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Crisis management, Emotional reactivity and Leadership

------ © Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary

A crisis may occur on a personal or systemic level. Everyone experiences crises sometime or the other. Someday or the other we all struggle with the meaning of our life, sense of purpose, finding direction, overcoming the demons of the past, surviving shattered hopes, surviving a relationship crisis. Crises affect not only individuals but businesses too. All businesses are affected sooner or later. Almost every day we hear or read about an individual or company in trouble. Crisis is just an existential certainty.

What is a Crisis?

A crisis can be defined as a period of rapid change, a turning point, in which individual or organizational functioning is sometimes permanently altered, either toward a higher or a lower level .

Simply put a crisis is a change that results in an urgent problem that must be addressed. A crisis is not necessarily life threatening. Yet if it continues it can be debilitating. Crises that are handled poorly get lots of negative media attention, whether it is an individual crisis or an organizational crisis.

A natural systems approach: organizations as emotional systems

  This article adopts a natural systems theory orientation for understanding and managing human behavior (Kerr and Bowen, 1988), while it also draws from the six stage approach to crisis management (Augustine, 1995). Most approaches to leadership and management pay more attention to the rational processes in an organization ignoring the emotional side. Even if emotions are considered, they are seldom understood at an organizational level. At the most individual emotions are touched upon. Bowen theory is an exception. It is a natural systems theory that approaches living systems as emotional systems.

  Bowen family systems theory is a natural systems theory about the human family and, by extension, about the larger social systems of which human families and their members are a part. It is a theory grounded in facts, such that it has been claimed to be “a science of human behavior”. The functioning of organizations is mainly influenced by the behavior of the people, so a theory of human behavior is tantamount to understanding how organizations operate, at least to a reasonable extent.

A systems theory about the emotional side of functioning is not an easy theory to grasp or apply as it has a number of interrelated variables which reflect mutually influencing relationships among the system's members. “Since it takes most people a minimum of five to ten years to make the theory their own- to have it internalized as well as to have an intellectual grasp of it- it is a misrepresentation” to imply that anything substantial can be learned about the theory in an article of this sort ( Riley, Ruth and Wiseman, Kathy, 1982, p1). Moreover Bowen theory uses terms such as “feeling” and “emotion” in a distinctive manner leading to difficulty in grasping some of the concepts fully if one is not sufficiently familiar with the theory. Keeping these limitations in mind, however some main assumptions of the theory will be outlined here to acquaint the reader with the approach. These assumptions have been reinterpreted through an organizational lens where necessary without altering the theory.

Some assumptions of Natural Systems theory or Bowen theory


  • All living systems (including organizations) are emotional systems without exception. Every system has an emotional field. There are powerful emotional forces constantly at work attempting to maintain balance within the system. A systems orientation places the individuals and their relationships in the context of the entire system focusing on the emotional field in the system and on the emotional forces at work in the system.

  • The emotional system is a product of several billion years of evolution. It is the driving force of the family and other relationship systems. The emotional system refers to what ‘energizes' the relationship system, and includes those aspects that humans have in common with other forms of life such as the “automatic instinctual mechanisms such as finding food, fleeing from enemies, reproducing, rearing young, and other aspects of social relationships” (Titelman, 2003, p 19).

  • Symptoms of a problem situation tend to reflect an underlying imbalance in relationships within the system. The identified problem, whether in an individual or in a relationship, or a network of relationships, reflects the condition of the group. When anxiety-provoking events such as a crisis put the system into an imbalance, the system will behave in predictable ways in its attempt to maintain balance within the system. Some of the symptoms occur as a byproduct of those attempts or through a failure of them. Predictable behavioral patterns in anxious systems include triangling and emotional cutoff among other patterns.

  • Anxiety and level of differentiation are the two key variables that influence the functioning of the system and the people in it. Anxiety is the response of the system or individual to stress. Bowen makes a distinction between acute and chronic anxiety. Generally specific events trigger acute anxiety, while chronic anxiety appears to be triggered by a disturbance in the relationship system. Humans tend to cope well with acute anxiety. But chronic anxiety is more closely related to one's reactions to the disturbance than the event itself. Thus anxiety is in the system, not in the event itself.

