Skip to main content

How to Use Crisis to Build Relationships

Many of us would agree that fostering positive and trust-based relationships with field staff is key to just about everything that matters. But how do you foster great relationships when a staff member screws up and a cherished employee perk becomes threatened?

I recently witnessed an amazing example of an EMS director transforming such a difficult event into an opportunity to strengthen relationships with employees.

Here’s what happened: A young medic had fallen asleep while driving a patient and partner to the hospital and crashed into the median barrier on a busy highway. The ambulance was totaled, and it was only a miracle that no one was injured and the patient not harmed. The medic openly admitted to falling asleep and not coming to work rested. What’s more, the accident had occurred during the 20th hour of a 24-hour shift and the crew was on their fourth call of the shift.

News of the accident raced through the staff—especially the part about the employee admitting to falling asleep. Rumors started to fly and fear flourished. The employees immediately began to worry that this would be the end of their cherished 24-hour shifts. The agency—a rural not-for-profit with about 60 employees and relatively low unit hour utilization—has a fierce commitment to delivering top-notch clinical care and service. In recent years the service has grown and developed a respected critical care interfacility transfer business. But 24s and flexible scheduling are highly prized by the staff.

The director, a long-term client, realized that the handling of this event would have important implications. He was concerned about patient, staff and community safety, the reputation of the service, the impact that rumors could have on morale, and his relationship with a board member who, upon hearing of the accident, immediately demanded an end to the 24s. But trumping everything was the director’s concern about his relationship with his employees. He recognized that beyond this event, employee commitment, loyalty and enthusiasm was critically important to ongoing organizational mission success. If his people weren’t behind him, everything would be harder and less successful.

Instead of taking a reflexive action, he thought about how he might turn this crisis into an opportunity to strengthen relationships. He thought about how he, as a medic, had at times come to work unrested and nearly fallen asleep driving—and how eight-, 12- or 16-hour shifts were no guarantee of patient, staff and community safety. He thought about the morale challenge that abruptly ending 24-hour shifts or firing the medic would have for the organization and everything they were trying to accomplish. He also knew that he didn’t have all the answers but did have 60 people who were fired up with concern.

The director didn’t fire or discipline the employee and he didn’t end 24s. Instead, he cleared his calendar to capitalize on the juice that everyone was feeling in the aftermath of the accident. Over a three-week period, he invested more than 100 hours in meeting with every employee one-to-one. In these meetings he explained his concerns and asked each for their input on how to prevent this from ever happening again. He listened much more than he talked. He made a list of employee ideas and told everyone he wasn’t going to act until he had heard from all.

The results were amazing. The rumors and fear stopped. Individuals felt valued and heard. The connection between boss and worker deepened and trust grew. Employees saw their director truly practicing deep listening and together they discovered a new commitment to safety that was more open and trusting. The specific actions are still evolving and are in the direction of staff medics taking more responsibility for work readiness and being allowed to own up to being too tired to take a transfer without penalty. But most important, the organization is coming through this event with more employee enthusiasm, commitment and loyalty than before it happened.

The relationship barometer may be the true measure of how great leaders deal with difficult events.