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Characters in a Crisis

What is an event you’ve recently experienced at work that you’d call a crisis? What caused this event, and how did it impact you and the people involved? Usually, while these situations are not ideal, they can shine a spotlight on the various attributes people show when faced with a crisis. There are characteristics that are particularly useful when dealing with a crisis. Did you notice what they were and who played them? 

If we watched a movie of the situation, what characters would be built and who would be the cast? We can create a scene and watch it play through, identifying the characters we can find, and maybe seeing a few gaps to be filled. Lights, camera, action!


We open on a “normal” day in the Midwest, which means we really don’t know what to expect. But let’s say it’s an hour before Julie sets out on her morning commute into the office. She gets ready, eats breakfast, and heads out the door without a glimpse into the outside world. She emerges from her abode to find an inch of snow on the ground - not unusual for January - but unexpected. 

So, with a small grumble, Julie heads to her car and sweeps the fluffy snow off of her car, all the while slipping on the icy ground. She finds that the roads aren’t nearly as treacherous as she had predicted, at least not at first. The side roads are seemingly no big deal, until Julie merges her way onto the interstate. This is where she finds her car sliding back and forth, with snow blowing across the road. Julie tightens her grip on the steering wheel, and lowers her speed, but it isn’t enough. 

Her car hits a patch of black ice just as the strong wind blows at the right angle to send it into a deep ditch. Julie is unharmed, but her car is no longer drivable, and she has to get it towed. She also will not make it into work today, or any day until she can get her car fixed or find a ride. (And let’s pretend this is during the time before it was so easy to work from home.) 

Julie isn’t able to complete the work that must get done this week. This leaves her boss and the rest of the team to fill in, and maybe expand their roles. At the news of her accident, her coworkers took up their roles in the midst of the crisis. 


Distanced Darren

This is the person who manages things from a distance, with the ability to separate themselves or compartmentalize. We’re able to see this characteristic in a time of crisis in the field, when you have someone in a command center back at the home office. Darren is somewhat detached from the team, not caught up in the emotions, flurry, or chaos of the moment, and is able to keep a level head and resolve the tactical issues. 

Julie’s coworker, Darren, took on this attribute. Upon hearing that Julie would not be able to fill her role for the time being, Darren gets busy reorganizing the team’s internal schedules and redistributing tasks to ensure that what needs to get done, does. He helps prioritize those tasks so no one is overwhelmed with the sudden influx of things to do. Darren's exterior may seem indifferent to the worry revolving around Julie's accident, but his goal is not to minimize the situation, but to help the company keep its head above water during this crisis. 

  • If this is you, you may have felt isolated from time to time, or maybe guilty for not being there with your team. Rest assured, you are a critical member of the team, and they know you are there for them. Thank you for being there even when “there” isn’t here.

  • If this is something you want to try, be prepared for some lonely times. It’s not easy to support the team from afar, and sometimes the guilt will get to you. But your ability to do things that they can’t do because you’re out of the fray is highly beneficial.


Thoughtful Tristen

This is the one who meets the needs like offering a blanket, coffee, or breakfast. Let’s get real for a second - every team needs at least one of these. Every team I know has at least one, and every team I know needs way more than one because no team can have all their needs met by just one person. And so often this person is facing burnout because nobody is meeting their needs, and nobody’s helping them meet other people‘s needs. So, if we look around and see that someone needs a blanket, a cup of coffee, a refill at the printer tray - step up! Do what needs to be done, and be one of these team members.

Tristen is the one who calls Julie to ask if she is okay, and if she needs anything at the time. They offer to bring her something to eat, or maybe a cup of coffee while Julie waits for the tow truck. They know it is chilly outside, so they think a hot beverage would do nicely. Julie accepts the kind offer. As the two chat once Tristen arrives, Julie shares her needing-a-ride-dilemma, and Tristen even offers transportation to and from work. 

  • If this is you – thank you. Your actions are much appreciated. Chances are, even though you think your work goes unnoticed, it really doesn’t. Hang in there, we all love that you do what you do. 

  • If this is something you want to try, get ready for a run of thankless work. But, be prepared to speak up about what you need too! Don’t let the burnout get to you - let others know what you need and how they can help you in return. 


Cheesy Cassandra

This is the sappy, emotional one who reminds us to stay connected to our feelings. Remember Darren the distance guy? Think the opposite. This person’s first thought is not “What about all of this work that needs to get done?” Their first thought is “Wow, I’m so glad everyone is okay!” And to be clear, there is nothing wrong with either response, it’s just the gut reaction - a different thinking path. The sappy one will want to experience the emotional rollercoaster alongside everyone involved, so that they can be supportive and create a safe space of expression. 

Cassandra also calls Julie because she wants to hear all about her morning, and what happened - how it all went down. She wants to know how Julie feels about the situation, so she may understand Julie’s emotional needs. Cassandra encourages Julie to feel all of her valid feelings, and gives her a moment to grieve her car, laugh with joy that she is okay, and express concern for her work. 

  • If this is you, you’re most likely highly in touch with your own emotions, and have deep empathy for others. You understand that we all need the time and space to process our emotions rather than holding them in, and you help create the proper environment. This is an important effort. 

  • If this is something you want to try, begin with improving your understanding of yourself. You can’t help others if you can’t help yourself first. There is sensitivity involved in this action too - be careful not to pressure or force emotions on anyone. We all process things differently, so openly receive the feelings expressed by someone else. 


Resilient Rhonda

This is the resilient one who bounces back no matter what. This person takes crises in stride, not letting anything become a permanent setback. When this person runs into a problem, they don’t become discouraged, they don’t allow frustration to throw the project off course, and look for a positive outcome. These are highly useful people when it comes to crises, and they are often the ones to lead the team through them. 

Rhonda worked closely with Darren to reorganize and redistribute. Her focus was divided between keeping the operations of the company running, and managing the emotions and attitudes of her employees. She wouldn’t let the current crisis hurt business - either externally or internally. Rhonda took point in communicating a potential lay time to clients due to the change in staffing, as well as daily check-ins with her team to ensure all was running well with them. 

  • If this is you, you play an integral part in navigating the crisis. Everyone else looks to you for direction in getting to the other side. You’ve shown you can handle what comes your way, but your strength isn’t usually a bright light. Sometimes it’s more of a candle illuminating spots as you go. The recognition won’t come all at once, but may be shown in the little things your team does. 

  • If this is something you want to try, it can be tricky to find the balance in your focus during a crisis. If you spend too much energy on operations, you could miss the needs of your team. However, the opposite can lead to a decrease in production and return. Take it day by day, week by week - the crisis won’t last forever, and until you get comfortable with the temporary normal, take it slow. 


While this cast of characters isn’t extensive, it helps us create a picture of the characters we typically find in the midst of crisis. Are there characters missing from this list that you tend to find? Where can you fill in the gaps?



Topics: Sinikka Waugh, Change & Transition, Communication & Collaboration, Leadership & Influence

Sinikka Waugh

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day. Are you ready? If you are, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us!








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