  • The concept of differentiation is central to understanding Bowen 's other concepts. Emotional patterns do not create problems in a system, but are rather a reflection of the differentiation of the individuals. This distinction is crucial to Bowen Theory . Differentiation is seen as the ability of the member to become less anxious, less reactive, and more thoughtful about their part in the interactions. B etter differentiated individuals can be more objective, can act on principles, beliefs, and convictions, and can assume responsibility for their selves, while staying in close emotional contact with other significant members throughout. They can manage to do all this in spite of mounting anxiety around them. On the other hand the less differentiated individual is more subjective, likely to become more emotionally reactive and less thoughtful in stressful circumstances. Bowen developed the concept of a scale of differentiation to describe this difference among people. The scale is a continuum ranging from low to high levels of differentiation. The scale is not designed as an instrument to assign people an exact level. The scale defines an individual's adaptiveness to stress and the degree to which they are able to distinguish between the feeling process and the intellectual process .

  • It is also possible to characterize systems as being more or less differentiated by using similar criteria. Individuals bring to the unit or organizational system varying capacities for emotional functioning. Less differentiated systems are collections of poorly differentiated individuals who are more vulnerable to anxiety stimuli and more likely to become emotionally reactive. Better differentiated systems are more able to handle periods of anxiety in a member or members without the whole system coming apart. However how well each individual functions either as a leader or follower is influenced by how the group functions as a whole. For instance, how well the leader leads may relate directly to how well the followers follow. Both shape and reflect the overall condition. The interdependence constitutes species-typical behavior of the human and of a large portion of animate life.

  • One major inference for organizations and businesses is that when the intensity of anxiety is low, the ability of the individual and the system to function efficiently is higher. The people who form any work group represent a portion of the anxiety equation. The key individuals in an organization have a more important role relatively. To the degree that such people recognize, understand the impact of, and possess skill in the management of anxiety, the organization will be able to maintain a high level of efficient functioning in stressful circumstances. While some leaders and managers may already have such skills to whatever extent, others may be able to acquire a satisfactory degree of mastery through effort and experience. Coaching leaders and managers for management of emotional reactivity can improve their functioning in the relationship network. Their improved functioning can in turn help stabilize others whose skills are not so well developed and practiced.

From the above discussion one can infer the following about effective leadership:

  • Effective leaders will likely have better mastery over how they manage their own emotional reactivity.

  • They will have the ability to establish relationships and remain in contact with the various groups in the organizations including forces that may push for a ‘quick-fix” or the victory of narrow self-interests.

  • The ability to remain in contact with intense, conflictual others is necessary if a leader is to employ knowledge of emotional systems to help position himself or herself in a manner that reduces the intensity of anxiety in the system and produces greater stability.

  • Many of the skills in managing one's own emotional reactivity derived from natural systems theory can assist the leader's efforts to remain functional in the face of intense group instability.

  • Effective leaders will be able to discern facts from the cauldron of intense feelings and communicate the facts non-reactively to others. A leader or manager who can handle emotional reactivity can quickly stabilize the situation and earn the confidence of peers and subordinates, and eventually lead the way to thoughtful resolution of the problem.

Dealing with a Crisis

 Many approaches have been proposed to deal with a crisis. One useful approach is the six stage approach to crisis management (Augustine, 1995). The six stages are:

  1. Avoiding (or preventing) the crisis

  2. Preparing to manage the crisis

  3. Recognizing the crisis

  4. Containing the crisis

  5. Resolving the crisis

  6. Learning from the crisis


Preventing the crisis

The best way to avoid or prevent a crisis is to conduct a systematic audit of all things that could go wrong within one's sphere of responsibility. Making crisis planning part of one's normal planning, identifying internal weaknesses and external threats and asking oneself what could go wrong, are all important steps of such an audit. But not all crises are preventable or easy to anticipate. Some crises seem to just strike out of the blue.

Every system has latent crises that have not yet been triggered. Not uncommonly latent crises are also related to chronic anxiety in the system. Generally every system has the possibility of latent crises that have not yet reached the acute or inflamed stage. If the latent stage goes unnoticed for long, some triggering event will inflame it. Once inflamed the system experiences intensifying emotional anxiety.

 Recognizing and Managing a Crisis

Some crises are self-evident, others are not. It is a common tendency of humans (including executives) that most of us are reluctant to face unpleasant situations. We either disbelieve or rather not deal with it. Unfortunately denial and avoidance will only worsen the situation, as unpleasant situations may be warning signs of a latent crisis becoming acute. Yet not every problem is a crisis. So how to recognize a crisis when you see one? Here are a few ideas:

•  Pay attention when your gut feeling tells you that there is something wrong. Attention will enhance awareness. Awareness will foster better understanding.

