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Five Questions Everyone Asks During A Workplace Crisis

Five Questions Everyone Asks During A Workplace Crisis

I think of a crisis as normalcy upended. Not the official definition, of course. It’s the subject of much interest and fascination. Since early 2020, we’ve seen pandemic-induced crises in a few areas: healthcare, business, politics and (indeed) personal well-being. 

The prevailing wisdom on crisis management is directed at leaders, people with influence over other people. This is fair because a leader’s decision affects many. However, leaders are not the only ones making important decisions. Among its many lessons, the pandemic has taught us that individuals too are making key decisions in moments of crisis. 

Winston Churchill famously said: “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” A sterling word of advice from an iconic figure, himself no stranger to crises. If you’re in a crisis situation, but lack the formal authority to affect outcomes directly, how do you bring this wise counsel to bear? 

It turns out there are ways in which the extremities of a crisis can benefit you, if not already. In this sense, I think of crises as a remarkably effective calibrating force, bringing the big questions into frame. To be sure, these questions are always important. Crises merely accentuate them. In this thought, I reflect on five questions we all ask when navigating workplace crises.

Who Am I?

At its core, this question is about priorities. Something about the moment when things are spinning out of control creates an urgent need for clarity on what matters most. These are the very things that anchor our lives and world views. The discomforts and difficulties of a crisis will bring them to light. 

I was reminded of this hardly two weeks ago when the ground beneath me shook violently as my apartment block swayed from left to right, a crisis of sorts. In the days following the Melbourne earthquake that read 5.9 on the Richter scale, I would reflect on what matters most. And although I had a good idea before the event, this reflection affirmed some things while revealing opportunities elsewhere.

Am I Doing Meaningful Work?

Being clear about priorities allows us to view work through the right lens. Without it, we cannot resolve the meaning of work, an idea that comes into focus in moments of crisis. I’ve had the opportunity to do meaningful work. For me, work is meaningful when I get to observe its impact first-hand. Put differently, work is meaningful when I know I’m making a difference. 

There’s a byproduct to meaningful work you want to have: confidence. When you’ve done impactful work in moments of crisis, it permits you to approach other uncertain situations boldly, without being burdened or distracted by the gravity of the moment.

Looking back on my career, I’ve managed to navigate some turbulent times largely because I had the opportunity to make a real difference. These moments give me insight into who I am and what I bring to the table. 

Am I Seen And Heard?

A delicate matter, moments of crisis at work also force us to reflect on whether we feel validated. Obvious indicators include being acknowledged for contributions or consulted before decisions, among others. These courtesies make people feel validated as human beings. 

Everyone wants to feel like they matter, and this need is especially pronounced in moments of crisis. Why? Because when normalcy is upended, the little things that remind us of our humanity become crucial for restoring a semblance of normalcy.

This need for normalcy can play out in different ways, some more spectacular than others. CNN reported that former US President Donald Trump learned that he’d lost the presidential election of 2020 while playing a round of golf.

Am I Safe?

In workplace crises, another need that comes into frame is for psychological safety. This is a product of good, strong leadership, and a crisis will always test for it. Here’s a common example of how this test might fail. 

Faced with financial hardship, organisations will often use staff layoffs to increase profits. Some do so even without this challenge. It may seem financially sensible in the near term, but that’s a nearsighted view. This is a surefire way of telling workers how safe they’re not. 

Let’s take a leaf from Dan Price, CEO of Gravity, a digital payments company. Faced with laying off 20% of staff or bankruptcy, he chose the third option that wasn’t even on the table. According to an report:

… Price called a companywide meeting to let employees know the state of the business and solicit creative strategies for navigating the next few months. He and Gravity COO Tammi Kroll also scheduled 40 hourlong meetings with small groups of employees to check in and gather ideas”.

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“We just put all our cards on the table,” Price says. “And we listened.”

It’s a remarkable story that ended well for Gravity. A show of first-class leadership. For me, the leadership lesson here is that giving psychological safety requires leaders to give up some of it, and be vulnerable. It’s a tradeoff. 

Do I Belong?

Since the pandemic began, people have asked these questions in different ways. Ultimately they all lead into the question of belonging, the mother question. And the verdict is telling in the trend.

It’s been dubbed the great resignation – a global phenomenon of employees quitting in droves. A Mckinsey study found that 36 percent who had quit in the past six months did so without having a new job in hand.

If nothing else, this is a loud statement. It says, “I’ve had enough.” It’s an indictment on the state of belonging in many organisations. 

I know of at least three people who quit their jobs without having another one lined up. The pandemic has brought employees to a point where they’re unwilling to tolerate the sub-par aspects of their workplaces any longer. Employees are not giving up. They are putting themselves first. 

And that’s OK.

View Comment (1)
  • Thought provoking read. The first question, who am I? got me thinking. Have I scratched the surface of who I can be? That’s a question I’ll be mulling over for a while.

    I look forward to reading your next article.

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