Ten Lessons in Crisis Management

Over our many years of practice, we have seen many different companies all over the world make the same mistakes over and over again. Reflection is one of the key skills and habits of a great leader. When you reflect on past experiences, you can learn from the mistakes, get ideas on different ways to approach a problem, and with that, gain a new perspective.

My next book is on Crisis Management and it is due out this spring….this is an excerpt from Chapter 3: Ten Lessons in Crisis Management.  I have included five of the ten in this short article.

Crisis Lessons

As you read through the crisis lessons ask yourself, are these issues in my organization right now? Where? How do they manifest? Have they gotten in our way before? If so, what happened? Make notes as you reflect on each one of these lessons and document the areas that may need additional examination as you develop your program.

1.    Declare the disaster and activate as early as possible.
2.    Staff initially to a high-enough level.
3.    Issue clear and consistent instructions to staff.
4.    Delegate authority to those who have been tasked.
5.    Avoid two common syndromes:
a.    “Been there, done that!”
b.    “We’re a really smart group and we’ll figure it out when it happens.”

Declare the Crisis and Activate as Early as Possible

Many organizations are reluctant to declare a crisis. The emerging issue might be inside a department who keeps working on it, believing that it will resolve soon. You know that infamous quote from almost everyone’s technology department: “Just give me five more minutes!” It might be that the group trying to solve the problem is reluctant to ask for help, or they don’t want to escalate it due to fears about how they might be perceived or judged by others (“inexperienced” or “incompetent”). Whatever the reason, the longer an organization waits, the more damage that can be done. People need to know that there is nothing wrong with escalating the situation and activating your team so the problem can be assessed. If after a few hours you realize that it isn’t as big of a crisis as once imagined, then you can stand down the effort and look at the experience as a great training opportunity.


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana
Philosopher, Essayist, Poet, and Novelist


Staff Initially to a High-enough Level

When a crisis occurs, it is often not clear how many people you need to manage it or what skills might be required. In the beginning of crisis, companies often send everyone home and then realize that key skills are missing, such as strong administrative support or a particular business subject matter expertise. Look at your team staffing and carefully assess what you might need. Some of the areas that are most commonly overlooked are administrative support and additional individuals to monitor and track traditional and social media. You don’t want too many people, but conversely, you don’t want too few. Remember the Goldilocks principle – it needs to be just right.1

Issue Clear and Consistent Instructions to Staff

Companies are often slow to communicate to employees in a crisis. Perhaps they are thinking that they don’t know enough to say anything yet, perhaps they aren’t sure what to tell staff to do. At a minimum, you need to tell them what you know. This may be as basic as “We are aware that there is an issue, we have assembled a team, we are investigating the situation, and we’ll get back to you with more information.” If you fail to communicate, they will find out themselves, whether through the informal grapevine at work or the global grapevine – Twitter – and will decide for themselves what to do. Use all available tools to communicate with your employees. Hopefully this will include the use of an emergency notification system.

Delegate Authority to Those Who Have Been Tasked

During a crisis, when you give someone the responsibility to complete a task, also give them the authority to do so. Many times assignments may be given out, but they are given with caveats as well, something along the lines of ”Before you execute or complete the task, come back and tell me what is going on so I can approve it.” If you give someone a task to do, give them the authority as well to complete it. Don’t hamstring your team at time of crisis.

Avoid Two Common Syndromes

There are two syndromes that I have seen over and over again that make me both laugh and want to run for the hills: “Been there, done that!” and “We’re a really smart group and we’ll figure it out when it happens.”

“Been there, done that!”

This is a great example of cognitive bias that was discussed in Chapter One. Individuals create their own "subjective social reality” from their perception of the situation. For example, I personally have experienced many earthquakes, so I could consider myself an “earthquake expert” and therefore know all that I need to know about earthquakes. That bias may mean that I don’t really see what is happening in this current earthquake because I think I know it all. When I hear people expressing the “been there, done that” mindset, I am always concerned that they will not see what is directly in front of them and will make assumptions. Assumptions are dangerous in managing any crisis – never assume anything. Be clear about what is a fact and what is an assumption, and act accordingly.

“We’re a really smart group and we’ll figure it out when it happens.”

This is one of my all-time favorites. I have heard this from leaders who tell me that they have no need for a formal crisis management process or team because after all, “We’re a really smart group and we’ll figure it out when it happens.” The group may, indeed, be a “really smart group,” but I am here to tell you: I don’t care how smart you are, I don’t care how bright you and the group are. When the Bad Thing happens, you need clear roles and responsibilities and processes and strategies that have been developed and exercised. You can’t make those things up in the middle of a crisis; there are many who have failed trying.


We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity.
Stephen Hawking
Theoretical Physicist, Cosmologist, Author



It is important to reflect on mistakes made by ourselves and others. It gives us the opportunity to broaden our perspective. It allows us to observe from a comfortable distance, integrate those learnings into our own processes, and – hopefully – avoid repeating them in the future.


About the Author:
Regina Phelps is an internationally recognized expert in the field of crisis and continuity management and exercise design.  She is the founder of EMS Solutions Inc, (EMSS) and since 1982, EMSS has provided consultation and speaking services to clients in four continents.   Ms. Phelps is frequent speaker at international continuity conferences and is consistently rated one of the top rated speakers in her field. She is the author of three books:  Cyberbreach: What is your defenses fail? Designing an exercise to map a ready strategy; Emergency Management Exercises: From Response to Recovery and the companion Instructors Guide. All three are available on Amazon.

Follow Ms. Phelps on social media:
Twitter: @ReginaPhelps
Linkedin.com/in/reginaphelps and FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/emssolutionsinc/

1The Goldilocks Theory of Product Success, Jonah Berger, Harvard Business Review, July 7, 2016