I was in Christchurch (New Zealand) during the severe February earthquake, lunching downtown with my grandson when the city fell apart. Injuries and death occurred within 100 metres of us in every direction. It was an intense experience providing many opportunities to observe human responses to crisis, hardship, confusion and uncertainty.
Initially, most uninjured people appeared stunned. Many were hysterical or immobilised. Some were so narrowly focused that they seemed unaware of other people or the bigger picture. Others quickly overcame their initial shock and became methodically purposeful, either for their own safety or helping to bring about order, safety and helpful guidance to many others.
The café staff rose above considerable personal distress to give urgent support to a colleague, attend to shocked customers, and calmly help people see how they needed to move to safety. Their composure and staying in role while following predetermined procedures, was remarkable.
On the street, ordinary people tended to those in trouble. Passers-by took up point-duty and kept traffic moving to the few open roads. Workers checked and marked hundreds of crushed vehicles “Clear” or otherwise, long before I’d considered the probabilities this signalled. When I became separated from my grandson, a police officer helpfully stood with him until I returned. Improvised ambulances appeared. Emergency services mobilised. Small and great acts of courage and kindness were everywhere.
Much of what I learned or had reinforced from this experience and later from the stories of Christchurch families at our home further north as temporary “refugees”, has wide application:
If you don’t have a well-honed, pre-determined generic response to a crisis or challenging situation you’re likely to be hopelessly adrift in the middle of one. Things can’t go according to a plan you don’t have.
If your normal tendency is to wing-it or make it up along the way, understand that this habit becomes increasing difficult and sometimes impossible in emergencies.
If you don’t already know what to do when you experience real misfortune or hardship, you’d better practise containing things – with processes for managing your distress, maintaining clear-thinking, good problem-solving, stress-reduction and strategising – so that you don’t freak out, spin out, lash out or fall apart when the ground shifts under you; so that you can be comfortable with long periods of uncertainty.
Methodical processes provide consistency and can be trusted to bring clarity, well-coordinated cohesion and helpful progress – at any time but especially where there is disorder or confusion. When groups work within them, people share an awareness that informs participation and eases collaboration and efficiencies.
Recently I’ve observed three businesses dealing with exceptional difficulties – one methodically and well; two of them improvisationally with damaging consequences. They differently demonstrate the wisdom of habituating before they are needed in a dilemma, agreed management operating systems for exercising leadership, organising, planning-and-managing-plans, solving problems, making decisions, managing priorities, responding to others’ distress, resolving conflicts, working together, and for getting the best from teams. [The resources of my website Thriving-Workplace.com address and provide guidelines for these matters.]
But it doesn’t take dramatic events to understand how crisis-ready our organisations are. Every contact with them provides insights into how methodically they and their constituents behave. In most, there are massive gaps currently filled with improvisation, and un-preparedness for adversity and uncertainty. Until leaders get serious about systematically learning from and continuously improving their organisations’ everyday activities, improvisation will predominate. In a tight-spot, they’ll struggle to act wisely.
From their earlier earthquakes in the previous five months, Christchurch people learned a good deal about methodical preparation. I am deeply grateful.