ok and that you have looked after them.

Communicating to people is crucial to keep reassuring them and get their engagement in the plan. The simple tip is that you can’t overcommunicate. Wherever you can, try to keep the personal touch in that too. You may remember the Euro 21 football game in which Christian Erikson collapsed. Well, following the match, referee Anthony Taylor who oversaw the game explained that he made sure he communicated with both teams and personally visited them in their dressing rooms before the game continued. Though the norm was for a representative to work with the teams, he chose to go there in person. This is because communicating in person helps to instil a sense of care and safety.

Crises don’t normally play fair. You would hope that having a protocol and a plan would help you put the crisis to bed and resume normal service. Often, though, the crisis will throw up other issues as it has aroused people’s emotions. As a result, there is a need to constantly review, check and problem solve. It is important to have a ‘during action’ review. Regularly ask,

· What is working well?

· What could be better?

This can be in all areas. How is communication going? How are people feeling? Are we getting closer to a resolution of the issue/crisis? Then communicate back to the team what you know and what you are doing about it.

Our initial reaction and crisis management can make all the difference. Next week we will look at TCUP – Thinking Correctly Under Pressure – and how to manage your own emotions in the situation.


Can we help you?

How are you with dealing with pressure and a crisis? Coaching can help you grow in confidence in dealing with these tricky issues. Everyday Leader’s team of coaches can help you understand what is going on in your head and how you can manage your emotions and other people in those moments. Give us a call on 01449 710438 if you would like us to help you explore this and empower you and your team.

Everyday Leader is here to empower, inspire and equip you to do that. If we can help you find a way forward, through coaching, training or consultancy, do let us know. Contact us now:


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