Editor’s Note: This blog is a two part series. To read part one on the Minnesota PRSA blog, click here.
Dealing with victims remains among the least well-handled of all management activities. Here’s how your institution can appropriately respond when a victim-creating incident occurs.
There are three kinds of victims: people, animals and living systems. Living systems are things like estuaries, deserts, jungles, rain forests, river valleys or someone’s back yard.
The fact is, you can blow something up, burn something down or even negligently destroy it but as long as no one is injured or killed, no animals are injured or killed, and no one’s living system is harmed, the situation may be bad news, but it is not a crisis.
Instead, it could be a disaster or simply a bad day for someone’s schedule, budget, reputation or career.
No matter how damaging an event, only a small number of individuals will actually feel victimized. This is true even in mass casualty situations. While many may be injured, disadvantaged or require extraordinary assistance, very few blame others for their feelings of helplessness, demoralization, frustration or betrayal. Most injured or wounded just suck it up, deal with it and move on with their lives. Prompt, humane, positive, empathetic responses help victim emotional recovery along.
Still, there are some who are more affected by a crisis. Whether there are wounds, bullet holes or any other visible or invisible damage, human beings have the capacity to feel victimized. They can also feel victimized on behalf of others, like animals or other living systems.
Even when many are injured at the same time, each person suffers alone. Every person suffers differently, experiences pain and fear differently and needs to be treated as an individual. Too often, the victimization, the sense of frustration, the sense of helplessness and being misunderstood persists because leadership, society and even the media lump individual circumstances together too quickly. This is very frustrating to victims.
Victimhood ends when the victims, by themselves, let go of what is affecting them and get on with their lives.
Experience shows that many organizations actually make a crisis worse by engaging in a pattern of victim-creating behaviors, which end up causing most litigation. These behaviors are identifiable and preventable. Engage in any of the following and your organization could be considered by victims to be a perpetrator.
1. Silence: The most toxic strategy of all. If you fail to speak very promptly in these situations, once you do speak, rather than being questioned about your response, you’re constantly asked why you waited so long to talk. There is no logical, rational, believable explanation; especially if you created victims, why you waited to talk. Silence only encourages suspicion, anger and fear.
Fear, is absence of trust. Trust is the absence of fear.
Remember what is criticized and analyzed is the behavior of the perpetrator as knowledge of their actions becomes public. The longer the silence, the more deafening the questions.
2. Stalling: Management often decides, rather than talk, to search diligently for the best solution (seeking perfection) to implement at the earliest possible time. “We will say something when we know what’s going on.” The problem is because no one is talking, especially those in charge, it appears as though management is stalling, hiding or, at a minimum, being disingenuous. It makes people angry, permanently.
The search for the perfect solution becomes irrelevant because by the time you find it, if you ever do, your reputation has been destroyed and you are feared. You cannot stand before the cameras, and with a straight face, claim you were looking for the best solution and that’s what took so long. Get your resignation letter ready.
3. Deny there is a problem: Some organizations refuse to accept that something bad has happened or that there may be victims or others directly affected who require prompt public acknowledgement. There is denial that the crisis is serious, denial that the media or public have any real stake or interest in whatever the problem happens to be. “Let’s not over-react.” “Let’s keep it to ourselves.” “We don’t need to tell the people in public affairs and public relations just yet. They’ll just blab it all over.” “If we don’t speak, no one will know.” “Why do people need to know these things anyway?”
4. Count yourself or your institution among the victims: When leaders identify themselves as victims, they often appear to forgive themselves for their mistakes and issue time-wasting explanations such as, “We don’t deserve to be treated this badly.” “Mistakes can happen, even to the best of organizations.” “We are a good organization too.” “We’re only human.” “We have done so much for so many. Why doesn’t that count for something?”
5. Engage in “Testosterosis”: Leaders and their subordinates, sometimes encouraged by their friends, relatives and attorneys, look for ways to hit back, to “slap some sense” into victims or try to discredit them, rather than deal with problems and emotional circumstances. Victims request for assistance or information are refused. Those who may have differences of opinion or a legitimate issue are not respected. The perpetrator reacts with irritation to reporters, employees, angry neighbors, whistle-blowers and victims’ families when they call asking for help, information, an explanation or an apology.
During crises, there is often powerful negative energy inside the executive circle. That’s what testosterosis really is: It’s an attack of abusive adrenaline. This command and control mentality sets the stage for predictable errors, omissions and resistance to what is truly needed. The victims in these circumstances often view the organization as much a perpetrator as the individual or circumstance that caused the crisis in the first place.
6. Behave arrogantly: Reluctance to sincerely apologize, at least express concern or empathy or to take empathetic responsibility because, “If we do that, we’ll be liable.” “We’ll look like sissies.” “We’ll set bad precedents.” “There’ll be copycats.” “We’ll legitimize bad actions or people.” “We can’t give them what they don’t deserve.” Arrogance is contempt for adversaries, sometimes even for victims, and almost always for the news media. Arrogance is the opposite of empathy.
Empathy is taking actions that speak louder than words ever can. Empathy is one of the most powerful, extraordinary gifts leaders can give.
Empathy is free.
7. Be irrelevant and self-serving, whine: When the decision is made to finally make some accommodation and move toward settlement, the organization talks only about its own pain, expense and inconvenience. Or it talks about its previous good works, job creation or how much damage could be caused if the victims continue their behavior. This implies that the victims are responsible for their own situations from the beginning. This makes victims, employees, survivors and neighbors even more angry, and the media more aggressively negative, creating additional plaintiffs and accusations. Whining is never an effective tool or strategy.
If you’ve gotten this far in this document, it should be evident why managing the victim dimension is the highest priority, greatest threat and most crucial aspect of managing crises. This entire article is a management lesson that everyone can relate to because we are all, especially as adults, victims of something that we can actually remember.
To read more on managing victims, see “Managing the Victim Dimension of Large-Scale Disasters.”