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Post-pandemic: The power of crisis management planning

Thought Leader: Alana Hill
September 17, 2021
Source: Science

A critical imperative”

It was a seminar at a war college that convinced Chuck Zwemer, a professor of biology at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, of the importance of battling career-related emergencies head-on by establishing a personal crisis management plan. The speaker addressed how to prepare for uncertain times and stated some basics for building an effective crisis management plan: “Think strategically,” he recalls learning. “Know your goals. Know your assets. Know your liabilities. Develop tactics in service of the strategy, in service of the goal.” And keep lines of communications open.

These concepts seem simple enough. And Zwemer, whose expertise lies in physiology, found them to be especially relevant to his career as a faculty member. Although “you can never predict what’s going to happen,” he says, “understand that crises will occur and have checkpoints in place: What are your goals and how are you meeting them? What are your backups?”

New professors, brimming with enthusiasm for their upcoming career in service of discovery, contemplate their research agenda, grants to pursue, grad students and postdocs to hire, and lab equipment to procure. Very rarely do they consider crafting a crisis management plan that they could activate in the face of a calamity. And yet, in 2021, it is clear that this type of planning is essential.

“Leaders in higher education aren’t always adequately prepared for the scale and scope of these roles. Crisis leadership is often viewed as an add-on to an already extensive list of competencies,” says Ralph A. Gigliotti, assistant vice president, Office of University Strategy, and director of the Rutgers Center for Organizational Leadership at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “But it is a critical imperative for anyone engaging in leading in our institutions to plan, adequately respond to, and learn from crisis.”

A crisis management plan contains a list of actions that will be taken “before, during, and after a catastrophic event that preserve lives, safeguard property, and reduce the loss of resources essential to the organization’s recovery,” according to the International Risk Management Institute, Inc., a Dallas-based organization in that helps insurance and risk management professionals. “A crisis management plan is part of a broader business continuity management plan.”

Indeed, continuity of research, teaching, training, and service programs is critical, as we have discovered. A crisis management plan can preserve and advance faculty goals as well, even in the middle of a pandemic; extreme economic uncertainty; and ambiguity about careers, education, business, and almost all social structures.

Despite that fact that faculty have not been taught to construct a crisis management plan, it is within the framework of their knowledge domain, especially for those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. “STEM faculty can pursue it in the same way they are pursuing their own scientific inquiry,” says Gigliotti. “Set up a hypothesis and decide how you would approach the crisis and what response would be the most impactful. But like any scientific project, be open to the data and learn from it. Acknowledge the limit of any study and the opportunity to do future research.”

Why plan?

The pandemic has made us hyperaware of the need for a mechanism to forge our way through and beyond immediate barriers. A proper plan can enable success even in the direst of circumstances and is centered on communications. “It’s important to have a crisis communications plan, because crises unfold rapidly— they lead to moments where we have to make quick decisions, and we can experience a freeze,” says Rebecca M. Rice, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who researches how organizations work together to respond to emergencies, including natural disasters such as fires and floods, and security threats such as terrorist attacks and mass shootings. “Those moments can be paralyzing if you don’t know whom to contact and what to contact them about.”

Planning for crises restores our power, which is critical when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. “Crises have the potential to strip of us of agency, control, and influence. We feel powerless,” says Gigliotti. “We know crises are inevitable at an individual level and organizational level. So it is imperative for all of us to scan the horizon, get a sense of the kind of crises that can impact us and our institutions, and develop a purposeful plan as to how we as individuals or teams may respond to the crises of tomorrow.”

Table displaying questions to ask yourself when preparing a crisis management plan for your career

The planning process sharpens professors’ focus by offering a situational awareness and a renewed ability to keep an eye out for changes of all types, including new trends in the job market, notes Zwemer. But there’s an added value: “It creates a longer-term strategy that you follow irrespective of what’s happening around you. One great aspect of the crisis management plan is that it lets you recenter when something unexpected happens,” says Alana M. Hill, a former petroleum engineer and founder of 2Hill Consulting Services in Sugar Land, Texas, who speaks about change leadership and resiliency. “In a crisis, we want to be mindful because we can be misled to use our emotions to make decisions.” Adds Zwemer, “If there is a place of refuge you can go in your head, you can help yourself.”

Approaches and features

Crisis management plans are precious snowflakes: Each one is unique, and yet they all share a common set of elements. For Gigliotti, a plan starts with identifying and honoring your values. “The changing circumstances around us create deep uncertainty. So much seems out of our control,” he says. “The crisis management plan is so important because it reorients us around who we want to be as leaders, scholars, and teachers, and the components of a response that we can control. Underlying all of that is a commitment to a set of values that uphold and guide our actions and behavior, and allow us to shift from being reactive to proactive in ways that are congruent with those values.”

A sense of proactiveness begins with brainstorming what kinds of crises you may face. “Have some conceptualization of what we mean by crisis—define and operationalize what kinds of crises have the potential to disrupt your career,” says Gigliotti, who recently authored the book Crisis Leadership in Higher Education: Theory and Practice (Rutgers University Press, 2019). These can include natural disasters, cyberattacks, research misconduct, financial crises, public health emergencies, and many others. “There are myriad crisis types that have the potential to trickle down to deeply impact us as individual researchers,” he notes.

quotation mark

STEM faculty can pursue [crisis management] in the same way they are pursuing their own scientific inquiry. Set up a hypothesis and decide how you would approach the crisis and what response would be the most impactful.

