Insights

Deer in the Headlights Often Jump in the Wrong Direction

Avoiding Self-Inflicted Wounds Under Pressure

A crisis can come suddenly, out of a clear blue sky, or gradually emerge at the end of a period of issues management.

Regardless of the nature or the cause, the way in which crises are handled will determine whether individuals and organizations emerge enhanced or damaged.

Under the pressure of events, many organizations’ instincts take them into directions which make the situation worse and inflict unnecessary damage. Finding themselves under fire and in unfamiliar territory, they frequently surrender to an instinct to hunker down and say as little as possible.

The problem with this apparently “safe“ alternative is that, as one of my colleagues was fond of saying, “the empty chair is always the guilty chair.”

Those who realise this and decide they have to say something often then say the wrong thing. They seek to put events “into perspective.” This seldom works. Stressing your outstanding safety record, for example, simply sounds like what it is: an attempt to minimise the importance of what has just happened.

Increased outrage usually follows and many of us can think of examples of companies in crises where saying either the wrong thing or nothing has made matters considerably worse for them.

Although there are many armchair critics, saying the right thing under great pressure is not as easy as it sounds. There are understandable and legitimate pressures from within an organization which point in the direction of minimal communication. The pressure from the legal department to avoid incriminating statements is an understandable example.

Nonetheless, there are proven techniques to enable the balancing of these conflicting pressures in ways which can minimize the damage being done to individuals and organizations’ reputations without increasing their liabilities.

But a time when a crisis is breaking all around your head is not the optimal situation for discussing the appropriate balance between these countervailing forces. Instead, organizations should ideally discuss, formulate and rehearse their approach to crises at a time when they’re under less pressure. It’s much easier to find appropriate balances and credible approaches when everyone’s adrenaline is at normal levels, and careers and reputations are not on the line.

Despite this, the old saying of “better late than never“ can also apply when in a crisis. In such circumstances, avoiding unnecessary damage can be difficult, but not impossible. Indeed, I have worked with several organizations in the past who were already in crisis when we arrived and we had to start from zero, but we nonetheless succeeded and effectively minimizing the damage caused by the situation.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Can I think of organizations where crises or issues did great damage to not only their reputation, but also their future ability to achieve their objectives?
  2. If so, when viewed from the outside, what did they seem to be doing wrong? How confident am I that my own organization would not make similar mistakes when under similar pressures?
  3. As part of their risk management obligations, most companies’ boards want to know how effective the plans are for dealing with issues or crises when they arise. How confident am I that my organisation’s current arrangements, culture and readiness are all appropriately rigorous and effective? Or will I be found wanting when something goes wrong?

Some steps you can take:
Look at your crisis management plans:

  1. When were they last updated? If it’s more than a few years ago, then they’ll be out of date. The world is changing faster than ever.
  2. When were they last rehearsed? A table-top walk through tests people’s understanding of the plans, but a full-scale simulation (typically lasting half a day) tests their ability to actually perform under pressure. If it’s been more than a year since a full-scale simulation, then it’s time for another one.
  3. Benchmarking has proved to be a powerful tool for improving performance. When was the last time you had your crisis plans benchmarked against best-in-class?

Please contact us for further help on ways of handling a crisis in ways that help you avoid self-inflicted wounds under pressure.

for a Private, No Obligation Discussion

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