In the midst of a crisis, your first instinct may be to panic. This is a natural response to any sort of emergency situation whether it be present in your work life, home life, or social life. As humans, we experience dilemmas on a regular basis and throughout our lives. And as leaders, we experience it even more frequently than the Average Joe.

However, panicking during a catastrophe does not help to alleviate the stress of the already stressful situation. This would be harmful to not only your own well-being but to your team’s. In fact, panicking during a crisis can actually hinder your ability to effectively focus and process through the issue.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how panic is displayed outwardly, it’s important to understand what a crisis actually is.

What Is A Crisis?

According to Jim Taylor Ph.D. of Psychology, and author of the book, “How To Survive and Thrive When Bad Things Happen: Nine Steps to Cultivating an Opportunity Mindset in A Crisis,” a crisis is “something bad that happens suddenly.”

This may seem like a vague answer, but that is because a crisis can refer to a number of different situations that can take place in a variety of environments. The term ‘crisis’ does not refer to just one specific situation.

To delve further into the root of the word ‘crisis’, here are some qualifiers associated with it:

  • Danger
  • Uncertainty
  • Trauma
  • An important decision must be made.
  • A turning point in a situation.
  • Instability in regards to economical, political, or social climate.
  • An emotional event changing someone’s life.

Taking all of those qualifiers into consideration, Dr. Taylor offers us this definition, “An event or situation that arises suddenly or reaches a tipping point in its severity that has the effect of significantly disrupting lives and threatening the status quo, and that may also have long-term, harmful consequences on individuals or groups.”

With the definition of crisis in the front of our minds, we can break it down even more into five parts that all these catastrophes have. First, a crisis comes unexpectantly. Therefore, no one can be fully prepared for a crisis to strike.

Secondly, a crisis creates instability, essentially shaking up the world you are living in and destroying your ‘normal.’ Thirdly, everything that was routine, predictable, and easy to control is now a challenge because of the crisis.

Fourthly, because of the crisis and the switch in normality, life feels traumatic and there is an overflow of uncontrollable emotions. And, lastly, this newly upside-down world with an overabundance of emotion triggers the instinct to take action immediately.

How Do People React To A Crisis?

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Now that we understand the ins-and-outs of a crisis, it’s time to discuss how people tend to react once they encounter one.

There are five common psychological reactions to a sudden stressful situation:

  1. Vicarious Rehearsal: People who are distant to the threat of a crisis tend to have less rational reactions to the event.
  2. Denial: When people find themselves entrapped in a crisis, they may experience denial by not believing the threat is real and disregarding recommendations to handle the situation.
  3. Stigmatization: Depending on the situation, people may become stigmatized by their communities which will hinder solving the crisis. People who feel threatened by the crisis will stigmatize it and attempt to distance themselves.
  4. Fear and Avoidance: When people find themselves in a crisis, the most common reaction is fear and avoidance because of the uncertainty of its nature.
  5. Withdrawal, Hopelessness, and Helplessness: Some people accept the reality of a crisis easily, but because of the overwhelming emotions attached to it, they find themselves feeling hopeless and helpless.

Although the idea of a crisis sounds completely shattering to one’s life, there are ways to push through a crisis, as a leader, and take control over the situation with grace and ease. All you need are three tools: adaptability, vulnerability, and communication.

Adapting During A Crisis

When you’re a leader it’s important to always be in charge of a situation. But, when a crisis hits so does insecurity and indecisiveness. A crisis situation in business can come in many forms, whether it be a losing an expected deal, an issue with a team member, or a global pandemic. Because every situation is so varied, adaptability is key to maintaining structure, sanity, and control.

Although leaders want to be in charge and take the lead during stressful unexpected situations, they are not afraid to ask for help when they need it. Adapting their ‘usual’ routine of making decisions, and asking for expert advice is vital to navigating unfamiliar situations.

Adapting during a crisis is necessary in order to process through it. A leader cannot rely on their regular protocol to troubleshoot, they must be flexible with their game-plan and learn to ‘go with the flow’ rather than lead with structure and definite direction.

The Importance of Vulnerability

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Although being vulnerable is an obstacle for any human, it is essential that leaders embody vulnerability and lead with their hearts.  This is especially important during a crisis where tensions are high and unpredictability is present.

Unfortunately, a crisis can bring on decision-making that is fast and uncertain. In order to glide through this stressful situation, it’s vital that leaders and up-front and vulnerable with their team members and clients. This will help to further confuse within the situation and to help retain clarity and direction without adding to the tension.

A good and effective team is built on trust, and if a leader is not giving out all the information, or pretending they are in control when they are not, trust starts to deteriorate, which causes long-term damage to the team. Leaders are not superheroes, and it’s important that they show their team that they are only human, just like everyone else.

Communication Is Key

To further explore vulnerability in crisis situations, we must also touch on communication. Communication is mission-critical during any crisis. Without communication, nothing would ever be processed or resolved.

Vulnerability and communication tend to go hand-in-hand. A leader must be transparent during times of crisis when communicating with team members. This will help to solidify the team’s bond, as well as let team members know the state of the situation, which is only fair. When team members are aware of the current climate of the matter, they will be able to make clear decisions and continue workflow without additional anxiety and worry.

A leader must also be empathetic during communication when a crisis is spiraling. The high emotions of team members will not be soothed with a leader who is unwilling to compromise, adapt, or talk with kindness and respect. A crisis can affect team members in different ways, so leaders much adapt their communication to each member while being empathetic and compassionate to their current situation and state of mind.


  • What Is A Crisis?

A crisis is a traumatic event that happens without notice.

  • How Do People React To A Crisis?

People react to a crisis in different ways. Common ways people react are vicarious rehearsal, denial, stigmatization, fear and avoidance, and withdrawal, hopelessness, and helplessness.

  • Why Must You Be Adaptable During A Crisis?

It’s important to adapt during a crisis because your ‘normal’ is turned upside-down. You must be open to finding a new way to get through a crisis.

  • Why Is Vulnerability Important During A Crisis?

Vulnerability is important during a crisis for the sake of your team. Vulnerability is at the root of trust, and you must have trust within a team to work together efficiently.

  • How Can You Communication Effectively During A Crisis?

Communicating with compassion and empathy is vital when handling a crisis.