What to do When Things Go Wrong: 6 Steps for Handling a Crisis

Panic turns into chaos, which leads to fear, then isolation, and lastly paralysis.

That is a very typical chain of events when things go wrong. And things do go wrong in business.

Things break. People jump ship. Servers crash. Clients leave. All of which can lead to a crisis.

Problems will come. How a leader reacts to these problems is what’s important.

Steps for Handling a Crisis in Business

The right strategy for handling a crisis can turn a negative into a positive. Here are 6 steps to help.
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The right strategy for handling a crisis can turn a negative into a positive. Let’s look at what not to do and then the six steps for handling a crisis. I’ve used these over the years managing affiliate programs of 9,000+ people, leading teams of less than 10 people, and running organizations ranging from start-ups to political campaigns.

DON’T:

Do Nothing.

The absolute worst thing you can do is nothing. When a crisis is pending, action is always better than inaction (and meeting about the issue counts as action).

Say nothing. 

Leaders often rely on the “silence is best” approach when reacting to problems. Rather than proactively tackling the potential crisis-causing issues head-on, we wait for the team members or clients to complain, or we do nothing at all. Remember this simple equation from Frank Luntz: silence = guilt. Do not remain silent. Instead, be proactive and vocal.

Go it alone.

The myth of the solitary leader who heroically saves the day is just that…a myth. Involve others early and often.

Get consensus.

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Just because you involved others does not mean the decision needs consensus. A crisis requires fast action. Get the input you need and make a decision.

DO:

Act quickly.

Notify your team members and customers immediately in simple terms. Forget details at this point, just send a quick email acknowledging the problem and promising to update them with details. If this is a public crisis (i.e. a server crash), provide links to your Twitter, blog, support forum, and other places to find updates so you don’t have to send ten emails.

Get the details.

What exactly is the problem? When did it start? Whom is it affecting? How long before it is fixed?

Share as many details as possible.

A crisis is not the time to withhold details from your team members or those affected (such as customers). Let your team members know as much as possible so they can help. And give your customers frequent updates.

When the problem is fixed, report it immediately.

Repackage the real-time updates. Don’t worry about providing resolution just yet, just let the public know it’s fixed and that you will do the right thing to make up for it.

Make up for it.

Assuming you identified those affected in Step Two, apologize to them and make up for it. If you offer a service that requires server uptime and you were down for half a day, give them a free week of service or a free upgrade to a premium service for a month.

Debrief.

Hold a quick meeting with your team. Discuss what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. Personally assess your handling of the situation as well. Think about how you could have handled it better.

Be quick, be open, make it right, and learn from the experience. Use it to your advantage by showing your team and customers that you are on top of things and honest with them.

How do you respond when you face a crisis?

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  • I’ve had to deal with several personal crises over the past 5-6 years. I got pretty fair at crisis management. I’d say that staying calm, acting quickly and reviewing options are the first three moves in a crisis situation.

  • As someone who has 12 years of PR experience, it’s not a coincedence that this list pretty much mirrors how to handle a crisis bound to get lots of media, stakeholder and public attention. The reason is people are people.

    • Yep. I have a client with 10,000 affiliates. When things break, they kind of know.

      I’d rather them hear it from me and follow those steps.

  • It seems like we’re processing similar things lately. Earlier this week, I posted about handling life stopping experiences. Here were my suggestions:

    1. Hang on. Sometimes this is all we can do. When we don’t understand, when we don’t know the plan, we can trust God and hang on to His hand. I remember asking during these times, “Why?” Even in the toughest moments, we must remember that He will never leave us.
    “No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Joshua 1:5

    2. Trust God. In times like this, I’ve gone back to Proverbs 3:5-6 as a promise that God will make my paths straight even when life doesn’t make sense.

    Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6

    3. Lean into family and friends. I can’t tell you how much family and friends have meant to our family when life’s train seems to have derailed. It helps to know that someone is praying for me, is willing to talk or listen as I wrestle through the challenges of life, and is willing to be there when I can’t fully focus on my daily
    needs. If you’re missing this in your own life, I’d encourage and challenge you to seek out this kind of friendship. Our church small group experience has provided many of these types of friendships.

    4. Consider a change. Sometimes a life stopping experience can be the catalyst to positive change in our lives. This week, I switched treadmills. Maybe these experiences are a call to change direction.

    “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43:19

    5. Learn and grow. Life halting experiences can be life altering experiences if we take time to learn and grow. This is why I recommend a journal or even a blog as a way to record life’s happenings. I have learned so much through the major speed bumps of life and the blog and my journal have become great places to record and
    process these experiences.

    http://www.jonstolpe.com/2013/02/11/when-the-treadmill-stops-suddenly-5-tips-for-handling-life-stopping-experiences/

    • Love this Jon! Thank you for sharing.

      #1 and #5 speak the most to me. Don’t react. Withhold my immediate reaction. Then think. Then, in the end, learn and grow!

  • When I face a crisis, I have to force myself to stop, and ask what is the next thing to do? and just keep doing one thing at a time. I love your Do’s and Don’ts. Good stuff. I learned alot from them! Thanks!

  • Panic and blame others. Works every time – to make things worse.

    I like your first point on the “Do” list to act quickly. I was training a guy in a new position last week. It wasn’t the best training situation because we were short-handed, so I was “training” while doing my job. We work on a machine that converts rolls of paper into corrugated sheets to be converted into boxes, so there’s a lot that can go wrong. He was starting to get overwhelmed and would freeze like a deer in headlights. After things got backed up, he would finally ask what to do. I told him what to do and then followed up by saying that it would be better for him to do something wrong than to do nothing. If he didn’t know what to do, just stop the machine – we can always just start it back up.

    Of course, it would have been a better training time if we were fully staffed and I could spend one-on-one time showing him and explaining the processes more. But crisis situations often require doing things in different ways.

    Thanks, Matt, for these great tips!

  • I often say “do something – even if it’s wrong.” You are going to make mistakes – but doing nothing isn’t going to make things better.

    • Spot on Tom.

      One of Google’s core values is “Fast is Better than Slow.” While this “rule” has its limits and I would never suggest just making decisions for the sake of making decisions, it is generally accurate in a crisis.

  • I assess. I know you can’t know everything, but you should know everything you can. The more information you have the better direction you can move in.

    Once I have assessed, its time to move to action. No point in standing around doing nothing. Start doing something, you can always make strategic changed as you go.

    • Good point Paul. I think this is when a great team really shines. Ultimately the leader must be the one to act fast and make a decision, but if there is a great team, he or she is more like to have enough facts to make an informed decision in a timely manner.