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Looking for Signs of Trouble

14 Alarming Behaviors and Signals: All CEOs and senior managers should be trained to look for, detect, deter and prevent catastrophic organizational trouble; seven behaviors that assure operational and reputational failure; and, what it takes to be forgiven when you screw up.

By James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC; APR, Fellow PRSA; BEPS Emeritus

Career Lesson of a Lifetime to Me

shutterstock_588840347Probably the most important lesson I ever learned, years ago, about urgent and crisis situations was that whatever the nature of problem, it very likely had happened to someone else before it has or would happen to me.

This revelation caused me to begin immediately creating incident files on every kind of crisis or adversity that I thought my clients could experience. Over the years, I have systematically gathered information from the general media (now blogs and the web) and have amassed a huge cache of potential incidents that provide a “ready” file of reference the moment the telephone rings. These files grew to be more than a thousand in number and became organized by crisis venue:

  • Headquarters
  • Top management
  • Local
  • Regional
  • National
  • Global
  • Virtual

The incidents were further divided into crisis types.

  1. Operating (i.e. directly involving how the business works every day)
  2. Non-operating, highly emotional interruptions in the business (i.e. berserk employees, crimes, disgruntled employees, extortion, scandal, sexual harassment, web attacks, whistleblowers and more)
  3. Combinations of two or more
  4. Disasters
  5. Insidious unethical behaviors
  6. Virtual incidents

This lead to the creation of a crisis index to keep all this information organized. This organizational attention to the scenarios that crises create allow me to be a pretty accurate forecaster of what’s going to happen once I understand what the problem is that the organization is facing.

Back then, getting ready to respond to problems was more art than science, more intuitive and defensive. Just about anyone you talk to about these kinds of problems had their own ideas and approaches, mostly designed to defend and reduce the pressure on the perpetrator (from their own organization) and most importantly, to assume from the beginning that it was somebody else’s fault so we could wait to find the person, organization or perpetrator and not do much of anything ourselves.

The Forces of Yesterday Prevail Even Today

In the intervening years, crisis readiness and preparation has become a growth industry. My overall assessment, after all this time, is that we still have a lot to learn. The forces against being ready still prevail today.

Detection and Prevention are Possible

Much has been written and presented about useful ways to respond to an organizational crisis, yet the most crucial issue – crisis prevention, being effectively ready – remains all too rarely addressed.

Ahead of all that, there are predictable behaviors to look for that signal the arrival of a potential crisis. Understanding these signals can reveal workable, predictive approaches that help managers and leaders think more preventively and preemptively about unethical and other negative kinds of events that could entangle or threaten their leadership, organization and reputation.

What’s New in Readiness?

Having been in this work for so many years, I’m often asked about the new things I’m noticing, the trends, and issues in managing these urgent crisis type situations. How I answer that is really rather stark, since it is a single word: None. Unless there has been an eleventh commandment promulgated, which I missed, most organizations are busting the original Ten Commandments, so to speak, regularly with very little effective learning and experience building in between. Having said that, there are even more important revelations available. Having spent a considerable amount of time walking back through the causes, reasons and triggers for crisis situations, there too are patterns of behaviors, beliefs and decisions that, if recognized, can help detect, deter and prevent small, medium and catastrophic situations from occurring.

People Remain the Root Cause of Crisis

For leaders, when thinking about the patterns of these serious problems, it is instructive to note that it remains human behavior and decision making that are generally responsible. Much of that behavior is intentionally incorrect and the vast majority of organizations suffering serious problems where victims are created, the majority of the blame lies with these host organizations.


Most Crises Begin at Home

95% of all crises that fit the definition (people-stopping, show-stopping, product-stopping, reputationally redefining events that create victims and/or explosive visibility) are caused by the daily operations of the organization involved. This is important to realize because, while management always seems overconfident about responding to crisis, the fact is there is a lot of knowledge within the organization that can handle these situations fairly quickly with really minimal readiness activity.

5% of crises that affect organizations come from the other five categories of crises, most notably the non-operating category – a collection of highly emotional, embarrassing, even humiliating circumstances often caused to some degree by the organization themselves. The victims created are highly emotional and the threat to reputation is extraordinarily high and the organizations, by and large, are extremely unprepared and scared.

Staff expertise needs to be applied to this 5% category because of the extraordinary threat to reputation these highly visible and embarrassing events cause.


But, There are Signals

Here too, we can recognize that there are signals we can detect pretty quickly to help mitigate or preempt these negative circumstances from occurring and all too often, those activities are not undertaken. I refer to these predicate behaviors as alarming because they are. So much so, that if even one of these 14 alarming behaviors is detected, immediate action should be taken to determine just how much of a threat exists. But like most situations in management and leadership these days, it has to leak, foam, stink, burn or flame to get the organization to focus, absent an explosion or another catastrophic event that is undeniable. While we can see the fire engines working, so to speak, the perpetrator often still denies knowledge or culpability.



Alarming Behaviors

My source for these 14 alarming behaviors is none other than the federal sentencing guidelines established in 1991. If you are familiar at all with criminal behavior or criminal litigation, these 14 predicate behaviors may be well known to you.

There are 14 Insidious Unethical Behavior (IUBs) that lie at the heart of most emergency situations. That’s because most crises do produce dilemmas and other ethical challenges that must be met promptly, directly and often urgently.

IUBs, if undetected, undeterred, unexposed, ignored and unaddressed become the predicted behaviors and belief of full-blown unethical circumstances and even crime.

