In an unpredictable world, being able to deal with a crisis on the job is an increasingly valuable skill. And we don’t just mean being able to calm down an irate client or put out a fire caused by your co-worker’s missed deadline. No, we’re talking about serious, big-time crisis situations: violence in the workplace, natural disasters, terrorism, a huge and devastating company scandal.
Major crises like these might be rare (thankfully), but they do happen, and not everyone is equally prepared to deal with them when they do arise. Some people spring into action, acting as strong, decisive leaders in times of uncertainty. Others are like deer in the headlights, unable to act or to lead. Everyone benefits when a manager turns out to be the former rather than the latter.
Wouldn’t it be great, then, if you could better predict how someone would react when the s*** hits the fan? Researchers at Cubiks, an HR assessment consultancy headquartered in the United Kingdom, thought so. They recently conducted a study to find out whether psychological testing could be used to identify which employees might be better able to manage a crisis than others.
The researchers had 82 people participate in disaster simulation scenarios and then complete a series of questionnaires. Experts then assessed each participant’s performance. They found that people who coped best in a hairy situation were more likely to possess three traits.
- An ability to keep calm, even when not in their comfort zone
- A strong preference for variety in their work
- A willingness to take the lead
The results of the study were presented at a meeting of the British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology in January 2016.
“Our research, using simulations to recreate these stressful and tense scenarios, suggests that those who retain their cool whilst operating outside their comfort zones, and are comfortable with ambiguous situations, are more effective crisis managers,” Cubiks lead researcher Christine D’Silva said in a statement.
Who’s a little less well equipped to deal with a crazy situation at work? Those who are more self-disciplined and who like to stick to the rules aren’t as effective in dealing with a crisis, the researchers found. That might not jibe with some people’s notion that the best way to deal with the unexpected is to religiously follow a pre-approved plan. Yet in a fast-moving, unpredictable situation, flexibility might be key.
“During a crisis, the situation can be ambiguous, unpredictable and change rapidly. Decisions need to be made within short timeframes,” D’Silva said. “Those that have a preference for self-discipline and for following rules and guidelines have a more detail-orientated, structured approach. They may find it more difficult to cope with this ambiguity and change and therefore be less effective in a crisis.”
The study results also support the initial idea that personality assessments might be a useful part of crisis management training. Not only could such tests help identify the employees who might be able to remain calm and make decisions while everyone else is panicking, but they might also help train people to better respond in a crisis. “Providing feedback and training in these areas to increase self-awareness and develop managing strategies may enhance performance in crisis management,” the researchers wrote in the paper.
Having concrete evidence of who might actually be good in a crisis is important, since people tend overestimate their ability to cope in disaster situations. “In at least one study, where people were asked to write down how they would react in a fire, follow-up showed that when a fire actually did occur, hardly anyone did what they thought they would do,” trauma and disaster expert Anie Kalayjian told WebMD. Everyone wants to imagine themselves a hero, but few people actually are.
Fortunately, experts say that even those who aren’t initially well-prepared to deal with a crisis can teach themselves how to cope. Disaster training, both on your own and on the job, can help. So can paying attention to how you respond in other stressful situations, which will give you an idea of what your weaknesses or strengths might be. “People with all kinds of personalities can develop good skills, strengths, and abilities for coping with disasters, crises, and emergencies,” Al Siebert, Ph.D., told WebMD. “It takes practice and learning, but it can be done.”