Rice, whose new book, Communicating Authority in Interorganizational Collaboration, is being published this year, has been teaching and consulting with municipalities for years about crisis planning. “I’m a prepper at heart, and in my career, I watch counties adapt to prepare for crisis every day. This can be translated to the individual level,” she says. Rice suggests the following process to blue-sky and solidify your plan. Start by establishing communication expectations ahead of time. If there is an emergency, will you email or call your team? What level of information will you share in an email? “The problem in communications research is hesitancy of communicating things when you don’t have all the information,” she explains. Don’t be afraid to clarify that you will provide updates as the situation unfolds. And yet, determine how pressing or frequent communications will be depending on the nature of the crisis. For example, if a pipe breaks and the lab samples are in peril, when, to whom, and how do we report it? Who is expected to act and who is expected to stay away? Those first thought exercises and conversations may be difficult, involving both self-reflection and chats with your team, but “there is no reason not to have those conversations about what our plan is and what will it look like if something disrupts our plan,” she says.

As you discuss these issues, you should consult your institutional leadership. Get to know your colleagues in your department as well as people in biosafety, radiation control, facilities management, risk mitigation, emergency management, and the police department; after all, this is their expertise and their job is to protect the university’s assets, which include the faculty and your research. Identify who is in charge in an emergency. “Risk assessment is vital for operational continuity,” says J. Levi O’Loughlin, associate director of the Office of Research Assurances and university biosafety officer at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, Washington. O’Loughlin, whose doctorate is in microbiology, chaired the WSU committee tasked with helping faculty ramp up their on-campus research programs following quarantine, and assisted in COVID-19 operations for the university community. The institutional experts have resources designed to keep you going, he says.

Rules and regulations about research management can equip you with a powerful starting point for your plan, and many of these institutional offices do preparedness exercises and have their own contingency plans. “The more you start having these conversations, the more you will find people who are doing this work,” says Rice. “As individual faculty develop crisis management plans, they should ensure careful alignment with the crisis management plans of your department and institution. Rather than duplicating plans that already exist, your plan can complement the plans in place.”

Of course, there are other people to consider in your planning. Institutional emergencies have command centers and task forces, and individuals can use the same lens to develop their career crisis plans. “At an organizational level, who is your response team? At the individual level, who do you call on? Your network, family, and friends,” notes Gigliotti. Plan it out right and you’ll know who you can turn to in any kind of trouble.

Zwemer installs “checkpoints” in his plan, which drive an “if this, then that” type of scenario. By keeping an open mind during the planning process, being flexible, and considering multiple potential emergencies, we can evaluate various contingency opportunities. For example, if we don’t get this grant, is there something else we can do? Can we cobble this data together for another program? If the students can’t come into the classroom, can we find another way to educate them? “Look for these points of stability. And move toward stability,” he advises.

Table showing multiple crises and examples

The contingency strategy is an interesting aspect of the planning, because it has to be customized to your concerns and issues and yet must be agile enough to shift as a crisis emerges or escalates. “Our plan starts with a vision, a long-term goal of where we want our career to go—the ‘to be’ statement,” says Hill. “The change management plan is going to align the long-term goal with short-term goals to [help you] get there. It’s also going to include the intentional use of agile practices, where there will be frequent adjustments but not a total change of direction.” For example, she notes, given a new stressor, we may make minor adaptations to account for the current situation, but we don’t want to do this at the detriment of our overarching vision. By focusing on your values, you can maintain strength while practicing flexibility.

Don’t be afraid to make modifications to your plan as you speak with more people in the field and share notes and best practices. In fact, suggests Gigliotti, engage in open conversations with your colleagues about their plans. Compare notes on perceived obstacles and workarounds. Let’s say there is the possibility of flood damage in your laboratory space. Ask your institutional representatives about their plan for this scenario, but also “address it with your research team and ask others in the field how they have approached or managed this, and whom they seek to archive and access backup materials,” he says. Asking these questions now will endow your plan with teeth. “These types of crises have the chance to snowball from a minor incident into a major crisis and impact your work as a researcher,” he says. By addressing these issues early in your career with your collaborators, you stand a better chance of weathering a very tough storm.

The power of planning

As a result of the pandemic, we have experienced a heightened sense of risk in our careers. But there is a positive outcome. “It can feel difficult or unpleasant, but we understand risks by communicating with others about them,” says Rice. She sees more and more professionals openly discussing risk mitigation efforts and encourages faculty to do the same—for their research programs, teams, and ultimately, themselves.

Despite what we presently feel, our vulnerability in the global crisis is a strength—as long as we aim to comprehend the lesson. “With the department chairs I work with, I ask, ‘What do you have control over?’ and [advise them] to focus on that instead of getting lost in the myriad of responsibilities they can’t control,” says Gigliotti.

It’s also important that we don’t forget to review our plan after activating it, so we can improve it for next time “In the postcrisis phase, there is a postmortem that is conducted,” he adds. “Precrisis, during the crisis, and postcrisis, [we should ask] how are we learning, healing, and what ways can we grow from the crisis? Being thoughtful in how we learn from individual crises makes us even more prepared for whatever crisis may come next.”

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