Don’t be a gazelle – how to manage fear in crisis
I was recently watching Animal Planet with my daughter. The show was about predators hunting their prey, in this case a lion and a herd of gazelle. Gazelles have keen hearing and a good sense of smell but sensing the lion, their immediate response was to freeze out of fear.
Quickly, most of the gazelles overcame their fear and bolted. But one remained frozen in place. She didn’t run. She didn’t fight. She just remained frozen. We saw the camera zoom in, showing her nostrils flaring and her heart obviously racing but she didn’t do anything. I started rehearsing my ‘it’s just the circle of life’ speech for my daughter ….
It’s unfortunate but true that if you’re a corporate communicator or a CEO who hasn’t been through a reputation-crushing crisis you might feel and react the same way: you might freeze. That’s a normal reaction – all animals react similarly to fear – but the difference between success and failure is how quickly we overcome that fear. Like the gazelles who bolted, you need to act or you will fail.
Each crisis is a shock and you have to overcome your fear, make a decision about what to do and act. In that initial moment, everyone will freeze to some extent but regular exposure to fear is a way to overcome it. However, unless you’re in retail, like Walmart, Starbucks, or Target, or aviation, you typically don’t have to deal with crisis situations day-in and day-out. So you might not have the opportunity to learn how to cope with your fear on a day-to-day basis.
However, another tidbit from the animal kingdom shows that just being exposed to fear isn’t the whole story.
I read a study recently about rats being conditioned out of their fear. The study went something like this. A group of rats was exposed to a loud, sudden noise. The rats looked up, saw where the noise was coming from but, because they weren’t affected by the noise, the rats went back to their business of being rats and didn’t express any signs of fear.
Those same rats were then exposed to the same loud noise and immediately given an electrical shock. Those rats froze in place because it just became personal. It wasn’t just a loud noise anymore: it now affected them clearly and directly.
But here’s the surprising part. Over time, those rats didn’t respond to either the loud noise or the electrical shock. They just continued going about their business. They had become conditioned to the noise and the shock.
These examples from the animal kingdom highlight two important difficulties we face in a crisis.
- Firstly, fear causes us to freeze and this inability to act can be fatal.
- Secondly, we can become conditioned to surprises – loud noises, electric shocks – and start to ignore them.
The model that we talk about at Kith is that speed is the major determinant of success in most crisis situations. For communicators that means filling in the vacuum of information as fast and as clearly as you can in a way that directly aligns with your mission and the values of the chain of command.
The problem is that in order to react quickly we need to overcome our fear so we need some degree of conditioning. However, we also need to avoid the second problem: becoming so conditioned that we are desensitized.
As I mentioned before, if you are in an industry or have been at a company that has been involved in these crises situations regularly, you might easily overcome your fear. But it is just as easy to hear a loud noise and not react.
This might be your competitor going through a crisis or reading something about a major change in your marketplace: you look up, evaluate it, maybe learn something, but decide it doesn’t apply to you and go about your business. You have become used to hearing the loud noises so you ignore them until the time you get an electric shock because it is your company this time.
Then you freeze.
The organizations that really excel in a crisis are those that can react to the stimulus, whether it’s a loud noise or a shock, overcome their fear and react quickly.
But how do we develop these skills for an executive team that has always been on the outer rings of the potential of crisis situations? Teams that might not have to do it every day but want to be prepared? How do we get ready? (Don’t worry, my solution doesn’t include lions or electrical shocks.)
The best way to prepare for this, in my experience, is some sort of simulation training to ensure that the team’s skills and responses are developed and can cope with stress. A well-prepared, challenging and realistic simulation will generate many of the same physiological and psychological pressures as a real incident. Even though no lives are on the line, the share price remains stable and the CEO is being interviewed by a tame journalist, I’ve seen simulations where people froze, cried and ranted, just as they would in reality.
This isn’t meant to be cruel, far from it.
By understanding what these pressures are like in a safe environment, people will be better able to overcome these difficulties in a real crisis and begin to act. This is what the military talk about when you hear them say ‘the training just kicked in’ after an event. You almost stop thinking and just act: you’ve swapped the fear = freeze instinct for fear = act. Once you have overcome that inertia and initiated the first steps of your response, you can start to develop a more considered plan.
Another way to prepare is less intense but just as important. This exercise requires you to think about events as if these were affecting you. So when there’s a loud noise – you hear something about a competitor or read something in the newspaper – think ‘what if it was us?’.
- Who would we get in the room to make decisions?
- How would we respond?
- How would this affect us today? (And how would this affect us tomorrow?)
It’s a simple stretching exercise that’ll make you better when you actually get hit with the stimuli. It’s also a good way to test the assumptions you have made in any contingency planning you might have already carried out for that kind of event.
Another way to do this is to have a risk-based discussion with your team to understanding the risks and issues that could impact your organization. This time, instead of relying on real events to prompt the ‘what if?’ question, you pose these to yourselves.
I’ve been in the room and felt this fear myself so I so empathize with leaders at companies who find themselves in these situations. It’s typically wholly unexpected and they are unsure of all of the facts. It is frightening to think of what could happen to this thing that we’ve invested our money, out time and our careers into and the implications that it could have. The fear is normal.
But these are also the situations where the stakes are simply too high for failure. If you are a corporate communication or senior leader at a company and you freeze, it could be fatal and every mistake is painful.
So as a counselor working with companies that find themselves facing a crisis – the equivalent of a loud noise or electrical shock – I know that the natural reaction is to be afraid and freeze. Where I add value is my ability to help teams overcome this inactivity and to get them moving, reassuring them that we’re going to get through this with a plan, a series of logical steps and actions that they need to take. This will allow them to address the situation, meet stakeholder expectations and answer the questions from those that matter most to them.
There is a moment in every difficult situation where we say, ‘Ugh, I wish this wasn’t happening to me’. That’s a natural reaction whether you are a CEO or a gazelle. And in both cases, whether survive you or not depends on how quickly you can overcome your fear, ignore that feeling and begin to act.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”