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Leading Teams in Crisis Situations – The Value of Values

Organisations are susceptible to a number of events or situations that have the potential to severely threaten them. In fact, a business crisis is any emotionally charged situation that, once it becomes public, invites negative stakeholder reaction and thereby has the potential to threaten the financial well-being, reputation, or survival of a company or some portion thereof.

Teams in Action

Two primary types of organisational crisis situations have been identified: Sudden crises and Smouldering Crises.

Sudden Crises; These are those unexpected events in which the organisation has virtually no control and perceived limited fault or responsibility. Examples include the September 11 USA terror attack, the tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004, technology disruptions, plant explosions etc.

Smouldering Crises; These start as small, internal problems within a company, eventually become public to stakeholders, and, over time, escalate to crisis status as a result of inattention by management. Examples are Madupi power station, workplace safety, product defects etc. Nearly three-quarters of all business crises fall in the smouldering category, according to the Institute for Crisis Management. However, in many instances teams do not see smouldering crises because of blind spots. Crises situations do not formally announce their arrival, unlike other responsibilities assigned to teams. Therefore the work of a team in a crisis situation differs from routine and conventional teamwork. It calls for complimentary and an additional set of skills for teams to survive and thrive.

Visible Leadership. As a result of crises situations, there is a strong need for leadership to manage the team processes in a visible manner. It must be purposeful in clarifying how the team tasks at hand and team goals are interdependent. That is, in some situations it’s a case of a ‘High Task’ and ‘Low Goal’ focus of attention to take preference due to the seriousness of what must be done at that moment in time. For example the treatment of a patient in the emergency trauma unit of a hospital. Yet in other situations it would be more appropriate to employ a ‘High Goal’ and ‘Low Task’ focus of attention, like interacting with the customer. In the final analysis, it’s about co-leadership in a team, the sharing of resources, and the authority to act when needed.

Team Values. The foundation of this type of teamwork is supported by a key value, Trust and other relevant team values, the bedrock of the team culture. That’s when the value of values will save the day. There is simply no time to question whether something has been done by someone in the team. The team values are the glue that will hold members together in moments of crisis. Mutual accountability depends on the joint contributions of members for preventing or responding to crisis. Only the values of the team, what we stand for and believe in, will make that possible. Values are at the basis for creating a ‘high-reliability’ culture in a team. A mindfulness of five principles is evident in teams that deal successfully with crises. They build a mind-set of: 1. Preoccupation with preventing failure; 2. Reluctance to simplify interpretations; 3. Sensitivity to operations; 4. Commitment to resilience; 5. Deference to expertise. Integrating these five principles in leading a team in crisis management has proved to be a hugely important success factor.

Appropriate leadership in the context of team values therefore ensures that the team develops the capability to bounce back from the crisis by continuing operations under extreme circumstances and learning from the crisis to improve the team’s effectiveness, continuously.

Sources: Academy of Management Review, International Journal of HR Development, Managing Your Team – Harvard Business School, Managing the Unexpected – Jossey-Bass, San Francisco & Intégro Learning SA