When Words Fail:
Preparing Your Employees for a Crisis
By Dr. Andy Edelman
you are driving down the highway on your way to work. You have lots on
your mind, reflecting upon your children’s progress in school, the
upcoming presentation at tomorrow’s meeting and your plans for a
relaxing weekend with your family. Your complacency begins to drift
the screech of tires jolts you back to reality and you are three
seconds away from crashing into the back of an 18-wheeler. If you are
fortunate enough to reduce your speed in time, you will survive the
encounter unscathed thanks to a variety of physical and biochemical
processes. This is known as the “fight or flight” response, which
helps the individual take an immediate, reflexive action.
response may also unfold during critical incident events that occur in
the workplace, especially those that involve an escalation of
violence, such as a robbery or an irate customer. When employees and
managers are transformed from a feeling relaxed to feeling at-gunpoint
terror, their ability to perceive these events in a normal manner is
to popular belief, most individuals will neither flee nor fight during
a critical or traumatic event: they will freeze. Once people are
paralyzed with fear, their performance under pressure and their
ability to make effective decisions deteriorate rapidly. They enter a
quasi-altered state of perception of extreme sensory overload known as
tachypsychia (speed of the
mind). The overload can cause perceived slow-motion and distortions in
time and sensory awareness.
successful an individual is at coping with the critical event depends
on many factors including fitness levels, psychological and spiritual
resiliency, as well as preparation and training for such an event.
Proactive managers and administrators benefit greatly from
educating their staff on how the human body reacts to the stress and
trauma of critical events such as a physical assault or armed robbery.
Here are tips for professionals to effectively cope with work-related
1) Plan for
possibilities – Role-playing practice under the watchful eye of
expert trainers is one of the most effective methods for learning how
you and your staff members will react under the pressure of dealing
with an angry, irate, or out of control individuals. This is the place
for making mistakes and it is okay to make lots of them during this
2) Managing anger on the phone – Irate customers
who call on the phone, often just want to vent their anger. Other
times, they can escalate to verbal abuse. To bring customers back to
reality, use language that controls their behavior.
“Mr. Smith, can I ask you a question?” This technique
stops the customer’s tirade and interrupts their train of thought.
“I’d like to assist you with this problem, but I need
you to lower your voice and not curse, otherwise I cannot focus my
energies to solving this issue for you. Can you please slow down so I
can work with you?” Most of the time, people will react to this
language by de-escalating their behavior.
If their language continues to escalate, give them one more
option. “Mr. Smith, if you would please stop yelling and cursing, I
can help you. Or if you’re still upset, will you please call me back
when you’ve cooled down?” If they’re not ready, you can tell
them that you have other customers to work with and they can call you
later. The goal is to disengage them and let them contact you when
they are less upset. It is important to document these incidents as
well, so if they do call back or decide to become litigious about the
incident, you can protect yourself and the company with your record of
3) Codeword for escalating behavior -
and using a discrete codeword can help employees during an escalating
confrontation in the workplace. Managers and administrators should
have a ‘what if’ plan, should a critical situation arise. The
codeword can be used to notify a manager or co-worker to call the
security or police, in cases that are more serious than a verbal
4) Understand the
human factor - Remember that even with the best preparation, no
one is truly prepared for the effects of a critical incident. If we
are exceptionally skilled or resilient enough to remain calm, we
respond without a significant impact on our physical or emotional
well-being. For some, a bank robbery will simply be an exciting story
told at dinner. For others, this event may be a life-altering
self-reflection or paradigm-shifting epiphany. Unfortunately, for a
few, such a traumatic event may result in short-term or long-term
post-traumatic stress. Well-meaning managers may often strive to get
things back to normal as smoothly and quickly as possible. Yet, not
everyone may be able to bounce back in the same manner or within the
same recovery time frame.
5) De-brief and
document all pertinent and relevant events – Remember that
conflicting versions and perspectives are commonplace during a
traumatic event. Time is of the essence to avoid deterioration of
memory, which can occur in 10 to 15 minutes. Anytime there is an
incident in the workplace, you should be documenting the situation
including what happened and how it was resolved. If anyone should come
back with a lawsuit or complaint, then your company will have records
about the incident for protection.
6) Implement crisis
counseling for all who request it – Not everyone will want or
need counseling but you should monitor changes in behavior for those
involved with the incident. Those who don’t seek help may be the
ones in denial and possibly needing such assistance the most.
7) Focus on
re-framing the negative event into positive opportunities for growth
- Remind staff that they made it through and commend personnel for
their courage. Do your best to normalize the environment and enhance
team-building activities during this sensitive time. Encourage your
staff to focus on friend and family contact. Studies show that
socialization is a very important step in the recovery process.
Isolation is the enemy of post-traumatic stress recovery.
8) Watch for
significant changes in emotional and behavioral indicators in your
personnel and seek assistance if necessary – Crying spells,
panic, feelings of “going crazy,” reoccurring nightmares or
flashbacks, uncontrolled anger, depression, or feelings of or
expressing desire for self-destructive or suicidal outcomes are all
signs and symptoms that the individual may need additional counseling
Having a sound crisis intervention plan in place can go a
long way towards moving stress-affected individuals, groups, and
organizational divisions to recovery. Implementing and practicing such
strategies can effectively minimize the physical and psychological
effects of trauma, accelerating the transition back to normalized work
routines with enhanced and renewed health and productivity.
Read other articles and learn more
Andrew J. Edelman.
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