Three Lockdown Lessons Business Can Learn from Meerkats

The concept of lockdown in an unyielding and unforgiving terrain is not new to the meerkat species. 

Consequently, meerkats have become highly skilled and successful in dealing with lockdowns underground and at navigating their uncharted “business world”. 

There are parallels in the way meerkats handle crises, that could be a lesson to organizations that are trying to find their feet and their voices in an unfamiliar and unknown post Covid-19 commercial environment.

There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has shocked 21st century society to its core. The human, emotional and financial toll has been catastrophic. The resultant lockdown strategy that most countries have employed has led to insecurity, uncertainty, powerlessness and disunity. 

Many people, organizations and countries are struggling and failing to come to grips with the current lockdown reality and the post Covid-19 reality to follow. 

The “marketplace” of meerkats offers a fascinating insight into the behavior required to survive in times of uncertainty. 

Their rigorous teamwork and focus on communication are thought-provoking examples that could be replicated for success in companies and associations. 

Three key strategies help meerkats become more resilient, agile and adaptive so that they survive and thrive. 

These strategies may be a useful guide for organizations to successfully navigate their own journey through lockdown and a post-Covid-19 business environment.

1.  Team Communication

Meerkats lock down for predator threats such as jackals, snakes and eagles.

Environmental perils such as fires, flash floods, dust storms and lightning strikes can also result in lockdowns.

Thus, they must have strong communication protocols if they are to survive. They constantly share information.

Meerkats make reassuring sounds and groom one another to make sure that they each feel safe and to maintain their bond as a team.

They are trained to be alert at all times, sniffing the wind, scanning the horizon and evaluating every sound for danger.

Meerkats look out for one another.

Even though every member of the team is watchful at all times, they add an extra precaution. They post sentries who are hyper vigilant to hazards and do threat assessments.

When meerkats face an uncontrollable threat, they escape down bolt holes and burrows that they have meticulously dug into a network of tunnels.

2.  Strategy-Driven Leadership

Meerkats cannot stay in lockdown for prolonged periods. They need a sound exit strategy or they risk dying of hunger.

They emerge from lockdown with a clear, battle-tested strategy, always directed by a sure-footed matriarch (CEO).  She has a wealth of territorial, institutional and hard-earned knowledge which will guide her team with a “road map” of experience.

Meerkats don’t rush out of their burrows and reclaim their territory. It’s a gradual and systematic process.

They assess risk by popping their heads out of their burrow to check for danger.

The experienced leaders (dominant females and males) guide the path to safety through “managerial” practices such as tail signals, scent-marking and barking sounds.

Once they’re out, they go slow and methodically so that they can make split-second decisions to keep the team safe.

The impact of lockdown is profound.

They must figure out how to protect their “business” resources, adapt to a changed “workplace” and resume “income-generating” activities (foraging). Sometimes they must fight off direct competitors, rival meerkat groups.

3.  Preparation for Future Lockdowns

Meerkats know that the next lockdown is coming so they carefully plan and prepare.

They stay productive and useful. They dig hundreds of holes every day (including the bolt holes where they can quickly escape to a maze of strategically prepared burrows.

Meerkats regularly clean out the burrow and renovate the tunnels for easy movement and safety. They teach their young survival techniques from early on so that they know what to do when there is a lockdown scare.

Their courageous leadership structure helps the team to navigate from uncertainty to certainty. They future-proof their “business” through forward-thinking and by preparing for worst-case scenarios.

Team Communication During a Crisis

So, you’ve been told you need a crisis plan or don’t have an effective way of communicating in times of crisis. Unfortunately, many companies focus on the latter but forgo the former. While every circumstance is unique and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to handling crisis, many times the root causes are easily identifiable prior to the actual event happening and steps can be taken early on to mitigate them or even prevent them from occurring altogether.

Leverage the power of effective and timely organisational communications at such times.

Create a crisis messaging plan for if employee-related safety issues arise or if you are at risk of losing customers because of a service failure. If your company isn’t already doing so, develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) before you need them. 

