shell shocked business woman

Overcoming shell shock in a crisis

March 8, 2019

Critical takeaways

  • ‘Shell shock’ is the effect of trauma on individuals leading to paralysis and an inability to think and act effectively. We see similar results in boardrooms where a crisis causes the company to freeze.

  • Our formula for crisis success – Core Values + Chain Of Command = Speed – can help overcome boardroom shell shock 

  • Stick to your values, chart a course to success with a 90-day plan and use the support of your board and allies to break out of this paralysis and overcome boardroom shell shock.


Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme is a poignant book by Taylor Downing recounting the tragedies of World War I and the effects on those fighting in France at that time. One memorable section stood out to me as Downing explained the condition that was beginning to be called ‘shell shock’. He described the effects on soldiers:

“paralysis, stuttering and the shakes, the inability to walk or stand temporary blindness or deafness.”

This was the first time that the condition was recognized as an effect of the trauma of trench warfare which was a revolutionary concept. Previously what we now call post-traumatic stress (PTS) was often dismissed as cowardice and could lead to the firing squad. Since then, our understanding of the mental and physical effects of trauma have advanced and PTS is now a well-understood and manageable condition.

But the phrase ‘shell shocked’ stood out to me because of the stark image it brought to mind: someone with a 1000-yard stare, in shock and unable to react effectively. It also describes how some clients appear when hit by a crisis for the first time or find themselves in the middle of an unexpected situation. They sometimes appear the same: they appear shell shocked.


Boardroom shell shock

I’m not saying that the stress of a corporate crisis matches the significant impacts of war. Nonetheless, crises are highly stressful events and significantly more traumatic than day-to-day corporate life. The result can be a team that is unsure of what to do next and paralyzed. They don’t speak clearly or definitively about the path forward and may even have a kind temporary blindness or deafness to the situation they are in. Essentially, they are shell shocked.

We’re currently engaged with a client that was suffering from this type of shell shock. A group of disgruntled employees made serious allegations against the organization which led to scathing commentary in traditional and social media. Despite this negative coverage – and everything pointing to this being a critical moment – they were advised to do nothing and they decided not to engage.

While I agree that you don’t need to over-index for every post on social media, the advice to wait for things to blow over went too far in the opposite direction. Even though they had a good story to tell, they did nothing to respond to the situation which resulted in more critical, higher-profile media coverage. Eventually, the situation overwhelmed them and, by the time we were invited in to assist, the team was paralyzed, indecisive and ineffective.  

So, even though they had a good story to tell, a competent team and an affirmative path forward, they were unable to react. They were shell shocked.

Before I go any farther, I need to note that it’s normal for us to shut down to an extent in times of stress and trauma. Everyone’s response and threshold will be different and some may recover within minutes where others might take significantly longer but we will all be affected somehow. However, similar to being able to overcome fear, we need a way to overcome shell shock if we want to manage a crisis successfully.


Moving forward

Even though everyone’s response to the stress of a crisis will be different, there are some relatively simple steps that will help overcome boardroom shell shock.  I’ve outlined these below in detail but everything relates back to our equation for crisis success: Core Values + Chain Of Command = Speed.

equation for crisis success

Start with your core values

First, refer back to your core values so you are clear about your intent and to make sure you just do what is right. If there is a problem, you need to fix it. If there’s a misunderstanding, you need to explain it. If you need to say sorry, say it clearly and unequivocally.

Your values also give you a clear idea of where you want to end up and this will help inform your decision-making. Having a destination in mind – a clear endpoint – will help you move beyond the paralysis you will be feeling. So when you are feeling overwhelmed and unsure of what to do, use your values as a guide.


Make and stick to a plan

Secondly, you need to break the journey to your endpoint down into a clear 90-day plan. This 90-day plan will detail the steps that you’re going to take to get out of trouble and breaks an otherwise daunting task – solve the crisis – into much smaller, achievable steps. Once you have the plan, follow Nike’s advice and ‘just do it’: get onto the path out of trouble and stick to it. Starting to respond and becoming active participants in the crisis will pull your team out of their shell shocked condition.

Be prepared for distractions, detours, and roadblocks along the way, however. There might be Congressional hearings and Congressional oversight. There could be visits by legislators. There might be an investigation and there will be subsequent media inquiry. However, get back on track whatever else gets thrown at you because your organization,  employees, supporters, and friends are also using this plan as their roadmap to success.



Focus on results

One side-effect of shell shock can be a tendency to regress. In its most extreme form, regression can result in childlike behavior because the brain is trying to recreate a safe, comfortable state. This isn’t what we normally see in a corporate crisis but there can be a tendency to engage in familiar, comfortable tasks because these also provide comfort in times of stress. However, this can be at the expense of ‘grasping the nettle’ and actually engaging with the crisis itself.  The busy work gives an illusion of progress but nothing is being done to solve the problem.

However, I’m also a big proponent of getting back to business as usual which does mean you have to get back to these routine tasks at some point. This means that it can be difficult to tell if someone is doing more menial, routine tasks as part of the return to normality or as a way to avoid engaging with the crisis.  The simple test I apply is:

  1. Is this task appropriate for this person’s seniority?
  2. Is what this person is doing generating a positive result that aligns with our goals?

Assuming that they are the right person for the job, and engaged in something that helps with the response, then you should be OK.  If not, it might be a case of shell-shock causing them to regress: they are engaged in busy work as a form of reality avoidance. Staying busy is a positive thing but just make sure it counts.


Involve your board

As CEO, you should have a close, supportive relationship with your board, built on mutual trust and respect. (And if not, make sure you aren’t the weakest link in the response.) This is the time that you need this support because they are probably the only people with whom you can be completely open. So be honest with them to ensure that they are crystal clear on your path forward and the challenges that lie ahead. They should be able to give you good, honest feedback and a really good sense of what’s possible. This also requires you to be open about the challenges and difficulties you are facing yourself. Remember, many of them will have been in your shoes so they will be empathetic and supportive but will only know how to help if you ask.

You should also engage outside advisor or counsel, someone who is not beholden to your conclusions or part of your shared history. Independent advice will provide a sounding board for your decisions, help you chart a path out of the crisis and keep you focussed on moving forward.


Involve your friends

Lastly, it’s critical that you find and recruit allies and friends to help. Find the donors, board members or key customers that have been with you longest and understand where you are right now. They can give you the support, guidance, and feedback you need to help you break out of shell shock and move forward.


An acute condition, not a chronic condition

Companies that find themselves in shell shock are paralyzed and don’t know what to do next, no matter how competent their team or compelling their story. We thrive in that space and love helping clients break out of this state, to help them understand what is possible and what to do next. The key thing is that they understand that they can do something to get out of this situation because corporate shell shock is usually temporary. Once you recognize it and start to break out, you can move forward relatively quickly.

But you must be proactive. You have to create the momentum necessary to see your way through this crisis situation. So stick to your values, chart a course to success and start executing on your 90-day plan with the support of your board and allies. That way you can overcome your shell shock, not become trapped by it.


Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.