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Moving into Stability: How to Communicate After Crisis

Once the immediate crisis has passed—you’ve ensured everyone’s safety, put steps in place for the future, gotten leaders aligned in their messaging, and so on—your work is not done.

Trauma is outside the norm, and this phase, moving into stability, is when trouble often arises.

At this point, it’s important not to fall prey to hubris (“We’ve got this under control!”) or resort to the stiff upper lip approach (“Stop whining! We’ve just got to tough this out!”). Also, we need to be careful not to let the traumatic event become taboo. Most companies need help facilitating this part because the whole subject is so emotionally charged.

It’s here where many companies drop the ball. Some semblance of normal life returns, work gets busy, and it feels like there is no more time to spend on the trauma. But if you stop now, the impact of your initial hard work will be lost.

In order to effectively communicate after a crisis, you’ll need to start by debriefing your response to the crisis through a process called a “Look Back,” also known as an After Action Review (AAR).

How to Conduct a Look Back

What is a Look Back? Essentially, it’s a structured review or debriefing process for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be handled better in the future.

A Look Back should be conducted immediately following a crisis to chronologically recap the event; elicit feedback, observations, and perspectives from the larger group; and identify gaps in protocol or lapses in performance.

  1. Assemble a Look Back Team. This is typically comprised of senior leadership and the “section leaders” of those involved in the Rapid Response Team. Call everyone together and explain what you are doing and why. Keep it simple. Have a facilitator and a record-keeper. Ideally use a flip chart so that everyone can follow along during the process.
  2. Be sure to establish ground rules for meeting. For example, everyone has an opportunity to speak. Only one person speaks at a time. No finger-pointing or blaming. Up front, emphasize that everyone needs to be brutally honest and transparent about where the failures were as you do this hindsight evaluation. (Sidenote: People must feel psychologically safe to tell the truth. If they don’t, you’ve got a serious cultural issue to address.)

  3. Lay the groundwork. Set the expectation that there will be lots of different points of view, lots of emotion, lots of different opinions around what happened and why. Assert that it is important that the full picture is captured and all perspectives are accounted for.

Questions to Guide Your Post-Crisis Communications  

  • What went well and why? What were our strengths? Where did we shine? Be as specific as possible.
  • What were our weaknesses? Where was there confusion? What went wrong and why? Be as specific as possible. Were processes not followed? Why? (For example, did people not know what to do? Were they overwhelmed with fear or chaos? Were they unaware of safety plans, processes, policies?)
  • What things happened that weren’t covered by an existing policy or process (in other words, gaps in planning)?
  • What conflicts arose?
  • What issues arose with convening the Rapid Response Team? Were there delays in alerting/calling for the assembly? Were there logistical issues? Was it clear how decisions were being made?
  • What issues arose in communicating what was happening to the broader organization? Were they timely? Were there delays? Was there difficulty in getting the messages out?
  • Was it difficult to get information as the situation evolved?
  • What questions remain?

It’s Time to Take Action!

Make sure the Look Back session is well documented. Create a summary with actions to be taken to improve, by whom, and by when.

Leaders are typically conditioned to focus on the future. It can go against our grain to look at the past. But only when we look back can we see where our weaknesses and shortcomings are. It’s the only way we can improve and grow as we move forward. And it’s the only way we can get a handle on where we need the expertise and support of others.

Exercise: Assess Your Department’s Response to COVID-19

You might want to do a quick, COVID-19 pandemic Look Back right now.

Carefully analyze the immediate safety/containment response your organization implemented in the early days of the pandemic. Identify specific actions. What went well and why? What did not go so well?

Identify specific outcomes and behaviors. Capture unexpected dilemmas that arose and clarify processes to use in future crises.

Let’s say an employee had to make a workers’ comp claim from being injured “on the job” at home. How was this handled? How might it be better handled next time?

As much as you can, follow the “how-to” guidelines outlined earlier in this article.

You may not be able to answer all of these questions. For instance, you probably didn’t have a Rapid Response Team in place before the pandemic started. That’s okay. The purpose of this exercise is to give you a feel for how the Look Back works. In future crises, after you’ve created your roadmap, you’ll be able to answer them more thoroughly.

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Mark Goulston

Mark Goulston, MD, FAPA is a board-certified psychiatrist, fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. He appears frequently as a human psychology and behavior subject-area expert across all media, including news outlets ABC, NBC, CBS, and BBC News, as well as CNN, Today, Oprah, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, Business Insider, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and Westwood One.

Diana Hendel

Diana Hendel, PharmD, is an executive coach and leadership consultant, former hospital CEO, and author of Responsible: A Memoir, a riveting and deeply personal account of leading during and through the aftermath of a deadly workplace trauma. As the CEO of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital, Hendel led one of the largest acute care, trauma, and teaching hospital complexes on the West Coast.

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