How To Keep Calm and Publish in Crisis Situations

I don’t know about you, but during this shelter in place for the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m already sick of the terms “unprecedented” “social distancing” and especially “We’re all in this together.”

We all handle crises differently. And we’re all dealing with different internal and external factors. Some people are dealing with a houseful of kids while trying to work at home; others are completely alone, and getting serious cabin fever. To say “We’re all in this together” trivializes what we’re all going through and the aftermath of it all. Many of us are having to deal with crisis at work. While we all handle it differently, the end goal is the same — to keep calm and carry on.

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of urgent production requests, and I’ve often been asked how I stay calm, focused and get the job done when others around me are losing their minds. The truth is I’m not as calm as you think. It’s like watching a duck on the water. The duck looks like it’s effortlessly gliding on the water, but underneath, it is furiously paddling.

I think it’s OK to show emotions at work, especially during a crisis situation. I don’t think it’s always necessary to smile and say, “No problem” for a truly difficult situation. We are all human. Sometimes all you can do in a crisis situation is acknowledge, “This is a difficult situation.” There’s no need to sugar-coat it. It’s how you ultimately handle said situation that will determine success in a crisis situation.

I’ve found a few things that help myself and my team handle crisis and emergency situations:

Communicate: When people are in panic mode, they don’t process information as clearly they normally would. This is not the time for flowery jargon or technical terms that are only familiar to your team. Let people know what’s happening, how it may affect them (and, if applicable, their customers), the steps you plan to take, and inform them when those steps have been properly executed.

Document: Some urgent directives get delivered via “drive by” — Someone drops by your desk or calls, or you are suddenly called into a manager’s office, or your team is pulled into a meeting room and you are delivered the bad news. (Do good announcements ever come from these impromptu gatherings?)

But verbal directives are prone to the effects of the telephone or whispers game. Documentation is the best way to avoid that, and systems like Jira or Asana are great for that. But the last thing a manager wants to hear in a panic situation and stressed out is “You need to file a ticket because that’s our protocol.”

But there needs to be documentation of some sort, like an email, or you can file the ticket yourself. As I mentioned above, when people are panicked, the adrenaline is flowing and they may not process information as they normally do. You need to document to:

  1. Ensure everyone involved has a clear understanding of the situation, what needs to be done and who is responsible for specific deliverables. This how you can avoid mishaps due to misunderstandings.
  2. Have a record so when the crisis has been resolved, you can review it post-mortem and figure out how to refine the process, and refer back to the document when you encounter a similar situation.

Plan what you can, accept what you can’t: This is based on the Serenity Prayer from 12-step programs:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Some crises communication plans might start brewing early on. See what you can do to prepare and alert your team so they can plan accordingly.

Confession: I don’t like waiting; Tom Petty was right that it is the hardest part, especially if I know it’s going to be a rush job when I get final content or directives. So sometimes I would try to get ahead of the project without all the information. However, this often backfires because I’m making assumptions based on past experience.

Often, crises come out of nowhere, and you can’t plan for those. But if you’re in a group for a while you might start to see patterns, and you can almost plan for the unexpected. One workgroup I was in didn’t schedule our workload based on 40 hours per week; it was based on 32 hours because these “emergencies” always seemed to take up about 8 hours a week. So we planned for them.

Put things in perspective: You can plan all you want, but Murphy’s law will ultimately rear its ugly head. I’ve had projects that have gone completely sideways despite months of planning and communication. At the time, it seemed like the end of the world. It wasn’t. I learned some valuable lessons that I carried over into future projects. And over time, things didn’t seem so bad.

Also, think about what you’re doing in the grand scheme of things. When I was leading my first big product launch at Netscape, I was visibly stressed and my manager noticed. She told me, “It’s just a web site; it’s not like we’re curing cancer.” (Although when I worked for Bio-Rad Laboratories, they were actually developing products to aid in a cures for cancer). Most crisis situations look much smaller in the rear-view mirror.

Unfortunately, that can’t be said for the COVID-19 situation itself. If you have lost a loved one, or your job and you can’t pay bills, or battling major depression, this is not just a blip in the radar for you. But some of what you may be going through — working from home in a less than ideal situation, or a shortage or toilet paper — is temporary. It may not seem like it right now, with the days all bleeding together. But it is.

Like any crisis, whether it’s work or personal, handle only what is clear to you right now. Understand your priorities, one day at a time, one step at a time. We only know what we know, and we can’t be responsible for anything else.