Swine flu outbreak tests management skills 2


Flu is a disease that we usually think of as not much more than an inconvenience. But in 1918 as many as 100 million people died from a global outbreak that lasted for two years.

News of 159 deaths in Mexico from an outbreak of Swine Flu has got the attention of the world.

The SA Cabinet discussed the swine flu at its meeting this week and called on the country to remain calm, even as the first two suspected cases in South Africa were being investigated.

The two South Africans are believed to have contracted flu in Mexico in recent weeks but both have recovered successfully. Clearly we have made significant progress since 1918 and modern treatment is effective in treaing the disease.

The World Health Organisation isn’t really helping to keep people calm! The organisation’s head Margaret Chan said in a news conference that the swine flu outbreak poses a threat to ‘all of humanity’. Not the kind of language to keep people calm.

Managing during a crisis is always tricky. It doesn’t help anyone to panic or overstate the potential for disaster.

Then again, underestimating the danger doesn’t help either.

During the recent US election campaign news broke that venerable Wall St bank Lehman Brothers was going out of business. John McCain underplayed the crisis, stating that ‘the fundamentals of the economy are still strong’! He lost all credibility as he couldn’t see the problems the economy was facing, and Barack Obama walked straight into the White House.

Whether the crisis is economic or health related the challenge for management is to keep the whole team focused on the job at hand. Recognise the potential problems, put plans in place to deal with them and focus everyone’s attention on meeting those goals.

And if your staff are worried about the dangers of swine flu sharing information about the disease will put people at ease. You should communicate the dangers but explain that for most people this is likely to be a mild disease that will respond well to treatment – in the unlikely event that someone gets ill in the first place.

A copy of the Centres for Disease Control fact sheet about Swine Flu is available on the Skills Portal website

I would welcome your comments on managing in a crisis.

PS If you want to learn a more about how disease outbreaks spread, read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

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2 thoughts on “Swine flu outbreak tests management skills

  • Colette Dee

    Some wisdom about crisis management is to be gained from Jack Welch’s book (“Winning”), which describes the five assumptions a manager has to make in order to follow a comprehensive action plan:

    1) Assumption 1: The problem is worse that it appears.
    It will benefit all of us to get into a worst-case scenario mindset about the disease and take responsiblity for fixing it. Information-sharing (as suggested by Alan) is certainly a good idea. Have a session with staff to aleviate fears, coach on prevention, point out symptoms and brain-storm possible solutions when this affects the company.

    2) Assumption 2: There are no secrets in the world, and everyone will eventually find out everything.
    A bit more relevant to sweeping corporate scandals under the carpet, but could be applied as such: Let the staff know that absenteeism in this economic climate could have detrimental effects on the company’s performance. Be truthful about the situation and gain their trust. Warn them of the risks when they endeavour on business trips. Get their input on possible solutions or proactive ways to manage this.

    Assumption 3: You and your organisation’s handling of the crisis will be portrayed in the worst possible light.
    Depending on the size and visibility of your organisation, expect to be criticised for your handling of the crisis (as proved by our reactions to the WHO). Even if the media is not interested in your company and the way you handle it, your people will be interested. Discuss the situation openly, define your position, explain the cause of the disease (and how it spreads) and how you are handling it. And as Jack says: “Don’t forget you have a business to run. Make sure you are running it.”

    Assumption 4: There will be changes in processes and people. Almost no crisis ends without blood on the floor.
    No need to mention to the grimmer possiblity of actual fatalities. As a manager, you need to be open to the possibility of lasting changes in your modus operandi or company policy. See it as an opportunity to update those policies related to sanitation, health and environmental awareness. This virus is without doubt not the last that humanity is going to be threatened with. HIV is a case in point. Review your contingency plans to make provision for increased absenteeism due to ill health, fear, family responsiblity, etc. Review your Employee Assistance Programmes and increase hygiene awareness campaigns. Things will change.

    Assumption 5: The organisation will survive, ultimately stronger for what happened.
    If managed correctly, this crisis may elavate you to the status of an employer of choice. Truth, proper planning and concern for your employees are traits that will outlive this crisis.

    In a nutshell: TEACH, COMMUNICATE and PLAN. It is during a crisis of this nature that true leadership will shine – whether in your home, office, organisation or community.

