Swine flu outbreak tests management skills

By alanhammond, 29 April, 2009

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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