When communications go right, businesses can build customer relationships and loyalty. When they go wrong, the results can be detrimental to your company and employees. Real-time organisational communications are vital to a company’s success. When a crisis strikes, time is crucial.

Think of your messaging strategy as an insurance policy – hope you never have to use it, but if something goes wrong, you’ll be glad you did.

A crisis can happen and a good messaging plan will help ensure your employees, clients, and customers receive timely and effective communications when they need it the most.

Many companies are unprepared to address a crisis using internal procedures and policies. When does it become a disaster?

It’s difficult to define but typically happens when there is a series of poor decisions made by senior leaders. The recent news cycle has highlighted several examples of organisational crises that were worsened because of poor response and decision-making by executives.

When such circumstances occur, the best CEO’s are those that can keep the institution going even though they are dragged through the mud. It’s difficult but doable – and your organisation will be much better in the long run if you can develop a crisis messaging plan.

We’ve all heard the stories of what happens to some companies when a crisis strikes. They have no standard operating procedures (SOP), and their PR team has never worked under pressure before. This leads to confusion among customers and employees. It might also lead to losing customers and incredibly costly legal fees.

Organisations are increasingly tasked with communicating and responding to safety issues, breaches of privacy, and service failures that could seriously affect the reputation or profitability.

If handled correctly, they can present an opportunity for growth. A crisis can be defined as: “a situation in which an organisation faces difficulty preventing a threat from causing severe damage to its existence (or an important component of it) and/or with significant negative consequences for its future development.”

When an organisation faces a crisis, it’s far too late to prepare.

When you implement a messaging plan, you establish a system that is used irrespective of the category or the extent of the event. Your messaging plan should be structured in such a way that all employees know what they need to do in order to maintain a consistent marketing message between all forms of communications (website, social media, email, phone calls, etc.)

The word “crisis” is used so frequently in the media, it has now become a buzzword. However, when it actually happens to a company, it is much harder to get a hold of things.

It involves what you should do and who you should communicate with first.

Crisis Communication / Risk Communications

“Crisis communications” also referred to as “risk communications”, are vital tools in any organisation’s toolkit. This plan is pivotal to understanding how an organisation will respond to its stakeholders when faced with an overpowering problem.

The ability and speed with which you recover will inevitably determine whether the crisis turns into a full-blown disaster.

What happens when your company ends up on the front page of the local newspaper? What if you’re in the middle of a crisis involving an employee? What do you say to a customer who has been harmed by your company, intentionally or otherwise?

These are real-world situations that lead to real-world problems. Time is of the essence when addressing sensitive issues with customers and the public.

Every business is susceptible to emergencies. While every organisation differs in its structure, size, and services or products provided, even a small business can experience a situation that can irreparably damage its reputation.

When the going gets tough, your messaging plan must already be in place.

There are many factors that contribute to a crisis; unfortunate circumstances which carry an elevated amount of media scrutiny and public attention, such as if your company is involved in a high profile case, or even if you have a mass consumer complaint.

Such events can lead to significant one-time losses and adverse long-term effects on the business.

One key in ensuring employees understand their roles during an emergency is by having crisis management procedures in place from the beginning. Having common messages with easy-to-follow guidelines and action items will allow you to get messaging to your audience in a timely manner.

Having a senior manager who can serve as the official spokesperson and deliver messages from the company will help ensure consistency.  

Defining your company’s position about an issue will calm people’s fears and regain their trust faster. It’s not just for times of catastrophe, it is for all times of adversity to take measures quickly.

Your first step would be to look at your existing protocols and policies. Some of us have been there – you are just getting into the office when your phone rings and your assistant is knocking at the door. There are now only 24 hours until a major media outlet you depend on runs a front-page story with quotes from disgruntled customers. You’re missing critical pieces of information because you have created no standard operating procedures (SOPs) yet for your organisation. Your plan hasn’t accounted for this scenario, and you don’t know what to do next.

Handling a crisis effectively can make or break your organisation.

