Not all emergencies are merely acute crises.
The COVID pandemic has moved from an acute crisis of shutdowns and daily briefings to a long-term, chronic crisis. For those of us who lead organizations, this changes the way we think about the crisis and act to respond to its effects. Of course, COVID isn’t the only chronic crisis out there; it is the one that is top of mind for many of us now.
- I worked in an organization for seven years that had a constant financial solvency problem. No one knew week-to-week what bills would get paid, or whether payroll would be on time. That is a long-term, slow-motion crisis.
- Another organization I worked with had lost over 50% of its revenue over 15 years and was in the process of reinventing itself to find new ways of doing business. This was a slow-motion, long-term crisis.
Long before COVID, organizations were dealing with these kinds of long-term crises. Now, we have added to those with immediate shutdowns followed by months of uncertainty in spring 2020. And COVID, as a crisis, is shifting form acute to chronic as we speak.
Having worked with a wide variety of organizations in long-term crisis over the years, here is a way of looking at long-term crisis that can frame how to move forward in this pandemic environment.
Acute Crisis Perspective
When we think about crisis leadership, we often have visions of ourselves dealing decisively with decisions of acute importance – how to get people out of a burning building, giving a rousing speech to people demoralized by a setback or gearing up for battle, gathering people and offering comfort in disaster.
When we do our emergency planning, we often look at resolving acute crises that could disrupt business: physical considerations (fire, flood, inaccessible buildings); natural disasters; abrupt changes in personnel; crime; sudden changes in the legal or moral landscape. So those of us who have done emergency planning and succession planning find that resolving the crisis is a technical challenge. We just apply the emergency plan based on the crisis we are experiencing.
In these cases, we can grade our responses formulaically: input crisis, apply plan, execute implementation. How well did we plan? How well did we execute? We can adjust plans based on those grades. The building burned down: did we have backups of paper files / insurance for interruption of business? How do we get back to work while rebuilding?
When a crisis becomes chronic, other factors come into play. Chronic crises often become pervasive – seeping in to every corner of our organizational life. That means that they are much less about technical fixes of an immediate problem and much more about adapting our habits and mindsets to the parameters of the long-term crisis situation. Therefore, in a chronic crisis, uncertainty and fatigue ultimately become more important than the crisis itself.
Uncertainty breeds a variety of emotions in us, depending on our frame of mind and our current experience. These emotions contribute to the mindset and the lens through which we process uncertainty. For most of us, uncertainty intensifies our emotions. Long-term uncertainty keeps our emotions in an elevated state – which, according to neuroscientists, means that our ability to make clear-headed decisions is somewhat impaired.
Thus, working through a long-term crisis means taking extra time and care to manage our emotional state. In the short term, our initial emotions can carry us for a time. They can motivate us to take action to remedy our immediate problem. But as time wears on, the initial emotions – such as surprise – wear off, and bloom into emotions that are more complex, and often harder to name. And these color our perspective, our decision-making, and our ability to do quality work.
The second major challenge of a long-term crisis is fatigue. Whether it is the physical fatigue of working hard to prevent loss; the emotional fatigue of our elevated emotional state; or fatigue with the flow of reports, updates, and contradictions, fatigue sets in after we consume our initial reserves of energy.
Fatigue also dulls our minds and makes our emotions more reactive. When our bodies crave rest, anger tends to flare because our body is fighting to take a break. When anger tinges everything, we may have moments of clarity – prioritizing what is the most important, since we are tired – and we can also break relationships that need to remain long-term, even if they are not as important at the moment. Needless to say, fatigue is not our friend in a long-term crisis.
Responses to Uncertainty and Fatigue
As a crisis moves from acute to chronic – or has been chronic for a while – there are three things we can do to lead well and manage the uncertainty and fatigue that could otherwise derail us.
- Self Care. Listen to your body. What are you feeling? What are you emoting? Are you tired? Verbalize those feelings. Naming them – even with a made-up name – gives us a way of validating them and lowering their intensity. Are you tired? Find ways to rest.
- Manage Pace. When a crisis goes chronic, you have to be in it for the long haul, so protect your rest. Not everything can be solved right now, even though it feels like it must. Create a long-term game plan.
- Multi-Scenario Planning. The long-term game plan needs to have multiple scenarios in it. Writing down your plans will help make sense of them, analyze them, and suggest which are the most viable. From there we can determine how to proceed.
Let me know if you need someone to listen – to talk through the long-term crisis that is COVID, or anything else you may have going on in addition to COVID. Let’s figure this out together.