  • Des Squire

    The steps we take in managing and motivating others in tough times tends to last and endure. Similarly making wrong choices will have a lasting effect and will lead to mistrust and fear. Making the right choices such as reinforcing values, getting the focus back on the company mission, finding ways of becoming thrifty by saving on unnecessary expense and focusing on core issues will also bring about lasting results.

    It is how we approach these issues right now that will determine our success or failure and whether or not the company will survive the current financial squeeze. No, we are not in a recession, despite what we read. We are experiencing tough economic times and we will survive if we are proactive. The situation will worsen before it gets better. I say this because South Africa is a few months behind countries like the UK and the USA in terms of the “recession”.

    In times such as we are currently experiencing there is a need for vision, passion, courage, discipline, and commitment. As managers we focus on the efficiency of systems and processes but as leaders, and particularly in tough times, we need to focus on people.

    It is now we really need our people and we need to let them know this. Now is the time to inspire employees with our vision and fill them with passion. Now, more so than ever before, is a time for open and all inclusive communication. Now is the time to show courage, to swallow pride and ask for cooperation. Now is the time to ask for commitment to a disciplined approach in order to ensure survival, retention of jobs and increased productivity.

    Employees are very aware of the difficult time we are experiencing. They too are experiencing tough times. They are worried about the possibility of job losses. But as human beings they have an inbuilt resilience. They have been born tough and know how to withstand adversity. What they need is an empathetic leader. They want stability and above all the want to experience a sense of hope.

    Trust will play a major role. If your employees trust you, they will implement your policies and procedures without hesitation. For this reason it is important to again demonstrate your courage by sharing your fears, sharing your dreams, sharing your confidence in the future and by inspiring them with your leadership.

    Tough times call for tough leaders. Employees take their lead from their leaders. Now is the time to focus, now is the time for hard choices. Now is the time to focus on the NOW, to focus on the moment

    Times are difficult, possibly more difficult than many of us can remember or have ever experienced. The potential repercussions of the current economic climate could, if left alone, have untold consequences.

    Now is the time to act swiftly, to take action and respond to the challenges ahead. We need to manage costs, do away with unnecessary spending, do away with the nice to haves and delay any new undertaking.
    We need to allocate any spare financial resources as well as our best employees to the tasks that will make the greatest difference.

    We need to establish once again what our priorities are and realise that without people our business will not survive. Now is the time to call on employees to assist.

    We need to ask ourselves and our employees
     What do we want to achieve in these tough times?
     What can be done to ensure survival?
     What can you as an employee do to assist?
     What can the company do to assist you – the employee?

    When we can get the majority agreeing to a strategic rescue plan then we can go forward together and make things happen. This can only be achieved by open communication from the top to the bottom and by the top with the bottom. Company COE’s must come down to floor level and start communicating with the lowest level of worker. Tough times call for tough action and tough decisions.

    Management have a habit of talking to managers, and line managers talk to the workforce. We forget it is the work-force who makes things happens. The general workers are the miracle makers. These are the people who should be receiving most of the attention so they can feel like important partners. It is the worker who keeps the company focused, who is responsible for achieving results and who will pull the company through hard times.

    This is a time for shared goals and creative solutions. There is no time for individual priorities and a business as usual approach.

    We need to make it easier for people to work smarter and not necessarily harder. We need to avoid the negative consequences of tough times that lead to loss of profit. We need above all to avoid cut backs and retrenchments.

    To do so may require shorter working hours, freezing wage increases, salary cuts at senior levels, taking days off without pay and other similar initiatives.

    Now I ask the question – What have you or your company done to prepare for a down turn that might negatively impact on your employees and the company?

     Have you recently looked at your strategic plan?
     Have you recently looked at your vision and mission statements?
     Are you aware of your current industry challenges?
     Have you planned based on potential risk of a recession?
     Are you and the leadership team communication with staff?

    “Now is a time to break free from the ordinary and escape to a place you have never been before” Now is the time to manage the process and lead the people

    Des Squire is a director of Applied Management Studies International (Pty) Ltd.
    For more information on “Motivating and retaining staff in tough economic times” to implement an in-house workshop or to attend a workshop contact Des on 011 646 9369 or 082 800 9057 or dsquire@amsi.co.za