•  What you avoid dealing with today will confront you in a larger measure later. So confront disturbing facts before the facts confront you. Don't ignore, rationalize, or minimize their importance. Investigate instead.

•  If the disturbing facts are found to be true consider their consequences. Reflect on what is important and what needs to be done. In doing so let your values guide you.

At first suppressing a crisis appears to be easier than resolving it. Conventional responses too are aimed at helping us suppress the crisis rather than resolve it. Such responses include statements such as: “Maybe you need a change of place. What do you think about taking the position in Canberra?” or “Take a good vacation and get yourself back together.” or “You better pull yourself together before you lose everything you have worked for”. Others may favor “quick fix” propositions rather than actual resolution as they are easier. Some management training programs too, participate in the executive's dissociative defenses by treating the problem strictly as a management problem rather than address the emotional side of a crisis. Not uncommonly even the better management programs underestimate the emotional roots of a crisis. The sources of crises may vary. They may be technology-related, health-and environment-related, market-related or product-related or people-related. Irrespective of what the crisis is primarily about, crisis management itself is eventually people-related in a large measure. Thus even where the original source of the crisis is purely technological or market-related, the emotional side of organizations and people has a major role in crisis management in more ways than one might initially realize.

Firstly a crisis provokes acute anxiety which in turn brings to surface the underlying relationship patterns and any imbalances therein. In other words the underlying chronic anxiety in the system, which is a given for all emotional systems, will now start gaining momentum. While specific events or issues are usually the principal generators of acute anxiety, the principal generators of chronic anxiety are people's reactions to a disturbance in the balance of a relationship system. Chronic anxiety is conceptualized as a process of actions and reactions that, once triggered, quickly provides its own momentum and becomes largely independent of the initial triggering stimuli (Kerr and Bowen, 1988). Moreover when anxiety-provoking events such as a crisis put the system into an imbalance, the system will behave in predictable ways in its attempt to maintain balance within the system. Secondary problems occur as a byproduct of our attempts or through a failure of our attempts to maintain balance in the system. Also effective crisis management involves people management and thereby management of their emotional side.

When anxiety intensifies in an emotional system, it affects the thinking and behavior of the individuals who are part of the system, and their adaptability. Relationship patterns will tend to become more intense and automatic. “Thinking is more difficult at times of increased anxiety, so people may do or say things they do not stand by in the longer term. One's ability to adapt to the changing circumstances is reduced because of the increased anxiety. A greater-than-usual effort will be needed to manage one's emotions individually and in relationships” (Gilbert, 1992, p.136).

Anxiety increases à Adaptability decreases à Automatic behavior increases à Calm thinking decreases

Crises may happen to systems, but they involve people, especially people in key roles. No situation can arise that does not have a feeling component involved in it. Nothing is truly objective. Everything is subjective, laced with feelings driven by people who process everything through minds that are biased by a lifetime of experiences. So when an executive believes that his business decisions have nothing to do with his personal feelings, he is engaging in an unconscious defense called dissociation. What is it that he wants to disown? What part of himself is he emotionally cutoff from?

Coaching can help the executive understand the mechanisms of denial and emotional cutoff and allow the individual to take responsibility. Acknowledgement of the role of self is the first step to change. There may be a number of things one could blame the problem on. Some of them may even be true. Even if most of them are true, it will not help much to focus on others. What will help is ownership, taking responsibility. Never ever allow yourself to play a victim or blame others. Finding or creating a scapegoat is counterproductive. Focus on handling the crisis and leave the recriminations for later.

Even if it is true that others are responsible in some measure for what happened, what is important is- what were you doing or not doing that had allowed the crisis to unfold to this degree? Most importantly what can you do to improve it now? Reflecting on such important questions in different ways can help clarify and pave the way for insight and transformation. It is important that the triggering event is not equated with the underlying crisis that it inflamed. Excess focus on the triggering event will divert attention from the real issues. The identified problem is quite often, only a symptom not the cause. The divorce is not the problem. The rebellious child is not the problem. The failed product line is perhaps not the main problem. Look to the whole system for better understanding. Nothing exists in isolation of the system. Furthermore Bowen theory highlights multigenerational patterns and processes. So in organizational systems if one does not know the history of the organization and the important people, one can miss key factors and forces that are driving present-day behavior.

Managing emotional reactivity

Here are a few guidelines for managing your own emotional reactivity.

