Hitting the Ceiling: In A Crisis, You’re Only as Good as Your Crisis Management Training

A surprisingly large number of executives think that practice of any kind is for grinds and that star performers do things by the seat of their pants. When it comes to crisis management, this approach is a good way to lose your pants and a lot else.

Having a strong crisis management training program, one that regularly challenges your people is essential to the strength of your resiliency.



Do you remember what set apart the coolest kids back in high school and college? The ones who slacked off and bombed got little respect, and the ones who got top grades but spent all their time studying got only a little more. The coolest kids were the ones who hardly studied at all—they were too busy partying and doing sports—but still managed to get good grades.

Sometimes it seems like those same people have now graduated to the C-suite. And one thing they are definitely not into, for the most part, is practicing crisis management.

The problem is that when the clock is ticking and the wrong action or inaction can have a great cost, being charming and a good talker won’t get you very far.

Having a good head and knowing what to do next in a crisis may come naturally to some, but as a whole, your staff is only as good as their crisis management training.



I recently heard an interesting observation about how people and organizations respond to emergencies: “In a crisis, people don’t rise to the level of the crisis, they rise to the level of their training.”

I’ve heard this saying ascribed to both a Navy SEAL and someone from ancient Greece, but the source doesn’t matter as much as the accuracy of the statement. In my experience, it is right on the money.

Maybe we should unpack that sentence a little bit.

It starts from the common idea that oftentimes when people face challenges in life they rise to the occasion. Maybe in certain situations that happens, but there are unique aspects to a crisis of the type we are talking about that makes rising to the occasion difficult to impossible for untrained people.

What are those aspects? High potential costs to inaction or taking the wrong action, great uncertainty, high stress, time pressure, strong emotion, and possible casualties.

Knowing what to do in those situations is a lot different from being able to smooth-talk your way through a sales presentation.

If you haven’t practiced for dealing with a crisis, you probably won’t know what to do if one comes. It’s not a matter of being cool, it’s a matter of knowing a certain procedure and being able to follow it under pressure.

Going back to the saying, what it means is that when there’s a crisis, people’s behavior will generally go up to the level of their training and that’s it. Beyond that, they won’t know what to do. Their training establishes the ceiling of their response.



One thing I see a lot is, even companies that invest a lot in business continuity and disaster recovery tend to skimp on crisis management training and drills. This is like having a Ferrari and not bothering to put the wheels on. Their lack of training puts a limit on their whole program.

I play a lot of competitive golf, and I see the same thing on the golf course. Under stress, people go back to their familiar old patterns, whether it’s their old swing that causes that bad slice they’re trying to get rid of, or their old ways of doing things at work.

It’s only by training that we can discipline ourselves to respond in new and better ways.

What are some examples of people reverting to their old ways at work during times of crisis? Here are a few:

  • One person takes over.
  • Some people (who have important information and insight to share) hang back.
  • People focus on tactics at the expense of strategy.
  • People forget the crisis plan priorities and spend precious time working on less important matters.
  • The team loses sight of the big picture.
  • The team loses situational awareness.
  • The team doesn’t document the information it receives and the actions it takes.

I see a lot of mismanagement when it comes to crisis management. People tend to freak out, even high-level executives. Most people don’t have a clue.



I recently did an exercise at a client where I told a CIO, “You just learned that there was an incident of workplace violence at one of your data centers. What’s the first thing you do?” The first thing he did was ask about the status of his computer room. His first question should have been about the health and safety of his personnel, since human safety is always priority one in a crisis. (For a prioritized list of crisis tasks, see The 6 Tasks Every Emergency Plan Should Address by Richard Long, on the MHA Consulting website.)



Here’s another reason training is so important in this area: Crisis management is highly dependent on personality. In an emergency, strong leaders tend to take over and bull everybody over. This has a tendency to pull the level of the response way down. It substitutes rationality and carefully thought-out procedures for the law of the jungle. The better trained a team is, the more likely they are to respond according to your procedure.



There is a simple, reliable solution for all of the above problems: thoughtful and frequent training.

It’s amazing what happens when you have a team and train them. A well-trained team responds in a lean, systematic way, smoothly addressing priorities in the proper order.  

It is true that some people are naturally more comfortable than others in dealing with high-pressure, emergency situations. Often such people grow up to become professional first responders. But even first responders train constantly to accustom themselves to operating under pressure. Training can also help ordinary people get more comfortable in working under pressure and can increase the chances of their behaving effectively in an emergency.

Crisis management training should be frequent, varied, and realistic. For more details, please see the posts listed below!



Confidence is great, and being able to think on your feet can bring great rewards in business. However, crisis management is not the place to rely on a seat-of-the-pants approach. This is due to the nature of the crisis management task, which most people misunderstand. Crisis management is not about acting like a hero in a movie. It’s about calmly following a rational, pre-considered procedure—even when the larger situation is anything but calm. There is a sure-fire way to raise the ceiling of your company’s crisis management performance: by having frequent and realistic training sessions.



For more information on this and other hot topics in business continuity and IT/disaster recovery, check out these recent posts from BCMMETRICS and MHA Consulting:

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