Handling Emotional Situations

One of the factors most overlooked and underrated by crisis managers in Malaysia concerns the emotional well-being of the affected company’s internal and external stakeholders.

One of the factors most overlooked and underrated by crisis managers in Malaysia concerns the emotional well-being of the affected company’s internal and external stakeholders.

The grief of the family of an employee killed in an industrial accident, the concerns of residents living near a polluting plant, the anger of customers given the runaround because of a complaint over product defect or the high anxiety of parents over contaminated baby food all involve emotions experienced by different stakeholders.

In these situations, the people involved experience some form of mental agitation or are in an excited state of feeling (Webster’s dictionary). Because of their frame of mind or the state of their feelings, it is essential that crisis managers make it a priority to meet the emotional needs of these groups.

Why are emotions often overlooked in crisis situations? Firstly, many managers are not trained to handled emotional situations. Weeping kin terrify them. This is outside the scope of the balance sheets, points-of-sale product displays, marketing campigns or product rollouts that they are familiar with.

Secondly, emotions are intangible and cannot be measured accurately. Situations that may pose mental agitation to some may not have the same effect on others. Still, another group may feel excited over what some may perceive as mundane and ordinary.

Trained to make decisions based on facts, figures and precedents, many managers feel out of their depth or are uncomfortable when confronted by the lack of facts and assessment tools to manage the emotional needs of stakeholders during a crisis. The tendency is to delegate the task of meeting affected stakeholders to their subordinates or even the security guards.

This is one move they should avoid. The assigned person/persons may not have the maturity or the seniority to address the emotional needs of affected stakeholders. Instead of helping to manage the situation, they may unwittingly worsen it.

Consider this example: A night shift employee of a manufacturing plant was killed in an industrial accident. The manager, through a subordinate, chose to inform the mother of the deceased, who was staying in another town, by telephone in the early hours of the morning. The grieving mother’s reaction can only be imagined but the manner in which the bad news was delivered would surely shape her perception of the company and its reputation.

Contrast the above with this example. An experienced safety officer whom I met recalled a similar situation when he had to deliver the sad news of the death of a colleague in a plant incident to his mother. He went to the mother’s house with a female colleague and a doctor, fully prepared for the emotional reaction of the elderly woman. He was right as the woman had to be revived and comforted upon being informed of the news.

Less dramatic but equally illuminating is the case involving a waste treatment plant. Nearby residents had opposed its construction. The dialogue session between the company and residents went along this line:

Company: “From a risk assessment viewpoint, the plant is 99.99% safe. The probability of the plant exploding is less than that of you being hit by lightning.”

Residents: “What about the 0.01%? There is still some risk to us!”

In situations where the emotion level is high, factual statements and statistics provide scant comfort to those who are affected. Emotionally, the people cannot relate to these statements. The filters that each one of us build around ourselves are in overdrive. At times like this, symbolic gestures are important.

One of the most powerful images that have stuck in my memory is that of the CEO of a company, sleeves rolled up, picking up his company’s discarded electronic components that had been dumped onto some vacant land. Apparently, the company’s contractor had found convenient shortcut when providing this service. The statement from the contrite CEO was equally memorable. He admitted that the waste was from his company. He would personally see to it that the area was cleaned up and this would never happen again. He added that the company would terminate the services of the contractor.

In the case of the waste treatment plant, a statement such as “To show how safe the plant is, I will live in the quarters within the complex when it becomes operational…” would have more impact than statistics.

The examples above underscore the need for companies not to overlook the emotional needs of affected stakeholders. They also demonstrate the need to put in place systems, procedures as well as resources to manage crisis and the attendant impact on various stakeholders, not forgetting that communication is key to the successful management of the threats facing the company.

Handled sensitively, a company can emerge from a crisis leaner but stronger and being the wiser for the experience.


Kek Soo Beng is an executive director of Perspective Strategies Sdn Bhd. A strategic communication and issues management consulting firm. He has been counselling companies in crisis situations for 25 years.

This article was originally published in The Edge, on 24 September 2007.