With more than 25 years of research and consulting work in crisis management, Dr. Sarah Kovoor-Misra, Associate Professor of Management at the CU Denver Business School, has published a book, Crisis Management: Resilience and Change.  

Kovoor proposes a new Transformative Crisis Management approach, and her publication explores recent examples of notable crises, such as product defects, ethical and sexual harassment scandals, product tampering, and financial meltdowns at prominent organizations like Uber, Wells Fargo, Volkswagen and more.

Dr. Kovoor-Misra describes crises as a form of intense threatening change for organizations, and in her book she examines the causes, consequences, forms and phases of crises. She describes the implications of her Transformative Crisis Management approach for effectively addressing the phases of crisis preparation, containment, recovery and post-crisis growth. Kovoor builds on current approaches to crisis management and extends them by taking a global, ethical, and a positive, proactive approach to crisis management.

What’s wrong with crisis management today?

BP oil rig explosionAccording to Dr. Kovoor-Misra, many organizations are taking a reactive approach to crisis management. When warning signs begin to emerge—like lost market share or dysfunctional leadership—organizations tend to ignore and sweep it under the rug. Instead of proactively addressing cultural issues and fortifying their team against a crisis, they pretend nothing will go wrong—and leave themselves open for disaster.

In addition, taking a reactive approach can lead to major missteps. In a high-pressure environment on a global stage, unprepared crisis responders can react emotionally, inappropriately and in ways that cause significant damage to the brand. In her research, Kovoor cautions against this strategy and instead encourages companies to build capacity for resilience and positive change prior to a crisis and become a catalyst for positive change once a crisis hits. This is what Kovoor calls Transformative Crisis Management.

How to build capacity for resilience and positive change

Effective crisis management begins long before the crisis hits. The best organizations are getting ready months and even years in advance, working both internally and externally to anticipate if and how something will go wrong. Kovoor’s research offers several steps for organizations to build capacity and shore up defenses against a crisis:

  • Prepare leaders for the challenge. Leading an organization through a crisis requires someone who is highly competent and intelligent—conceptually, emotionally, socially, ethically and politically. Having a transformative leader at the helm and at various levels of the organization can make all the difference when a crisis hits.
  • Followers can be just as important as leaders. Organizations also need transformative employees or followers who can improvise and adapt. Kovoor recommends building a team that supports “constructive disruptors” and problem-solvers or team members who can recognize when something is off balance and work to quickly correct the issue. In addition, having individuals within the organization who are builders of people and systems can make all the difference in responding to and recovering from a crisis.
  • Company culture makes all the difference. Developing a transformative organizational culture, identity and character can encourage resilience, integrity and excellence in all levels of the organization and motivate effective behaviors during crisis management.
  • Positive relationships with diverse stakeholders. These relationships both within and outside the organization can be an important asset in terms of information and other resources during a crisis.
  • Adaptable infrastructure. High-performing organizations have plans and procedures for a variety of potential crises. They establish teams, roles and responsibilities, and practice drills so that they can be resilient, competent, and trustworthy when faced with a crisis.

How to lead during a crisis

Once the crisis hits, organizations need to limit damage, solve problems, strengthen relationships with stakeholders and preserve the brand. However, communicating through the crisis can be one of the hardest parts. Kovoor advises that a leader needs to immediately step forward, acknowledge the crisis and take control and responsibility.

“You don’t necessarily want to take responsibility for causing the crisis,” Kovoor clarified. “At this point in the process, you might not know the cause or who’s at fault. You’re not accepting culpability, but you’re taking control of limiting damage and containing the crisis—immediately.”

A great example of this is Johnson & Johnson’s famous Tylenol crisis of 1982. When the company learned that several people in Chicago had died from cyanide-laced capsules of Tylenol, they didn’t waste time. They immediately put customers’ safety first and recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol from store shelves. It turned out to be a case of product tampering, but Johnson & Johnson’s quick action displayed their core values and integrity over short-term profit.

“By acting immediately to limit the damage, Johnson & Johnson was able to strengthen relationships with stakeholders and actually came out a stronger brand in the marketplace because of their response,” Kovoor said.

The unique value of Kovoor’s research

Kovoor’s research takes a novel approach to crisis management, blending a variety of theories into a framework that employs a systemic approach to solving crises. She goes beyond just limiting damage and advocates for a holistic approach to creating and strengthening effective organizations that can be a catalyst for positive change in the context of a global economy.

“No book emerges from thin air,” Kovoor said. “Authors are shaped by their experiences and by the ideas that have been proposed by others. I too stand on the shoulders of numerous scholars who have provided key insights before me.”

Published by Sage, Kovoor’s book offers academics and business leaders a theoretical lens and practical skills in crisis management, including organizational assessment exercises and transformative leadership scorecards. Kovoor also teaches a course on organizational change and crisis management, MGMT 4350/6520: Leading Organizational Change, for students and professionals interested in learning more.

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