The importance of culture in crisis

3 minute read

When a crisis hits, it can become very uncomfortable, very quickly

Eugenio Pirri


Organisation culture is vital in a crisis

Nowadays, a crisis can come from anywhere. Predicting when one may strike is nigh on impossible as a result. What is certain, however, is it that when a crisis hits, it can become very uncomfortable, very quickly. Tough decisions often need to be made in very little time and it can feel, to those on the inside, very unstable, even dangerous.

Yet a crisis is also a time to reflect and see opportunities to change and assess key factors. In fact, it was John F Kennedy who said, The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One for danger; the other for opportunity. In crisis, I see the opportunity as our chance to strengthen unity – internally and externally – around who we are as a business; our purpose, our values.

This is where culture comes into its own.

Culture is what makes or breaks a company when crisis lands. Your values and who you are, should be at the centre of everything. If all of a sudden you try to change, then your reputation can be further damaged and all that you’ve built up over the years can be lost in a moment.

Businesses in crisis need to show that no matter what’s happening, or how hard the hit is, they are not going to change the culture their people have enjoyed and come to rely on. It is absolutely the responsibility of the leaders to safeguard their people and make sure that doesn’t change. For many employees, work is a safe zone and it’s the culture which creates that sense of security.

As you would externally, internally you need to be proactive, transparent and consistent. When facing reputational challenges as a brand, your purpose must be at the core. Communication is critical in a crisis – being extremely open and providing people with the opportunities to share their thoughts and feelings; whether that’s one-to-one or in a safe group setting. We need to listen, empathise and understand. In no way, shape or form should you prevent people from speaking their mind. You have to let employees vent and then support them to do what is right for them. The minute you try to quash this, then you go against your values. Yet, if employees see you taking this approach, then in our experience there can be a greater unity, a greater trust, and a greater level of respect.

HR as guardian of culture

The first question around the boardroom table in a crisis,  therefore,  must be “what are we going to do to protect our culture and our voice?” This is when HR professionals prove their worth. We’re the guardians of the culture and must make sure that come what may, no decision is made which will impact upon the purpose of the business. Traditionally, when a business declines, it’s very easy to start cutting things to reduce costs or making decisions which go against the values of the organisation to keep things afloat; however, those short-term measures have a huge impact on your long-term culture and the future of the business. Crisis does not, and should not, mean you stop doing all the things which make you, as a business, great. If anything, this is the time when you need to dig in and put these things into overdrive.

As a strategic HR professional, our role in crisis is to be the one continually asking ‘What is our culture? Why are we what we are?’ It should be our goal to make those questions the centre of the conversation, rather than the crisis itself. Always take the conversation back to the purpose and the vision. Yes, we need to manage business, but not at the expense of the culture.

In times of challenge, you’re only as good as the decisions you make. It’s about the foundations upon which you’ve built your business over many years. Therefore, decisions on the way forward must be made with these things at the centre. While placing these at the heart, acting quickly but staying focused on your purpose, may not ensure a complete recovery from a crisis, it will show that you stay true to who you are, which can only benefit the brand and the people in the long run.

Published 29 May 2019. Eugenio Pirri, chief people and culture officer at Dorchester Collection, is a member of the People Space Leaders Academy. His book, Be A People Leader: A Sustainable Framework for Achieving your Full Potential, is available now

In crisis, I see the opportunity as our chance to strengthen unity – internally and externally – around who we are as a business; our purpose, our values

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