U05: For best results, prepare for a crisis

Preparing for a crisis is like purchasing good insurance; you hope you’ll never need it, but if the time comes that you do, it makes all the difference. While the need for preparation is not surprising, there are some surprising yet straightforward steps that can make the difference between ethical and unethical behavior when a crisis hits. 

The first step involves learning skills for crisis prevention and management. Necessary skills include “perspective taking in relation to stakeholder needs, managing emotions and making decisions under pressure, communicating and facilitating trust development and fostering a learning culture” (Simola, 2014, p. 486). Strengthening these skills and considering the ethical implications of your actions in advance can put you a step ahead when the additional curveballs of a crisis are thrown your way.

One of those major curveballs is stress. Naturally, crises can be quite stressful, and stress can have an interesting impact on our ethical judgement. While stress does not necessarily lead to worse decisions in general, it does have “a negative effect on the establishment of a moral intent” (Selart & Johansen, 2011, p. 138). Stress can cause ethical slips like covering up mistakes, cutting corners, and lying to stakeholders both inside and outside the organization (Selart & Johansen, 2011). Developing a high stress tolerance can help, and may be an imperative in certain professions like surgeons and firefighters (Selart & Johansen, 2011), but leaders need not rely solely on their followers’ stress tolerance in times of crisis. There is more they can do to tip the scales in favor of ethical behavior, and it has to do with how employees are rewarded. 

It should go without saying that organizations must avoid rewarding unethical behavior, but some that have inadvertently done so have found themselves with ethical scandals on their hands. Certainly, an organization must “modify its reward structure if it might be creating an incentive for staff to engage in unethical behavior” (Pendse, 2011, p. 276). However, the rewards that can affect ethical decision making can be either material or immaterial, and as simple as feedback (Selart & Johansen, 2011). 

Feedback on the work an employee has accomplished can be viewed as a type of reward, and in fact, “a lack of feedback on accomplishments would make people disappointed and believing in their right to compensate themselves in other and sometimes unethical ways” (Selart & Johansen, 2011, p. 135). The stressors of a lack of feedback, poor teamwork, and a sense of powerlessness reflect a lack of rewards that incline employees toward unethical actions (Selart & Johansen, 2011). These types of rewards may not be in the front of leaders’ minds during times of crisis, but should be considered in order to ensure that the whole organization responds in the most ethical manner. 

Navigating today’s increasingly complex business environment requires the insurance of crisis preparation. Teaching crisis management skills is the first step, with stress management building on top. Furthermore, properly rewarding employees can both shape and reinforce ethical behavior. Putting these actions together, organizations can weather the storm of a crisis to find the sun on the other side.



Selart, M. & Johansen, S.T. (2011, March). Ethical decision making in organizations: The role of leadership stress. Journal of Business Ethics, 99(2), 129-143. Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/article/10.1007%2Fs10551-010-0549-3

Simola, S. (2014). Teaching corporate crisis management through business ethics education. European Journal of Training and Development, 38(5), 483-503. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/2085673585/fulltextPDF/561AA30472A74A9FPQ/1?accountid=13158

Pendse, S.G. (2012, May). Ethical hazards: A motive, means, and opportunity approach to curbing corporate unethical behavior. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(3), 265-279. Retrieved from https://www-jstor-org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/stable/41476249?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents


  1. Azadeh Ardeshir April 23, 2019 at 12:10 AM #

    Hello Holly,
    Thank you for your post. It was so interesting to me.
    As you mentioned, stress have some effects on our ethical judgement. It has a “negative effect on the establishment of a moral intent” (Selart & Johansen, 2011, p. 138).
    Dr. Robert Chandler says that there is an inverse relationship between stress level and a person’s cognitive abilities. It means that if stress level increases, an individual’s cognitive abilities decrease and it makes doing the tasks more difficult. Another understanding the stress and the relationship with crisis is that in some cases, stress could be the reason of having the maximum level of effect. In other words, it can increase or decrease the activity level of individuals at work. Other reactions to stress would be difficulty communicating or listening between employees, inability to rest or relax and decline job performance or absenteeism.

