If your leadership or management is asking you to make recommendations regarding something they are doing that you know is irregular, immoral, monumentally stupid, perhaps dangerous, and even a touch illegal, this is a signal for you to leave. Now.
Too many of our colleagues, perhaps you, have stuck around working for people they like but behave badly, hoping that you can have enough impact on them to move them to a more reasonable course. Almost never happens. In my experience, it never happens. Bad leaders and managers stay bad.
If you are one of those hanging around waiting to be effective again, just look around. Be honest with yourself. Actually look for the last time you made significant changes in their direction or their intentions. What likely comes to mind are lots of promises, stumbling starts, but never specific, concrete, permanent change. It’s just not there. It never will be. Head for the door.
Once you recognize that you’re involved, you have become complicit in everything they are doing. Your loyalty needs to stop. Leave that day. It will be one of the best decisions you ever make in your life, for those you care about and, those who care about you.
The Leader’s and the Spokesperson’s Greatest Vulnerabilities
The activist, the agitator and reporter often intentionally use verbal agitation tools to provoke or inflict consternation, fear, doubt, terror, errors, confusion, and uncertainty. Learn to accommodate, absorb, ignore, or deflect to avoid that crashing and burning feeling. Respond with positive declarative words. These are only words until you succumb. If you take them personally you will crash or be crushed.
Gleaned from hundreds of crashed and burned interviews or confrontations by leaders and spokespersons who failed to prepare for these totally predictable tactics. Be prepared to instantly bridge away from these provocations with simple, sensible, appropriate, empathetic responses, usually beginning with, “Here’s how I would describe that…,” or, ”My view is different . . . ,” or, “A more accurate, helpful view is . . . ,”
Reporters learn that the toughest truths may only come through upsetting, irritating, and provocative questioning techniques. I have never understood how using a technique that is upsetting, insulting, and usually only partially truthful helps get to the truth. The resulting confusion or anger allows the antagonist to use these spontaneous outburst responses as validation of whatever insinuations or conclusions are created, supposed, or proposed.
Be ready. Tough questions and questioning comes with the leadership territory these days.
The Key to Crisis Management is Pattern Recognition.
Managing emergencies, crises, and disasters successfully means recognizing patterns of success and avoiding patterns of failure, and defeat. Understanding these patterns enables us to coach and prepare management’s actions, emotions, and expectations before and during emergency situations. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Neither the media, your toughest opponents, smartest critics, nor the government knows enough to defeat you. Defeat is almost always the work of uninformed or overconfident, overly optimistic bosses, co-workers, and associates; well-meaning but uninformed friends, relatives, or from dysfunction in an organization.
All crises are local, at the beginning. Keeping the issues and focus tight and small will help you solve your problems and move forward. Your “industry,” outsiders, or the media cannot solve your problems (they don’t care), nor can you solve theirs. You must solve your own. It’s your destiny. Manage it or someone else will.
Disasters and problems rarely kill products, brands, or companies unless you let them. It is your silence, negative communication, and attitude that cause tough questions, bad stories, and real damage. Silence is the most toxic strategy of all.
Colorful and memorable language creates headlines that last forever, are impossible to live down, and are among the most frequent causes of top executive dismissal during a crisis. Bad news always ripens badly, especially for those at the helm.
Twenty-five percent of your resources and fifty percent of your energy during emergencies go toward fixing yesterday’s mistakes. Crises are messy, sloppy, imprecise situations. Everything gets worse before most anything gets better.
Positive, aggressive, assertive communication limits follow-up questions, focuses on the most important aspects of the problem, and moves the entire process forward to resolution despite a negative environment, antagonistic news media or contentious social media, angry victims and survivors. Positive, constructive, compassionate actions always speak louder than words.
There is no question you can be asked about your situation that will surprise you. You may get irritated, agitated, or humiliated because a really tough or touchy subject is raised, but you aren’t surprised. Promptly answering every question is your ongoing opportunity to get your messages out, and calm things down.
Preparation, rehearsal, and a certain amount of luck will keep you going and help you win.
Luck is limited.
The general public does not care about your problems until you make them care. Fifty percent have no reason to care: Twenty-five percent probably have troubles worse than yours, from their perspective, anyway; and If you get the attention of those remaining, they will probably be glad you have the trouble you have.
Leadership that shows compassion, community sensitivity, humility, civility, and ethical response strategies moves companies to victory and out of harm’s way. Timidity, hesitation, confusion, and arrogance bring defeat and long-term trust damage. Keep the positive pressure on to win.
Destructive management communication behavior and language often lead to similar troubling behavior at many levels within an organization. Leadership has three principal responsibilities in crisis: Stopping the production of victims, managing the victim dimension, and setting the moral tone for the response.
All questionable, uncivil, indecent, inappropriate, unethical, unconscionable, immoral, predatory, improper, victim-producing, and criminal behaviors are intentional. Adults always knowingly decide to do these things.
