Which managerial skills are required to survive crises?
When analysing our various change management assignments, one thing becomes clear: in most cases, companies only see the need to change in a crisis situation and only react concretely when such an event has already emerged. This late awareness inevitably leads to a reaction that is carried out in an emergency mode. Could this mode of operation be avoided? For Professor Christophe Roux-Dufort, “a crisis is the ultimate point of arrival necessary for an organisation to become aware that its performance model has come to an end”. Thus, companies often do not realise until very late that their performance model has become inappropriate. This is generally the result of the accumulation of several factors: vulnerability, dysfunctions and managerial ignorance, i.e. the inability to assess the situation correctly, all of which combine to form the breeding ground for a crisis. Managerial ignorance can be defined in four stages that lead to a crisis: inattention, delusion, denial and closure.
Inattention consists of closing one’s eyes or not seeing anomalies, or even trivialising or institutionalising them if they provide a temporary gain in performance: for example, accepting that machinists transgress safety rules and carry out non-compliant manoeuvres on a machine that is in operation, rather than at a standstill, in order to save time.
Delusion: The illusion of understanding to provide an explication, we see the malfunctions, but we do not correct them because we attribute them to uncontrollable external causes. For example, several years ago, in France, many companies attributed their various dysfunctions to the introduction of the 35-hour week and recently we observed similar reactions related to the Covid crisis.
Denial of reality consists in denying the obvious by seeking to reduce one’s responsibilities in the face of a crisis. The juxtaposition of dysfunctions leads to an even more acute event, a rupture, and consequently a climate of chaos in which it is only possible to operate in emergency mode. The top priority becomes to (re)act. But powerlessness in the face of the scale of the crisis leads to the conviction that it is not a crisis, that one’s own responsibilities are limited to the events taking place.
This reaction then leaves room for questioning the organisation, its management and its reputation. Managers take refuge behind tried and tested solutions and familiar behaviour, they defend their positions in a series of denials and accusations.
Closure is a defensive form of behaviour which consists in affirming that the company’s action remains the best. The company does not face the reality of the situation.
From this perspective, the essential question concerns which skills should be developed to prevent and limit the phenomena of ignorance in the company and therefore, in fine, which organisational and managerial skills are required to survive and overcome crises?
As briefly touched on, crisis management often limits itself to the analysis of an exceptional situation, whereas it should much rather be viewed as a process of incubation starting long before the triggering event. Crisis is the opportunity to review organisational purpose and to transform internal behaviours and beliefs towards a future of change. An analysis of highly trusted companies (nuclear power plants, aviation, etc.) highlights those organisational skills which any company wishing to develop in a sustainable manner should adopt: listening, the ability to protect oneself and the ability to change.
Knowing how to listen to oneself and to the world around us means putting forward notions such as
- Self-respect: motivated by a desire to survive, understanding that self-assertion may not be the best solution, setting personal values, developing a sense of belonging to the company.
- Empathy: understanding the dangers that surround us, understanding others, identifying allies and adversaries, maintaining awareness of technological progress, taking interest in culture and geo-strategy, paying attention to the world and its needs.
- Awareness and managerial vigilance: taking others into consideration in the context of common actions.
The ability to protect oneself
Protecting oneself means giving oneself the means to bounce back in the event of difficulty. In concrete terms, this means having a “reserve”’ and a good insurance policy, managing risks and developing the ability to learn. These different elements are referred to as organisational resilience, i.e. the ability to emerge stronger from a trauma, to regain balance.
The ability to change
In a world where constant change is the norm, the ability to evolve, to question and to move forward is essential. This capacity can be understood through four main principles:
- Living intensely: having a vision, a dream, a long-term project, while being able to live the present moment as if it were the last.
- Being creative: changing yourself, seeing every threat as an opportunity, seeing problems as challenges, creating the conditions for an environment of imaginative activity.
- Being ready to change: being prepared to change everything radically, being mentally open to change, taking the consequences if the environment is in opposition to your values.
- Thinking in a revolutionary way: overthrowing the rules that threaten one’s survival.
These organisational competencies are required to survive crises and can only be developed under certain conditions, including a culture of change and learning. A shift in leadership is required and should be based on emotional intelligence, including the four aspects of self-awareness and -control, as well as social awareness and relationship management. These elements can help any leader and the entire organisation to ace the crisis whilst maintaining lower levels of stress, less emotional reactivity, and fewer unintended consequences. By reducing the overwhelming factor, the crisis can suddenly be turned into a surge of meaning and innovation.
As Albert Einstein once observed:
 Roux-Dufort « Performance, antechamber of a crisis” 2004
 Christophe Roux-Dufort: Is crisis management (only) a management of exceptions? In the Journal of contingencies and Crisis Management (2007)
 https://www.kornferry.com/insights/this-week-in-leadership/leadership-skills-for-crisis-management (28.12.2021)
 Christophe Roux-Dufort: Is crisis management (only) a management of exceptins? In the Journal of contingencies and Crisis Management (2007)