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Leading in a Crisis: Building High-Performance Teams

Convening a group of expert decision-makers in times of crisis can bring about some friction. Here’s how to deal with challenges like overbearing leadership, bias, micropolitics and mental fatigue.

Responses to crises are to a large extent shaped by the shared sense-making, deliberation and decision-making that occurs in teams for policymaking, coordination and tactical response. Emergency plans position all manner of teams as crucial nodes in crisis response networks. For example, the U.S. National Incident Management System (NIMS) identifies emergency support functions and provides a template for a “project organization” that can be adapted to the context and demands of a particular emergency, disaster or crisis. Similar systems exist in Australia and New Zealand, from ministers down to the tactical response level.

The key question is how to compose, manage and work in such groups so that they perform productively and remain fit for purpose in a crisis. While emergency plans often provide generic guidance for their composition, they do not provide guidance on how to manage and navigate the crucial interpersonal and inter-professional processes that support — or inhibit — problem-solving during a crisis.

Challenge 1: Overbearing leadership

In crises, there is always a temptation for leaders to adopt a heroic and command-and-control posture. This may look and feel good externally and "get things done" speedily. But research is clear: It is a liability rather than an asset to team performance. These kind of command-and-control leaders end up dominating deliberations, constricting the information flow, promoting conformity and undermining the authority, expertise and critical thinking of team members.

The best crisis leaders provide direction but remain aware that crisis success is generally co-produced. First, they should adapt deliberative and decision-making processes to the timeframes available, and encourage purposeful, focused dialog and inclusive engagement by all team members. They should ensure that the appropriate mix of professions, expertise and backgrounds is at the table and periodically recalibrate team composition in view of the evolving character and challenges of the crisis at hand. Second, rather than getting locked into a role conception as "the decider," they should provide broad direction regarding the mission and mandate of the group, without telegraphing personal policy preferences or likely decisions early in the process. Third, they should ensure that each team member feels empowered to contribute authentically, including voicing doubt, dissenting, and being given a fair hearing.

Challenge 2: Blind spots and biases

Many crises have been mismanaged in good faith by top teams making fatal judgment calls based on false premises and misperceptions, rather than by willful pursuit of questionable policies. Crises are tough information environments. High uncertainty (including "unknown unknowns"), high fluidity, high stakes and high emotions may all cloud policymakers’ ability to make sense of rapidly unfolding situations. In the heat of the moment and under pressure to act quickly, our instinctive, emotional "System One" brains may thrive while our systematic, deliberative "System Two" mode of information processing is momentarily suppressed. This cognitive shift can compromise our ability to assess situations and purposefully consider potentially vital issues that do not fit our emotionally driven frames of reference. Group dynamics — for example the premature and excessive concurrence-seeking behavior associated with "groupthink" — can exacerbate such blinkered thinking. The challenge when deliberating and taking crucial decisions is to avoid such pitfalls.

Each team member should be authorized up front to pull the "emergency brake” through vigorous opposition at any time the group or key members slide into a questionable (incomplete, self-serving, catastrophized or outdated) definition of the situation or are leaning toward unworkable or unethical policies. Members with certain professional roles in the team (the lawyer, the virologist, the engineer, the emergency manager, the military or law enforcement officer, the communicator) have a particular responsibility to make sure that the group acts in ways that are legitimate and consistent with good professional practice relevant to the circumstances at hand.  

Challenge 3: Micropolitics

When crisis teams kick into action, "microclimates" develop within them and determine the quality of their performance. Importantly, these climates are partly shaped by the quality of the pre-existing relations between the political, bureaucratic and professional constituencies that team members represent. It may also be shaped by gender divides. Although the prevailing norm is to suspend politicking and unify in order to fight the crisis together, the reality is that under the pressure of a crisis, pre-existing fault lines and protective, competitive instincts may be amplified rather than attenuated. Just because circumstances dictate that individuals join a leadership or coordination "team" does not mean that members cast aside their set identities, situated interests ("where you stand depends on where you sit") and relational baggage.

Do not ignore, or try to wish away, this type of micropolitics and let it fester in the shadows. Name it at the outset. Don’t suppress it but find ways to normalize and even harness it in ways that allow the team to make balanced, well-scrutinized decisions that will be understood and accepted by other groups and agencies — from stakeholders who are dependent on group decisions to others who will implement decisions. Adopt a practice of "multiple advocacies" where representatives of different viewpoints on issues of strategic importance are given license to argue their cases during team meetings in a structured process — buffeted by their collective commitment to "fall into line" with decisions once taken. Team leaders act as "magistrates" ensuring the integrity of the process and setting (temporal or other) boundaries for arriving at a decision.

Challenge 4: Tunnel vision and mental fatigue 

High performance can operate on the edge of failure. Adrenaline and stress can enhance the ability of individuals to perform and even thrive, but they can also create a false sense of being able to cope if only we keep pushing ourselves. Separation from friends, loved ones and indeed many colleagues can be necessary in order to function, but prolonged insulation demonstrably leads to alienation and clouded judgment. Well-meaning commitments to the group’s work and its key decisions may escalate and succumb to blinkered thinking that any decisions it has taken must have been the right ones. Particularly, in long-running crises (such as COVID-19), sheer fatigue and "bunker syndrome" can be the enemy of good team performance.

First, teams should build in regular and short (20 minutes at a time will do) but purposeful "stop, reflect and reconsider" moments into their proceedings. During such "balcony time," members are encouraged to give voice to what they notice about their own and the team’s mindsets and behaviors, and what might be questioned and improved. Second, all team members should have fallbacks/deputies who regularly attend team meetings. This enables the pacing of each individual’s workload and pre-empts any illusion of irreplaceability and misguided sense of duty to gain hold of team members. Third, efforts should be made to ensure team members do not remain locked in bunkers or on executive floors. Force them to see "real people" (frontline staff, citizens, loved ones) regularly to hear and feel different voices and maintain a sense of perspective. Fourth, periodically bring in a respected outsider (senior peers, independent experts, experienced facilitators) to purposefully challenge the shared beliefs, norms and practices that have developed within the team. Such "critical friend" scrutiny may feel like a luxury when in fact it is a necessity.

Eric Stern is Professor and 2019-2020 Faculty Chair at the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, University at Albany (SUNY).

Paul 't Hart is a professor of public administration at the Utrecht University School of Governance and the Netherlands School of Public Administration (NSOB) in The Hague.

Allan McConnell is Professor of Public Policy, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.

This story has been republished with permission from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). Read the complete series here.