If a crisis is handled improperly, it could cost you, customers, damage your reputation, tarnish your brand and causes a reduction in revenue, putting the long-term viability of your company at risk.

The best plan is useless if it’s not updated. It also includes details on tactics to various scenarios – such as when you experience a data breach or run into trouble related to service failures.

Mitigation of a Crisis

It doesn’t matter if you are the founder of a company or work in a small department; any organisation is now only one scandal away from having its reputation – and bottom line – affected.

A crisis can be initiated by various situations, ranging from human error to technical glitches (and everything in between), and within minutes an organisation can deal with negative media coverage and customer outcry that affects trust and sales.

In defining crisis communications, there are 3x stages to occur: emergence, escalation, and resolution.

In a typical scenario, the first step is response, which is really just organising yourself before assessing the situation and determining the best course of action.

Assessment includes reviewing the facts of the problem and identifying how you will treat customers who may have been impacted.

Recovery includes what extra steps are to be taken and what additional resources are prerequisite.

Mitigation includes what you can do to limit negative effects on reputation and revenue if possible.

A crisis is unexpected, dramatic, and may cause the organisation to lose money and be noticed by the public. If something goes wrong, always share as much information as you can with your team.

Get them as up to date as you can. Everyone should be on the same page. Collaborate and share messages with your colleagues. Don’t leave anyone in the dark.

Even if you think it’s a small issue and it’s only hurting your one project, communicate it anyway. The more frustrated/distracted your team becomes, the less focused they will be on what they are supposed to be doing.

If something goes wrong, there’s no time for excuses. Be honest and upfront, and the sooner you get that information out there, the better. The earlier your team knows about a problem, the more they will help.

Sharing as many details as possible in a timely manner keeps everyone informed – and prevents confusion.

Saying as little as possible leads to speculation, which further muddies the situation.

By being upfront with your team, you will gain trust. The more information you can be upfront with, the more trust you create.

Being Open About a Crisis Is Usually the Best Course of Action

Your company is in a crisis. Employees know it now and are gathered around the water coolers. The rumour mill is churning out the latest scoop on your implosion. Panic has set in as you imagine the worst-case scenarios, and your gut tells you this scandal could ruin your company. Your employees are crying, investors are pulling out, and customers are cancelling their accounts.

When a crisis strikes, it’s very difficult to see the wood for the trees.

However, by being proactive, honest and transparent during a crisis, you can improve your business reputation during the recovery phase.

A mistake, lawsuit or damaging publicity can devastate your company’s reputation. But you may keep your reputation intact if you respond appropriately.

Every company has its own way of handling a crisis. Some try to hide from it, some deny it, and some try to avert it altogether.

While each case is different, attempt to “fully disclose”. Try to be as transparent as possible during the inevitable backlash.

That means that your response may not only have to be professional, timely, consistent and accurate but also highly visible and massively coordinated across lots of different audiences.

When calamity strikes, being honest, responsive and transparent will help your company be seen as legitimate and accountable.

You don’t want people to think you are hiding or trying to cover up any issues.

Act quickly. The reputation of a company is very fragile.

You gain points for transparency. It can be decisive in terms of public perception if the crisis deals with an issue that is sensitive or emotionally charged.

Mostly when a crisis occurs, the company’s reaction to it comes in one of four forms: doing nothing at all, delaying action until the very last minute, delaying action for too long or issuing a statement that doesn’t actually resolve anything.

During these times, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not being responsive. There’s no need to feel paralyzed. The more transparent you are with your customers and other stakeholders, the sooner they know what’s going on, the better the business’s reputation will be.

Openness also engenders trust and enables stakeholder participation. In addition, if you conduct yourself openly and responsibly during an emergency, your clients will almost always reward you by continuing to do business with you in the future.

The worst thing you could do during a crisis is to not handle it at all.

Leadership During a Crisis

Keep your business viable during crisis by adapting leadership strategies to fit market conditions. The journey is an uphill battle filled with obstacles, but every challenge is met with a winning solution that keeps the organisation alive in the game.