All ethical, moral, civil, decent, compassionate, and lawful behaviors are also intentional. The choice is always clearly yours.
Workplaces with integrity, civility, respect, and decency are safer and more ethical.
Those who lead with integrity, civility, respect, and decency are likely more ethical and trustworthy.
Unconscionable intentions, behaviors, actions, and decisions, those that vilify, damage, demean, dismiss, diminish, humiliate, cause needless intentional pain, express anger and irritation, demand, or bully, are mean, negative, insulting, disrespectful, disparaging, tone deaf, without empathy, intentionally injure, accuse, overbear, punish, harmfully restrict, exceed decency’s, civility’s and integrity’s boundaries are all unethical.
Evil is human behavior and actions that intentionally harm the innocent, people, animals, and living systems.
Apology is the atomic energy of empathy. Apologies can stop bad things from starting and start stopping bad things.
Empathy is positive, constructive, decent, and civil deeds that demonstrate integrity and speak for themselves louder than words ever can.
Only truth can earn forgiveness. Liars may seem forgiven but they always know they don’t deserve it.
Dump, distance yourself, and don’t look back from those who behave unethically, without empathy, unconscionably, uncivilly, indecently, and with evil intentions. They will always be this way. Life will be happier immediately.
Behavior Patterns That Precipitate and Perpetuate Trouble
Sometimes the way to prevent organizations from embarrassment, humiliating visibility, enormous litigation, and just plain stupidity is to powerfully illustrate the behaviors and attitudes that lead to catastrophic reputational damage. I call this pattern “Profiles in Failure,” easily recognized behaviors and their predictable impact. If you seek trouble, here’s the path to multitask your way into long-term difficulty.
The most toxic strategy. Makes you look like a perpetrator, whether true or not. There is no credible way to explain silence in the face of crisis. Silence is the most frequent leadership career-killer in crisis situations. It’s why the boss gets fired first.
Speed beats smart every time. Failure to act immediately, even incorrectly, is impossible to explain or apologize for. Doing nothing, even for what appear to be good reasons, is never explainable. #1 response criticism: failure to speak and act promptly.
Refuse to accept the fact that something bad has happened and that there may be victims or other direct effects that require prompt public acknowledgement.
Irritable reaction to reporters, angry neighbors, and victims’ families when they call asking for help, information, explanation, or apology. “Hey! We’re victims too.”
Look for ways to hit back, rather than to deal with the problem. Refuse to give in, refuse to respect those who may have a difference of opinion or a legitimate issue.
Reluctance to apologize, express concern or empathy, or to take appropriate responsibility because, “If we do that, we’ll be liable,” or, “We’ll look like sissies,” or, “We’ll set a precedent,” or, “There will be copycats.”
Search for the Guilty:
Shift blame anywhere you can while digging into the organization, looking for traitors, turncoats, troublemakers, those who push back, and the unconvinceables.
Fear of the Media:
As it becomes more clear that the problem is at least partly real, the media begin asking, “What did you know, and when did you know it?”, “What have you done, and when did you do it?”, and other humiliating, embarrassing, and damaging questions for which there are no really good, truthful answers anymore because you have stalled so long.
Head down, finger in your navel, shuffling around, whining, and complaining about how bad your luck is, about being a victim of the media, zealous do-gooders, wacko-activists, or people don’t know anything; about how people you don’t respect have power; and, that you “don’t get credit” for whatever good you’ve already contributed.
Execute one, some or all of these behaviors in any order and I guarantee trouble, serious reputation problems, and brand damage. By the time you recover – if you do – look for some career-defining moments including involuntary departure, and a new team may replace you and yours.
This fatal mistake is intentionally made in most crises. Management thinks it can beat the odds.
This is a behavior that lives forever. Once you fail to speak, your reputation will be forever tainted by the question, “Why did you wait so long to talk? To act?”
There is no rational, believable, sensible, or plausible explanation for silence. It is leadership run amuck in reputational quicksand. Yet the perpetrator is only 240 characters away from avoiding this permanent, toxic reputation stain.
A sensible, successful response strategy leads with speaking immediately. You can use my grand strategy below for responding even as the fire trucks, victims and media assemble.
Grand Crisis Response Strategic Steps (The First Two Hours In Every Crisis):
1. Stop the production of victims. Continuous victim production is what drives media coverage, public interest, emotionalization, plus commentary and criticism from 1000 different sources.
2. Manage the victim dimension. This is what leaders and senior managers should be doing rather than stalling and second-guessing the command center.
3. Communicate directly and frequently with employees, stakeholders, and those directly affected. Calm and settle people down. Help insiders and victims know what is going on.
4. Notify those indirectly affected, those who have a problem now because you have a problem; regulators, licensing authorities, neighbors, partners, collaborators, key stakeholders, those who need to know and hear from you promptly.
