Leadership Under Fire: Managing Stress During a Crisis

By Michael Anderson and Sarita Bhakuni Aug 10, 2010

In preparing for a crisis, an organization’s contingency plans are only half the picture. Equally important is pr​eparing for the emotional responses that will reverberate throughout the company. During a crisis, leaders’ actions often defy common sense. However, from the standpoint of organizational psychology, their blunders might be easily explainable—when stress hits, leaders often behave in ways that seem out of character, and they often aren’t prepared for their own emotional responses, or those of their subordinates. Furthermore, they don’t know how to alter their leadership style according to the situation. Yet, with insight and training, they can prepare to handle these situations optimally.

In crisis preparation, one of the first principles to bear in mind is that much of our “personality” within an organizational context is a function of impression management. Most of us portray ourselves positively, putting our best foot forward. This works well as long as we have reasonable control over the situation and can dedicate the energy necessary to exhibit our positive characteristics.

However, we all have less desirable, or even dysfunctional, personality characteristics that can surface when our ability to manage the impression we make on others is compromised because of factors such as stress, illness, fatigue or important life changes. Ironically, when we most need to access our best self, our worst characteristics have the easiest time emerging as stress lowers our conscious defenses against them.

Personality Under Stress

Crises provide opportunities for people to shine or show weakness. Some people are paralyzed, some become stoic, some take action and some panic. Regardless, stress will make it more difficult to react optimally.

While reactions vary, narcissism—marked by feelings of entitlement and grandiose self-perceptions—is one of the most problematic dysfunctional personality characteristics leaders exhibit during a crisis. Just when people are depending on the leader to act for the good of the organization, he or she might feel the “every man for himself” impulse. CEOs, for example, might be exhibiting narcissistic stress reactions when they sell stock or take measures to ensure that they come out on top at the expense of the organization. Other symptoms range from the superficial to physical aggression at the workplace. The organization-wide consequences of dysfunctional displays by leaders include lower job satisfaction, high absenteeism, high turnover, poor decision making, lower cohesion and ineffective performance.

This is not to say that dysfunctional personality characteristics negate leadership potential. We all have dysfunctional characteristics, and our ability to manage them under stress largely determines our ability to lead through crises. The key is to develop self-awareness, including an understanding of dysfunctions likely to emerge under stress, and coping mechanisms to keep them in check.

Predicting Stress Response

While stress responses might appear random and irrational, they usually are predictable and informative. Two techniques are used to understand and predict them.

The first involves analyzing critical incidents in which the person experienced a crisis. What emotions did she experience? How did she handle herself? What worked, and what backfired?

The second technique involves using psychometric tools to analyze personality and predict stress responses. While there are numerous tools available, in this article we frequently refer to constructs used by the California Psychological Inventory™ (CPI™) instrument—namely amicability, self-acceptance, self-control, responsibility, well-being, flexibility and dominance (alternate instruments use analogous constructs).

Another valuable tool used for understanding stress response is Dr. Naomi Quenk’s “Grip” theory. Modeled on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) instrument, Grip theory holds that while normally we operate within certain “dominant” personality preferences, under intense stress we might revert to our “inferior” preferences. Because normally we don’t operate under inferior preferences, we are less adept at handling them and, therefore, might act out of character and behave in unexpected ways. Sometimes referred to as the “Jekyll and Hyde” phenomenon, this can be particularly useful in identifying signs of severe stress. When coworkers act out in a way that contradicts their usual character, they might be “in the grip.”

Stop, Drop and Roll

When we’re on fire, the common instruction “stop, drop and roll” will likely be superseded by our instincts to run and scream. However, those who have learned and rehearsed the technique can resist the urge and instead follow the simple procedure. Likewise, during a crisis, leaders should engage in mental stop, drop and roll:

  • Stop what you’re doing.
  • Drop your preconceived notions and desire to act quickly, as well as the need for structure and containment where none exists.
  • Roll with the situation and seek information that will lead to the best path. In this way, leaders can reverse the effects of stress and access their objectivity.

Low self-control and low responsibility (or impulsivity)—which might at times give a leader a competitive edge—can spin out of control during a crisis, leading to excessively risky decision making. During a crisis, leaders exhibiting this characteristic are advised to take a step back and weigh the pros and cons of their decisions and consult with others—especially those who tend to be more deliberate in their decisions.

No personality characteristic is entirely positive or negative. For example, leaders’ high levels of well-being (or optimism) tend to indicate stress resilience on the front end, because fundamentally the leaders believe that they can navigate the situation. However, such levels can cause problems when leaders become blind to the fact that their current plan is not working, and they might hamper their ability to shift gears. High levels of self-acceptance, largely viewed as indicators of resilience, might have similar pitfalls. In such cases, stop, drop and roll might include setting aside feelings of confidence and assessing objectively whether the current course is truly effective.

Relationship Building

People rely on each other for counsel, support and action. The ability to build and maintain relationships largely determines leaders’ ability to navigate a crisis. Under stress, those relationships will be tested as dysfunctional characteristics emerge.

Effective crisis preparation involves relationship building during calmer times as well as learning to anticipate and resist stress-induced knee-jerk reactions that convey narcissistic or dysfunctional behaviors that often alienate others. Low levels of amicability indicate a pronounced need to focus on these relationship-based aspects of training.


During a crisis, it might be advisable for leaders to delegate certain actions to those who possess greater ability to carry out such actions. Dominance is associated with an individual’s ability to assume a leadership role and persevere in challenging times. However, extremely dominant individuals might become controlling and domineering in times of stress.

Adapting Style

Leaders who know their team well can adjust their leadership style to current needs. Identification of grip responses is particularly helpful, as it provides behavioral cues that indicate when team members are reaching a breaking point. Leaders can adjust their style accordingly, perhaps easing off to create breathing room or in some cases stepping up the level of dominance exhibited by providing additional strength and guidance.

Additionally, certain public interactions might call for style adjustments. For example, while projections of self-acceptance (or charm and confidence) might help leaders rise to the top, humility might be called for during some crises—particularly if the company is being called on the carpet for missteps.

Accessing the Right Information

During crises, the ability to make strategic decisions is critical. Unfortunately, during such times it becomes difficult to access our best and brightest ideas, as objectivity can be clouded by panic. Establishing information channels and ensuring that they remain open during a crisis, as well as consulting with trusted confidantes, will help overcome this obstacle. Leaders must demonstrate the flexibility required to respond to new information and change course when appropriate. Finally, merely understanding that rational thought will likely be more difficult during a crisis might arm a leader with the knowledge to weigh decisions more thoroughly (stop, drop and roll).

The Macro View

Successful crisis training enables leaders to balance the personalities of the members of their team. It is equally important, however, to look at crisis preparation from the macro level—how prepared the organization is to respond to stressful situations. The organizational culture and such factors as organizational justice, communication and trust should be examined closely.

Regardless of how many plans you have, there will always be unexpected, uncontrollable external forces. How leaders react during such times determines whether a crisis is an opportunity or a prescription for failure. Self-awareness—on the macro and micro levels—and the development of coping mechanisms can help prepare leaders to deal with each crisis successfully.

Michael Anderson, Ph.D., is senior research scientist at CPP Inc. and specializes in assessments, leadership development and employee selection.

Sarita Bhakuni is an organizational development consultant for CPP Inc. and is a licensed clinical psychologist, trainer and assessment expert.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and MBTI are registered trademarks of the MBTI Trust, Inc. California Psychological Inventory and CPI are trademarks of CPP, Inc.


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