•  Relax and calm down through an appropriate method such as exercise, breathwork, biofeedback/autogenics, visualization, and meditation

•  Remain in calm contact with all meaningful relationships in a system, as the crisis unfolds. Remember this is an active process

•  Practice Mindfulness: Observe your thoughts and feelings as they arise. Bring the feelings into awareness. This paves the way to thoughtful resolution. Quiet observation, the first step in understanding an anxious system, will have a calming effect

•  Act. No pattern ever changed simply by understanding it. Act from insight .

Processing feelings

During times of crisis, the constant, conscious effort to process one's own feelings will result in big payoffs. Start by taking responsibility for the processing of your feelings and reactions. After all, a significant other cannot really deal with your feelings for you. “Processing feelings, in the final analysis, must be done by the self. Taking responsibility for one's feeling means learning greater and greater facility at processing those feelings. Out of this process comes the calm necessary to think one's way through a crisis.” (Gilbert, 1992, p137-138)

The following steps in processing feelings have been adapted from Gilbert's work:

•  Take responsibility for your feelings.

•  Observe the feeling state

•  Calm the feelings as soon as possible

•  Keep communication open and remain accessible to others

•  Reflect:

•  What is the feeling that has been triggered?

•  What was the trigger?

•  Is this a trigger/feeling response that has been experienced before? In other words, is it a pattern? If so, what is this feeling pattern about?

•  Is this an appropriate response for leader or manager in my position at this time, given this particular trigger circumstance?

•  If this is not a desired response then consider the following

•  Are there other options? What are they? Rehearse these other options mentally

•  Continuous repeated practice of the new response (in real life as well as in the head) frequently helps it become a more automatic response

•  Act. No pattern ever changed simply by understanding it

Containing and Resolving the Crisis

To contain a crisis, be decisive and quick. Also be on the scene and remain accessible to others. Your physical presence lets everyone know that you care about what is happening. Keep communication open. Communicate the facts to all stake holders. Communication is the strongest tool at your disposal. Situations surrounding crises are generally marked by rumors and misinformation. Stick to the facts. But be careful of what you say and how you say as it will shape perceptions and guide action.

Resolving a crisis requires prompt and confident decisions based on facts. A leader or manager who moves quickly can stabilize the situation and earn the confidence of peers and subordinates. Identify the real issues and get the relevant facts, however difficult. It is your task to find out the truth and face it. Ask the right people, listen to the most reliable voices, and go to the right places. As a leader, respond by facing the crisis. If needed take the help of an executive coach, especially a coach who uses a systemic approach among other approaches. Once you have managed your own emotional reactivity and processed your own feelings, turn fear into positive action. Don't worry about rules. Rules and procedures are created for the normal course of business. They were not created with a crisis in mind. So do whatever has to be done to deal with the crisis, ensuring that people are safe first. Maintain focus on the priorities. Assess and respond to what is in your control and ignore what is not. Efficient leadership involves three actions- efficient assessment, initiation of response, and the assessment of effectiveness of the response. These three actions reinforce one another.

Learning from the crisis

Finally once the acute phase has ended, conduct a crisis review as soon as possible, while people's memories are fresh. Analyze thoroughly. Reflect on the following.

  • Knowing what we knew then, could the crisis have been prevented? How?

  • At what point did we realize we were in a crisis? Could we have recognized the signs earlier?

  • What warning signals were ignored? Which signals did we pay attention to?

  • In our response to the crisis, did we take the appropriate actions? What could we have done better?

Get input from many people, especially those with expertise in the areas of greatest importance. Learn from the experience. Build the insights gained into your plans for future crisis avoidance and management (Augustine, 1995).


Augustine, N. R. (1995, November-December). Managing the crisis you tried to prevent. The Harvard Business Review, pp. 147 – 158.

Comella, Patricia A.; Bader, Joyce; Ball, Judith S.; Wiseman, Kathleen K.; and Sagar, Ruth Riley; Editors. (1996). The Emotional Side of Organizations: Applications Of Bowen Theory. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Family Center.

Kerr, Michael and Murray Bowen (1988). Family Evaluation. New York: W.W. Norton.

Papero, Daniel (1990). Bowen Family Systems Theory. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Gilbert, Roberta (1992). Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions. New York: Wiley.

Riley, Ruth and Wiseman, Kathy. (1982). Understanding Organizations: Application Of Family Systems Theory. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Family Center.

Titelman, Peter, ed. (2003). Emotional Cutoff: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives. Hew York: Haworth Clinical Practice Press


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