Do you put your own oxygen mask on first?

When we examine our own reactions in a crisis situation there are a number of factors we have to take into account.

We must understand, while we often refer to major incidents as a crisis – earthquake, war and the like, in reality, what determines whether something is a crisis, is our perception of a situation and the behaviours driven by that perception.

This will be different for different people based on experience, training and personality. It therefore stands to reason that we need to manage the perception of the situation and what we can do to solve it.

Secondly our initial reaction to a crisis situation, is often biological rather than psychological. The fight or flight mechanism is triggered and we are placed in a heightened state of awareness and anxiety. This can be useful if we actually need to either fight or run away, but is often not helpful if we need ourselves and our team to be looking for solutions to complex problems.

As a leader our first responsibility is to manage our own biological reaction to a crisis. Accept that we feel anxious and even afraid, this is normal. Give yourself a moment to focus on what is real and what is perception. Quite literally take a deep breath. In other words put your own oxygen mask on before trying to help others.

Even in a combat situation when faced with chaos and confusion the first thing a leader does is take a knee. Quite literally find cover from enemy fire crouch down and take a moment to catch your breath and allow yourself to refocus and allow the initial adrenaline hit to subside. This enables you to think more clearly.

Once you are in the best position you can be personally, remembering that you are unlikely to be perfect! You can assist the team around you.

Ask yourself have you ever been in the situation where you have received a call or email from a client? They are complaining and looking for answers. Your fight or flight mechanism is triggered and you react instantly. Calling the team and transferring the feeling and frustrations of the client directly to them. At this stage rather than looking to solve problems it is most likely that the team are seeking to avoid blame.

The next time this happens. Close your door or find some personal space. Allow your own initial reaction to subside then focus on the actual problem. You will find your focus greatly sharpened.

Next you need to help others deal with their biological reactions. If people are short or dismissive, try to remember they are probably anxious and being fuelled by adrenaline with a raised heart rate and blood pressure. These are reactions they can’t control. We should now look to provide reassurance and direction.

Reassurance does not mean we have all the answers. Instead we reassure our team we are all in this together and working to find solutions.

Giving direction is critical to regaining control of any situation. It helps people to focus on being part of their own solution. In the early stages of a crisis useful tasks might involve gathering intelligence on the situation, establishing communications, checking resources and working out what options are available to the team or organisation – all ideas are valid at this stage!

Once you and the team are out of “fight or flight” mode you can start to solve the actual problem!