IUBs produce three predictable categories of events:

  1. Predicate events and decisions that provide ample warning of trouble ahead
  2. Predictable management and leadership errors and bad decisions that enable, even authorize trouble
  3. Patterns of questions and issues dictated by the scenarios itself


Insidious Unethical Behaviors (IUBs)

Besides the more obvious mistakes that lead to unethical behaviors, there are other, less apparent, more insidious kinds of unethical behaviors that can lead to problems. Sometimes these less obvious behaviors are the precursors to illegal behavior. When you can identify these behaviors in your vicinity, there is trouble ahead. Act promptly to correct these situations.

  1. Lax control: A manager’s careless enforcement, education about, and monitoring of ethical standards.
  2. Lack of tough, appropriate centralized compliance within each area of the company. No one charged with responsibility of teaching, enforcing, and disciplining in cases where ethical breaches occur.
  3. Leadership that allows supervisors to overlook bad behavior.
  4. Leadership that allows employees to experiment with methods and tactics outside established guidelines.
  5. Emphasis on “doing whatever it takes” to achieve appropriate business and financial goals.
  6. Managers and supervisors who minimize the importance of oversight and compliance processes.
  7. Structuring incentives in such a way that they can compromise the ethical behavior of people, the quality of the products and services we deliver, and allow shortcuts to be taken for a variety of obviously questionable reasons.
  8. Avoiding confrontation with managers who chronically misbehave or chronically overlook misbehavior.
  9. The tendency to operate “on the edge,” always pushing for more than is appropriate.
  10. Management that ignores the signs of and doesn’t question rogue behavior.
  11. Management tolerating the inappropriate behavior or management by individuals who are “critical to the organization’s mission.” These are the folks who are the super sales people, the high achievers who are allowed to break the rules to maintain the altitude of their performance.
  12. Belittling or humiliating those who suggest or seek ethical standards.
  13. Dismissing or destroying the careers of employees who report bad or outright wrong behavior.
  14. Demeaning the internal or external credibility of those who blow the whistle, those who report or bring management’s attention to lapses in ethics.


Look for the Patterns of Organizational Response

There are similar behaviors, patterns of leadership, perpetrators, the complacent, the silent, the knowledgeable but blind-eyed bystanders. Leaders in crisis need to be able to count on the fact that their organization can build these patterns into their prevention, preparation, readiness and response efforts. There is a pattern of response that, once management gets around to it, often follows, because it found out that it has to. The goal of readiness is to get to these concrete steps of resolution at the earliest possible time. These steps include:

  • Prevention
  • Deterrence
  • Recognition
  • Detection
  • Exposure
  • Counteraction
  • Reeducation
  • Unlearning the IUBs
  • Reaffirmation of integrity

Early on, management and leadership preparation resolve into five crucial behaviors:

  1. Deterring trouble from starting
  2. Preempting misbehaviors from occurring
  3. Raising awareness and response capability of the organization to report even a hint of appearance of IUBs
  4. The willingness and readiness to move promptly, directly and decisively
  5. Doing nothing until something really bad happens and forgiveness is required


Seeking Forgiveness: Nine Steps to Rebuilding and Rehabilitating Trust

Seeking forgiveness is society’s requirement for relationship, trust and credibility restoration. Adverse situations using this template are remediated faster, cost a lot less, are controversial for much shorter periods of time, suffer less litigation and help the victims come to closure more quickly. Obtaining forgiveness involves completing the nine steps below. To achieve success in the shortest possible time, these steps should be completed as quickly as possible: like start them all today. Skip a step or be insincere and the process will be incomplete and fundamentally fail.

Step #1. Candor: Outward recognition, through promptly verbalized public acknowledgement, that a problem exists; that people or groups of people, the environment, or the public trust are affected; and that something will be promptly done to remediate the situation.

Step #2. Extreme Empathy/Apology: Verbalized or written statement of personal regret, remorse and sorrow, acknowledging personal responsibility for having injured, insulted, failed or wronged another, humbly asking for forgiveness in exchange for more appropriate future behavior and to make amends in return.

Step #3. Explanation (no matter how silly, stupid, or embarrassing the problem-causing error was): Promptly and briefly explain why the problem occurred and the known underlying reasons or behaviors that led to the situation (even if you have only partial early information).

Step #4. Affirmation: Talk about what you’ve learned from the situation and how it will influence your future behavior. Unconditionally commit to regularly report additional information until it is all out or until no public interest remains.

Step #5. Declaration: A public commitment and discussion of specific, positive steps to be taken to conclusively address the issues and resolve the situation.

Step #6. Contrition: The continuing verbalization of regret, empathy, sympathy, even embarrassment. Take appropriate responsibility for having allowed the situation to occur in the first place, whether by omission, commission, accident, or negligence.

Step #7. Consultation: Promptly ask for help and counsel from victims, government, the community of origin, independent observers and even from your opponents.

Directly involve and request the participation of those most directly affected to help develop more permanent solutions, more acceptable behaviors and to design principles and approaches that will preclude similar problems from reoccurring.

Step #8. Commitment: Publicly set your goals at zero. Zero errors, zero defects, zero dumb decisions and zero problems. Publicly promise that, to the best of your ability, situations like this will be permanently prevented.

Step #9. Restitution: Find a way to quickly pay the price. Make or require restitution. Go beyond community and victim expectations, and what would be required under normal circumstances to remediate the problem.

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