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October 6, 2023

Claire Bragg

How Crisis Management Can Help Us Manage Agency Life

At AFFINITY, we’re lucky to have both a dedicated learning hour every week and access to a range of online courses. During a recent session, I completed a Masterclass series called ‘Crisis Day’
The series explores how some of the world’s best crisis experts handled worst case scenarios and while I was doing the course, I realised that crisis management is actually a great framework for the everyday curveballs that can show up on any project. 
Here are the key lessons that I believe anyone can apply to their role to make their projects run smoother. 


This tip came from Chris Voss, a former lead crisis negotiator for the FBI. He shared the negotiation skills he used during a bank hostage situation that resulted in the release of all hostages, without injury. An intense, high-pressure situation where you can imagine it would have been easy to skip the step. And while you might not be talking down hostage-takers, when you break them down, a lot of these techniques are excellent communication tools anyone can use.  

  • Empathy not sympathy – Imagine someone is in quicksand. Sympathy is when you decide to get in with them, empathy on the other hand, doesn’t need common ground. The best outcomes happen with understanding and acknowledging someone’s feelings while still holding your position, rather than jumping into the mess with them. 
  • Trust the process – If a process is working well, trust it and also practice it. The more frequently you use these skills in everyday life, the more likely they will become your default when the adrenaline starts pumping.  
  • Stay positive, don’t threaten – Science has shown that people are actually 31% smarter when they’re in a positive frame of mind, however when they feel threatened, different neurochemicals are released that dial down intelligence, and increase the odds of someone doing something stupid.  

This lesson came from astronaut Chris Hadfield. After an ammonia leak threatened everyone on board the International Space Station, he needed to lead his team through a ‘Hail Mary’ spacewalk.  
Chris talks a lot about decision making and weighing up the risks and benefits, which in his case, meant the difference between life and death. He has great advice for making quick, informed decisions. I’ve found these translate perfectly for when your on deadline or needing to resolve issues before they escalate. 

  • Decide at the beginning whether the risk is worth taking – you can never predict every problem that will arise during a project, but it’s worth sitting down with your team during the lead-up, to map out the possible risks involved. Is it worth doing it at all? Can you mitigate them before they pop up? You can know this before you even set out on a project. 
  • Make decisions with confidence – No one wants a nervous surgeon! The best way to make decisions is with confidence. Even if you need to make hairy or crazy decisions, do it with assuredness. When you back yourself, people are more likely to jump on board with your idea. 
  • Progress over perfection, followed by reflection – There’s no such thing as a perfectly executed plan when responding to a crisis or a project. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn for the next time. It’s worth debriefing after the dust has settled and looking at the lessons you’ve learned. It will sharpen your toolkit for next time.  

The final part of the course is narrated by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who were both in office during 9/11. This is about as real as any online case study gets, and while there’s no comparison between an agency and the Oval Office, I walked away with some really powerful takeaways.

  • Don’t go into an alert spiral – When you see a problem, it’s tempting to immediately message everyone. We all know how this goes: you panic, the client panics and suddenly everything spirals down. A better approach is to step back and give yourself a minute to evaluate the problem’s scale and who needs to be involved, rather than spamming anyone and everyone.  
  • Check in with your emotions – Sometimes, emotions get in the way of making the best decision. Once again, taking a breath is one of the best ways to self-regulate and avoid making a rash decision. Take a moment to gauge both your emotions and what everyone else might be feeling.  
  • Sometimes saying nothing is the best strategy – Read the room. Sometimes, choosing not to say anything can be as powerful as speaking up. When President Bush finally landed at the White House on 9/11, Condoleezza knew that this was not the time to start debriefing him. She needed to give him a moment to absorb the news as a human being, before he acted as a president.  

Working in an agency is slightly (ok, a lot) different to the life changing events these experts lived through, but everyday life is still filled with challenges, and these scenarios offer a lot of key lessons. Crisis management gives us a process to deal with uncertainty and better tools to navigate the rough patches and make faster, smarter decisions that will keep things moving in the right direction, even when nothing is going to plan.


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