In the ‘hot seat’ – chairing a crisis management meeting

Get free weekly news by e-mailHarry Scott, National Resilience Officer, NHS Scotland, explores the key factors to successfully chairing a crisis management meeting.

A disaster recovery consultant told an audience that in the 20 years he had been in the business the three most common reactions to a disaster he had experienced were panic, the ‘headless chicken syndrome’, everyone doing their best but no sense of purpose or direction, and the ‘bull at a gate’, with senior managers steaming ahead without any thought of the consequences, or adopting a bullying style to disguise their ineptitude. There is also, the ‘Blackadder syndrome’ where:- “if nothing else works a total pig headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through” (General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett - BBC Television 1989)

The worst scenario is panic when it is mixed with the ‘bull at a gate’ syndrome. The consequences can be disastrous. The chair of a group managing crisis needs to have qualities which include the ability to control and master all these reactions.

Crisis management generally fails through a combination of factors such as lack of situational awareness, leadership and decision making ability, stress, and using wrong structures or procedures.

Situational awareness means gathering, analysing and interpreting information. What is the situation at present; what is going on and where; what does that mean now, and what does that mean for the future? The chair of a crisis management meeting needs the ability to stay calm; to take stock of a situation and interpret information; to take an overview; and to avoid the temptation to become too involved in operational aspects. The chair also needs the ability to judge when to act and to be flexible in approach, whilst remaining focussed on the issues.

Meetings called to manage the crisis should be as near normal practice as possible e.g.:-

“Much of the expertise in evaluation and decision making will simply be an extension of their normal role as senior executives. The damage limitation or control aspect of the job will also come relatively natural to them as result of their overall familiarity with the business.” (Jim Burtles, FBCI, “Building a capable emergency management team” 2006).

There is little point in introducing policies and procedures which are unfamiliar to staff and which will be little used. Irrespective of any training people will forget them as they will not be part of everyday working practice.

At the first meeting members should introduce themselves and explain their roles and responsibilities. The chair needs to establish if the right people are there, if necessary by asking the opinion of other members. Members must be empowered to make decisions on behalf of their organization/ department without referral to higher authority, especially at high level strategic meetings. If they are not, they are of limited use as decisions may have to be made quickly and efforts should be made to secure the presence of a suitably empowered individual. Conflicts of interest e.g. conflicting priorities in the need for limited resources, commercial interests etc. should be declared to the chair.

Linkages to other groups need to be considered so that a pattern of meetings falls into place (sometimes known as a ‘battle rhythm’) between, for example, strategic, tactical and operational groups and groups dealing with specialist topics such as media or IT.

A good chair will lead the group through the issues which are presented and work to a structured agenda. That agenda may include determining the strategy of the group in assessing what needs to be done. What can the group reasonably achieve and what resources are needed to achieve that? The chair of the group needs to keep the group focused and avoid the mistake of trying to do too much. Emergencies by their nature will create countless priorities which need to be dealt with in order of urgency or importance. Above all the safety and welfare of personnel comes first whether it be the general public or the organization’s own staff.

A focus board should be employed to list key priorities. Initially the focus, following any safety issues, should be on what the business needs to survive. The focus should be on no more than about four critical issues at once. There may be other important issues, but they must be ranked into some priority. This is a key task for the chair, either in deciding the priorities and gaining a consensus, or eliciting them from the group.

A chair needs to establish the authority of his/her position, but needs to be receptive and responsive, flexible in approach, and proactive trying to foresee issues which may arise. Changes of mind are OK, but not too many otherwise it may be viewed as indecisiveness. Be effective by being decisive and in charge, but don’t bully, otherwise goodwill may be lost which may impede the effectiveness of the group as a whole.

Ensure all major decisions and the reasons for them are recorded, and that a rolling log is maintained. A staff officer (who may act as deputy chair) with a fairly robust, but approachable style should be appointed. This individual should record all policy decisions, and actions placed on members of the group. At the conclusion of the meeting the staff officer should summarise the policy decisions and actions so that no one is in any doubt as to what is required. At following meetings the staff officer should reprise the actions from the previous meeting and challenge any member who has not followed through, without good reason, an action placed on them.

Discussion time at meetings should be limited by advising members to discuss and formulate options off-table. In dynamic circumstances crisis management meetings must not be allowed to become prolonged debates. In the emergency services, as a guide, meetings convened to deal with major emergencies last no longer than 20 – 25 minutes. This may not be appropriate in all circumstances, but meetings must still remain focussed. Members who identify problems should be encouraged to seek out colleagues who will help resolve them. They should then come to the table, and if possible, summarise the problems identified, the options considered, and a recommendation of action to be followed.

The need for adequate administrative support must never be underestimated. The chair is responsible for seeing this function is properly resourced and managed. Too often crisis management groups fail because the level of administrative support is not available, which can lead to a breakdown of structure and focus. The team providing this support needs its own manager, and needs to keep a record of communications coming into and leaving the group.

Accurate notes of meetings need to be kept. In some circumstances two note takers working in relays may be required so that notes can be typed up and distributed as quickly as possible. An information centre needs to be established where all information pertaining to the working of the group is posted. This can be achieved by the use of a simple notice board where notes of meetings, press releases, situation reports etc. can be displayed.

A chair should judge the leadership style which needs to be adopted according to the knowledge and experience of those sitting on the group.

There are several examples:-
1) Team leader with no consultation – this style of leadership might be adopted when chairing a group with little or no knowledge and which looks to the chair for guidance throughout.
2) Expert leader – possibly a technical expert who needs others to assist in resolving the issues under consideration, but who in the end has the final say and is able to persuade others of the correct course to take.
3) Consultative leader – outlines the issues and consults, but makes the final decision. This style is most probably used by the individual who knows the course they wish to steer, but looks to persuade others that it is correct.
4) Leaders who accept a consensus view or accept the majority decision of the group are likely to be those who are acting only as facilitators or who seek the advice of others for problems for which they are ill equipped to deal, or do not have the technical knowledge to resolve.

In summing up much is down to personality and training. Chairs of groups need to have the ability to acquire good leadership skills and need to be seen as competent, authoritative, and knowledgeable. They need to be flexible in their approach and adopt the right attitude and style of leadership according to the skill set of the individuals on their group, and above all be seen to be in control.

Author: Harry Scott is the National Resilience Officer for NHS Scotland and heads the NHS Scotland Resilience Team within Scottish Government. He is responsible for advising Scottish Government Ministers on matters relating to emergency preparedness within the NHS and for ensuring that NHS Boards have effective major emergency and business continuity procedures in place. Prior to taking up post with Scottish Government Harry was the Emergency Planning Officer for NHS Borders and before that Lothian and Borders Police.

harry.scott@nhs.net

•Date: 28th May 2009• Region:UK/World •Type: Article •Topic: Crisis management
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