How to Survive Work Crises

What I Learned on Capitol Hill

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Work crises happen. They occur daily on Capitol Hill, the professional environment I know best. A frequent criticism of Congress is that it governs by crisis, lurching from one near-calamity (government shutdowns, tax provisions near expiration) to another. After more than two decades as a Senate and House communications professional, I have a few tips for surviving a crisis in just about any workplace.

For the employee:

Gather all information about the crisis at hand. A group of protesters is stationed in the senator’s front office, blocking public access and chanting loudly. The staffer assigned to talk with the protesters must gather all relevant information. Would the protesters like to drop off some information for the senator? Are they looking for a sit-down meeting with the appropriate policy staff member to discuss their views? When Roll Call asks for a statement on the protest, what is the reporter’s deadline and contact information? The employee must have those details to help the office respond effectively and efficiently to the situation.

Don’t take things personally when the boss is stressed. Many of us become stressed in tense, deadline situations. Bosses, as fellow human beings, might express stress in moments of pressure. Maybe they pepper their employees with questions on why a report isn’t loading properly on the office website. They may be terse or abrupt. None of that means the boss doesn’t trust his employees to implement the work. Try to answer the boss’s questions as evenly and as thoroughly as possible. Information is calming. If the boss knows a task faces a slight technical difficulty but is under control, perhaps that will put him at ease. If the wheels are off, and the website is down, he should know that, too, so he can help solve the problem.

For the boss:

Give crystal-clear feedback. The Washington Post asks for comment on what the senator thinks of the new White House plan to levy additional tariffs on Chinese steel. The reporter is on a tight deadline. The communications director drafts a comment expressing concern that the tariffs will spark a trade war. The chief of staff says he isn’t sure he likes it but doesn’t say why not. The communications staffer can’t rewrite the comment without knowing what to rewrite. The boss should offer specific feedback, such as, tone down the criticism. Only then will the office be able to produce a suitable comment on deadline.

Don’t hover if you can help it. Some managers are hands-on. During non-crises, that can create a collaborative, pleasant environment, where employees benefit from the boss’s expertise and everybody engages in a free exchange of ideas. But during crises, an approach that’s too hands-on can make employees nervous and even impede progress on the task at hand. If you feel tempted to go behind an employee’s desk and stand over his shoulder, watching him type, perhaps reconsider whether that’s really necessary. You’ve hired employees you trust. You should express that trust, whether conditions are calm or stormy. Sometimes the best approach is to hang back.

For both the employee and the boss:

Be available. The day a critical filing is due with the Senate ethics committee isn’t the day for a chatty weekly senior staff check-in meeting. A Friday tacos outing can be rescheduled. The boss might think her staff is well-qualified to handle the work without her. That may be true, but critical decision points still might fall to her. If the boss is in her office on a long conference call, door closed, employees might be near-desperate to reach her for a decision on a quote for the home state paper on that ethics filing. Moments of crisis also are a good developmental experience for young staffers. The staff assistant might not realize his presence is the linchpin to completing a key task, yet he’s the one collecting the signatures on a late-breaking letter to the President from senators scattered across three office buildings. The boss should convey the needed contributions of every relevant member of the team during a critical moment.

A well-known occupational feature of Capitol Hill is things go late. The Finance Committee chairman releases his version of a major tax bill at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday. An inspector general posts a report of interest to senators and reporters Friday at 5 p.m. Once, on a Friday night, I took an urgent call from a Washington Post reporter on a sensitive subject while wedged in an Amtrak train luggage cubby so I wouldn’t be overheard or bother other passengers.

As a communications manager, sometimes I needed approval of a media statement after 6 p.m., when key colleagues who needed to review my draft were already in traffic on their commutes home, unable to check email. My duty was to try to notify those colleagues before they left of an imminent after-hours missive. Committee staff directors pulled over from the highway to read my draft comments. We all need to know our parts and execute them to get the job done.

Know the standard operating procedures for deadlines. Each workplace is different. In one office, the boss and employees might discuss a media comment or strategy, then review it in writing before signing off. In another office, the discussion might be adequate, no written review necessary. Does the senator need to sign off on a letter to the President or is the staff empowered to send the letter in her stead? Understanding the procedures that make everyone comfortable is key to avoiding miscommunications, missteps, or missed deadlines.

An occasional crisis in the workplace is a given, regardless of setting: the Senate, a bank, or a factory. No matter how experienced we become at a job, there will always be a new situation or an unforeseen circumstance. The most positive outlook is to see each fresh variable as a learning experience, one everybody in the office will work through together and use to become better prepared for the next inevitable crisis. Many of us are drawn to fast-moving workplaces because we like the mental stimulation and the fact that no two days are alike. Have you ever left a workplace you found stressful at the time and sorely missed its fast pace after the fact? With the right preparation and response, a crisis can satisfy the very needs that drew us out of the frying pan into the fire in the first place.

Jill Gerber is a communications professional and writer in Washington, D.C.

Originally published at

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