    If we want to talk about the stress level in upper levels, it would have some different reactions. In other words, An optimum level of stress can act as a creative, motivational force that drives a person to achieve incredible feats. Most people do not suffer severe effects from manageable levels of stress. Chronic or traumatic stress, on the other hand, is potentially very destructive and can deprive people of physical and mental health (PAHO, 2001).
    If stress level is in a high level and not managed, it would cause serious problems at work. One of them would be PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). PTSD is “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault” (Psychiatry.com). people who suffer from this disorder usually have experience of nightmares and flashbacks.
    Leaders are responsible to manage the level of stress of each individual. In other words, they have to be aware of each employee’s reaction to crisis situations and fid the best way of behaving with them according their personality and stress level. some of tips for their managements is:

    1. Familiarize yourself with signs of stress.
    2. Get enough rest, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy diet.
    3. Have a life outside of your job.
    4. Avoid tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and excessive caffeine.
    5. Draw strength from faith, friends, and family.
    6. Maintain your sense of humor.
    7. Have a personal preparedness plan.
    8. Participate in training offered at your workplace.
    9. Get a regular physical checkup.
    10. Ask for help if you need it.


    Selart, M. & Johansen, S.T. (2011, March). Ethical decision making in organizations: The role of leadership stress. Journal of Business Ethics, 99(2), 129-143. Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/article/10.1007%2Fs10551-010-0549-3




  2. auf600 April 20, 2019 at 8:13 AM #

    Hi Holly,

    I sincerely enjoyed reading your well thought out post. When I consider how situational factors such as the organizational climate, ethical climate, group dynamics and how one responds in a crisis certainly, ethical decision making can be a challenging concept without training, tools and forethought – as you’ve described in your post. I also believe that our individual differences, also play a major role in how we make decisions in a crisis as these differences define our perspectives, personality, motives, intelligence, beliefs and ethics, and subsequently, what we view as right and wrong or acceptable versus unacceptable behavior.

    In my Unit 05 Blog Post I wrote about an apparent crisis that Erin Potts-Kant experienced while employed at Duke University. According to recent news articles, an investigation was initiated by a whistle-blower, Joseph Thomas – a former Duke lab analyst, who “filed a lawsuit under the False Claims Act claiming that Potts-Kant, had fabricated data over a period from 2006 through 2018, which was linked to as much as $200 million in federal research grants related to the study of the lung function of mice.” (Kaplan, 2019) According to the lawsuit, “Potts-Kant engaged in systematic and near-universal research fraud, including, in some cases, making up data outright in lieu of actually performing experiments. The suit also accused those who supervised Potts-Kant of ignoring signs of possible fraud or misconduct.” (Chappell, 2019) As a result, Duke University will have to pay the U.S. government $112.5 million.

    According to a statement by Duke University president, Vincent E. Price, he was aware that the University needs to have a more “focused commitment to promoting research integrity and accountability.” (Kaplan, 2019) Price added that, “when individuals fail to uphold those standards, and those who are aware of possible wrongdoing fail to report it, as happened in this case, we must accept responsibility, acknowledge that our processes for identifying and preventing misconduct did not work, and take steps to improve.” (Chappell, 2019)

    My assessment of perhaps why Potts-Kant made such unethical decisions, especially considering that throughout her career it is not possible that she was not aware that falsifying data would be acceptable, essentially boiled down to the stress of a crisis – which you spoke of in your post. You mentioned that stress can affect one’s judgment while making decisions and my thoughts are that depending on one’s individual differences, experiences and personality, along with their tolerance for stress and the nature of the crisis, will affect the process that they take to arrive at a decision (ethically or unethically).

    Using your research on stress, that “stress can cause ethical slips like covering up mistakes, cutting corners, and lying to stakeholders both inside and outside the organization” (Selart & Johansen, 2011) this completely supports my theory on what happened in Potts-Kant’s decision making during the crisis that she was in. Perhaps Potts-Kant was experiencing a crisis and was under pressure to keep her department afloat and without funding would lose out on years of research, or Potts-Kant’s crisis was the pressure from her superiors to provide viable data to substantiate her role within the university. Another aspect of this case that compounded its complexity was that Potts-Kant’s superiors were complicit in her unethical decisions – which would embolden her unethical decisions and as you stated, rewarded these decisions by turning the other cheek and allowing her to continue to publish papers and acquire government grants on false data.

    In summary, I agree that preparing individuals to make ethical decisions in a crisis is critical to achieve desired outcomes in decision making and I also agree with you that stress can play a major role in how one’s training and preparation translates to effective decision making when faced with a crisis.

    Thank you again for your engaging post!

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