Keeping it real: Being flexible and responsive under pressure

Imagine being faced with hundreds of different voices and personalities online, all complaining about your product or service. You can’t see these people, only what they write or film.

They’re unaccountable and uncaring and, as far as they are concerned, you are just a faceless organisation.

This is just a social media crisis exercise: more intimidating than you would have believed.

When it comes to testing people’s readiness for crisis online, I see two sorts of reaction to fear. One reaction is ‘Let’s go! Bring it on’ and a strange comfort in learning from mistakes made in a controlled, private environment.

The other reaction I observe is an uncertain disbelief of the facts and circumstances played out in the scenario. This reaction usually appears quite early on, and is obvious through classic signs of low confidence: crossed arms, drilling down into facts or challenging the overall premise of the exercise.

‘It wouldn’t happen like that.’

I’ve sat enough times on the wrong side of a real crisis to know that there can be no such thing as ‘this is how it would happen’. When we prepare a scenario, it’s deliberately challenging and flexible, in order to test the abilities of individuals and their team.

Uncertainty and enthusiasm are normal reactions to encounter in a crisis room, all at the same time. In fact, uncertainty is as much a part of the brain’s activity as excitement (uncertainty is triggered by a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate, in case you’re interested).

When I have turned from poacher to gamekeeper for a crisis exercise, with a resulting loss of confidence, the experience has left me pretty uncertain for the first few minutes.

The purpose of a crisis exercise is to understand how people react, so this is fine.

An exercise also tests established process and skills. But your reaction to a crisis shouldn’t be limited by established processes or your own uncertainty. After all, it is people, not processes that manage crises.

If you start to think ‘it wouldn’t happen like that’, remember why you’re taking part and suspend your disbelief. Crises don’t happen a certain way, and you need to be flexible in your response.

  1. Pause for 20 seconds
  2. Then make a list of the things that need to be delivered, or understood, in order to respond…
  3. …and another list of the things that could be done, to help turn the situation around

You’ll learn much more about yourself, your team and your readiness for crisis this way, than speculating on the likelihood of any number of eventualities.

Woman looking sceptical
Suspend your disbelief, and learn more quickly


photo credit: Mona’s NYC via photopin (license)