5. Manage the self-appointed and the self-anointed; the new media and the legacy media, those who simply opt in, the critics, the bellyachers, the backbench bickerers, the bloviators. Management and leadership need to help all bystanders focus on resolution and caring for victims. Far too many response plans have only legacy media public relations driven tactics. Crisis communication is driven by a simple, sensible, constructive, positive, and clearly open and achievable strategy.
The Crisis Guru’s Truisms of Crises Response
Bad news always ripens badly, it gets worse before it gets better.
Every moment of indecision creates unseen but avoidable collateral damage.
There is no such thing as 20-20 hindsight because there is no such thing as 20-20 foresight.
Silence is the most toxic strategy and the greatest permanent response mistake.
Critics and victims accumulate.
There will always be bellyachers, bloviators, gripers, second guessers, and backbench complainers.
Once a critic, enemy, or victim, always a critic, enemy, or victim.
Speed beats smart every time. Act now, fix now, change now, stop now, decide now. Perfect fixing mistakes quickly. There will be many. That’s what crisis is.
Lead by wishful thinking and cohort led guesswork, the Boss gets big bonus on exiting.
The true test of civility is a commitment to verbal, written communication, deeds, and actions that benefit a recipient more than the sender. Here are 39 possible paths that can get you to civility, decency, integrity, and trust. Always pick as many as you can, as frequently as you can.
Over the years, I’ve developed, taught, coached, and advocated a very powerful and helpful communication philosophy. At the same time, this approach defines my ethical approach to life, to work and to trouble. I call these “intentions” because this is how I seek to operate my life, intentionally, every day, teach others to do the same. These intentions build trust, respect, and confidence.
1. Candor – Truth with an attitude, delivered now (the foundation blocks of trust).
Disclose, announce early.
Explain reasoning and reasons.
Discuss options, alternatives considered.
Provide unsolicited helpful information.
2. Openness, accessibility – Be available for the disasters as well as the ribbon cuttings.
Be willing to respond.
Get out front fast.
3. Truthfulness – Truth is 15% facts and data, 85% emotion and point-of-reference.
Point of reference matters more than facts.
Factual overload victimizes people and makes them feel stupid, angrier.
Too many facts irritate and revictimize.
Unconditional honesty, from the start.
Get good at reducing emotionally negative situations, subjects, and people behaviors.
Emotions always outweigh facts.
4. Empathy – Actions that illustrate concern, sensitivity, and compassion.
Actions always speak louder than words.
Act as though it was happening to you or someone you care about.
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes in any way is literally impossible, from the victim’s perspective. Avoid it.
5. Responsiveness – Answering questions relentlessly in every situation validates your integrity and preserves your reputation.
Every concern or question, regardless of the source, is legitimate and must be addressed.
Answer every question; avoid judging the questioner.
Answer questions as many times as they are asked.
Avoid taking any question personally.
Remain calm, wage peace, build followers and be nice, even in the face of anger or aggressive negativity. You anger and arrogance create plaintiffs.
Answer questions patiently and repetitively until questions stop being asked.
6. Transparency – End the secrets (because important things and stupid stuff always come out).
Our behavior, our attitude, our plans, even our strategic discussions are unchallengeable, positive, and explainable.
Our families would be comfortable reading about our actions, decisions, and discussions on the web or the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper.
7. Engagement – Face-to-face is the communications approach desired by just about everyone and every victim.
Take aggressive positive interaction with those who challenge us.
Our base and those who give us permission to operate expect us to deal with unconvinceables and victims.
Prompt direct interactive response, even negotiation, empowers the initiator.
8. Small Decencies
Small, voluntary, freely offered acts of courage, kindness, helpfulness.
Given, provided, or done without expectation of reward or acknowledgement.
A life pattern of simple, spontaneous, utterly decent actions.
9. Destiny Management – It’s your destiny, which only you can manage in your own best interest.
Manage your own destiny, or you’ll find someone waiting on the sidelines to do it for you.
Relentlessly correct and clarify the record.
Prompt, positive, constructive elaboration of the facts preempts critics and empowers employees, supporters and those who give us permission to operate.
10. Apology – The atomic energy of empathy. Apologies stop bad things, and bad things from starting.
Acknowledge personal responsibility for having injured, insulted, failed, or wronged another.
Explain what happened and the known reasons for the circumstance.
Talk about what you and your organization have learned that will help prevent a recurrence.
Humbly ask for forgiveness in exchange for more appropriate future behavior and to make amends.
You can call this anything you like: communications policy, guidelines, or manifesto. I like the word intentions because it signifies that we are fully engaged in communicating in the most effective, honest, empathetic, and open manner possible, all the time.
By publicly professing these intentions you will set a standard to which you can be held accountable. This behavior can lead to an extraordinarily interesting, useful, and trustworthy life, and besides, you sleep better at night.
Let’s talk about it. I’m always interested in helping colleagues develop their own personal principles. Reach out to me at 203-948-7029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
** “To the extent that any single [leadership] quality determines success, that quality is adaptive capacity.” - Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas, “Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders”, 2008, Harvard Business School Press, page 91