Can you handle a crisis?

To get 2014 off to a positive start, we are challenging the notion that we’re (still) in a crisis and there’s nothing we can do about it.

If you take a quick look at the business stories that have headlined in the past week, you can find the following:

Just these, coupled with the other negative stories you’ve heard during the last couple of years, might lead you to the inescapable conclusion that there’s a crisis out there, right now. Let’s say you’ve concluded it’s a crisis. What effect is this going to have on your ability to function?

What’s it all about?
A simple definition is “the moment the brain stops functioning.” Your brain evolved through three layers. The first or primitive layer, we could call “fish brain”, the next, a mammalian layer, or “dog brain”, and finally the frontal lobes, which we know as the “human brain”. Depending on how stressful you find a crisis, the layers of your brain stop functioning. First to stop is your ‘human brain’, impacting thinking and reflection. Your ‘dog brain’ takes over, wanting to retaliate and bite. With more stress, this also switches off. When you are placed in a ‘crisis’ where you feel you have no understanding or control of the outcome, you can enter the ‘fish brain’ state, which only knows to flee from danger.

How you handle a crisis
To solve a crisis, you need to be in control. You need what was first described in the 1950s as ‘internal locus of control’. People attribute their chances of success or failure either to internal or external causes. Those with an internal locus of control hold themselves responsible for outcomes of their own action. Most successful people possess an internal locus of control. Those with external locus of control blame the circumstances or luck, rather than lack of diligent effort, and are more likely to see themselves as victims.

This does not mean that people with internal locus of control don’t experience negative emotions. In a crisis, it is only human to experience one or more of six negative emotions: fear, sadness, agony, contempt, disgust or shame. Negative emotions are not necessarily unhealthy – in fact, they are a healthy reaction to crisis situations. But they may give rise to a negative reaction, which is counter-productive to your success.

Next steps
What is in your circle of influence? Stephen Covey’s Circles of Influence and of Concern are one of the keys to staying positive this year. When we focus on what we can directly influence: our thoughts, mood, our actions, decisions, our communication with others, we start to feel motivated, positive and able to influence things around us.

When you focus on what is in your Circle of Concern, which you have no influence over – the state of the economy, the pronouncements of the media and so on, you feel as if you are banging your head against a brick wall. You get demoralised and find it difficult to have the enthusiasm to do anything. If you really believe you’re operating in a crisis, you’ll only have three options: fight, freeze or flee!

Take time out
A well-known American psychiatrist said “Don’t just do something, stand there!” He was making a good point. Stand still till you have a grip of what you are facing. Explore your perceptions and challenge their validity, and explore what is really in your circle of influence. Remember though that for others around you your doing nothing may be perceived as being passive, even though you may have made a reflective choice. If you choose to ‘freeze frame’, put a timeline on it and let people know what you’re doing.

Can you leave a crisis situation and still be regarded as responsible, and not as having ‘fled’? If you perceive the situation to be a lost cause or are not capable of doing something productive, exit is a good option. However, do communicate this to the people concerned. Equally, you could decide to stay and fight. But do remember that you need friends – with their support and guidance, you can “stay the course” with perseverance and patience.

Are we in tough times (still)?
Funnily enough, having gone to the news pages with the intention of making the point that the only message we’re receiving is ‘crisis’, they were really the only three headlines that supported my point. The other headlines were, if not totally positive, then at worst neutral. I could have drawn other conclusions!

But putting a positive spin on even the worst of the business stories, remember that tough times don’t last. The people who survive and even thrive during hard times are those who challenge their own perceptions and beliefs and do the work they need to do to stay in control

If you’d like ideas on how to bolster your confidence and skills, Leaders Lab can help. Give us a call on 01865 881056, or email

For inspiration for this post, thanks to Jyotirmoy Bose and Melanie Greene.