There is always going to be uncertainty in the business world. It’s impossible for management to have a crystal ball and predict the future. That being said, as a business leader, you must create an environment and strategies that can adapt to these uncertainties and remain viable.

Disruptive events such as a product recall or service failure can wipe out customer confidence and devastate a company’s brand if they aren’t handled quickly and correctly.

When times turn south and crises occur, it’s imperative for leadership strategies to be in place in order for the entire organisation to manoeuvre a recovery successfully.

Adapting management tactics is a primary way to ensure continuity. “Always be flexible” is a master rule.

Panic leads to knee-jerk reactions. The more adaptability, the more ability to stand the test.  

Time-Consuming Hierarchy, Long Lead Times and Linear Process Hinder Leadership Effectiveness

Savvy business leaders keep a business afloat and leverage the power to pivot during difficult times.

This involves the utilisation of decision-making, delegation, encouragement, empowerment, motivation, feedback and involvement.

Leaders are expected to respond appropriately to a crisis. Knowing how and when to be decisive, make hard decisions and give direction to their teams can give them the dexterity to minimize the impact on business.

The larger the stake, the more intense the situation becomes. Crises can be financial, operational, product-related or even emotional – but the bottom line is that the stakeholders always hears about it.

Having a documented process helps you avoid being caught off guard by bad events that can cripple an organisation.

Preparation includes mapping out responsibilities: who takes the lead in responding. However, it is essentially about managing a range of expectations and situations that start simple but can get complicated quickly if you’re not prepared for it.

Leaders may also have to manage the expectations of other stakeholders including regulatory organisations, shareholders, analysts, investors, employees and media among others.

Traditional methods are not only time consuming and require much infrastructure, but also cannot give clear leadership direction during critical times.

In a realm full of increasingly complex, unpredictable and uncontrollable situations, leadership agility builds a more nimble, iterative, collective mode of operation. Bureaucratic processes fail to effectively respond to incidents in real-time.

How to Prepare for Future Crisis

A clear and well-thought-out emergency management plan is vital. It closes the gaps between being able to operate effectively, with minimum disruption and distress to staff and customers, or being caught unawares and unable to cope.

A plan of action makes good business sense.

If something happens which will have an adverse effect on your organisational reputation, then having an emergency plan is the lifeline.

No matter how good or detailed the plan is, it is of little or no good if not properly executed.

Emergency plans cover a whole range of situations from assessing the risks or dealing with an incident, knowing what to do when facing the unexpected hours after the crisis occurred and knowing what you might need in terms of resources.

The sooner an emergency plan is put together, the better. It should be comprehensive and address all foreseeable risks with strategies that reduce the effect of incidents on employees’ and customers’ lives.  

A disaster can strike, whether it be a natural or a human-caused event. There’s a reason crisis management teams are planned and prepared for the worst-case scenario. There’re many variables to consider, risks to weigh up, and actions to take.

There’s no such thing as being overly prepared.

While no situation is exactly the same, there are interventions that can be taken to avoid the dissemination of wrong information and maintain control over your company’s reputation.

Resilience and reliability are two closely related term that refers to the ability to remain operational.

If you can’t keep your employees, services, and products up and running, you have no business. 

Resilient Crisis Management 

There’s a lot of buzzwords around “resilience” at the moment.

At its core, resilience is about being able to expect and respond to problems, rather than waiting for them to happen and hoping they don’t cause you too much damage when they do.

A resilient system is one that can withstand the failure of its parts or a change in environment – it’s capable of recovering from a breach (by design).

What should you do to ensure that your organisation is as resilient as it can be during the age of disruption?

Resilience is about being equipped to ride out the unexpected. It’s about actively building a diversity of options to give your company options in tough times.

The optimism/possibility crisis outlook is the best way to strategise for crises – framing into your crisis management strategies to be forewarned and forearmed against negative events that lead to reputation damage or a crisis.

The future is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be engaged in.

This is the outlook that is founded upon collaborative engagement and leadership, in order to shape the potential and viability of a business.