Crisis Communication: The Fastest Way to Demonstrate Leadership

Note: A modified version of this article ran on Elite Daily

A Failure to Communicate

The message from my manager was clear: “No surprises.”

He was my new manager, in fact, and we were discussing my new role over coffee in the spring of 2007. I had recently been notified that I was getting promoted for the first time in my career (see earlier post on my angst leading up to this). Adam (not his real name) had great things to say about my work, but he cautioned that while I had a reputation for being articulate, I wasn’t yet an effective communicator. Specifically, I needed to improve at not just expressing my thoughts clearly, but making sure that I made sure my team had the information they needed to be effective. In particular, keeping Adam informed and abreast of important changes or potential issues was one of the ways my performance would be measured moving forward.

As it happened, I soon left that company for an opportunity with a startup. So the job of hammering Adam’s message into my thick skull fell to a customer of my next company.

I had been in my new role for about three months and was learning a lot but in over my head. I had never managed a commercial software release before, and I didn’t know anything about managing engineers. Somehow, I managed to only find out on the actual day of our planned release that we wouldn’t be able to go live (eat your heart out, Kathleen Sebelius). That afternoon I got to run through the gauntlet of explaining to each of the executives why we wouldn’t be pushing out the product that day. To call that experience “joyless” would be an overstatement. But the fun didn’t really start until I had to explain to our largest client why they would not be getting a new version of our software that day as expected. My main point of contact, a grizzled engineer who did not have a reputation for patience, was so furious he could hardly form complete sentences. I’m usually comfortable amidst conflict, but being berated for your screw-ups is still pretty draining. I waited until everyone else left the office that day to make sure that I wouldn’t have to share the elevator down.

The Two Types of Bad News

Managers like predictability and don’t like surprises. Surprises are anathema to being in control. Even a positive surprise is unsettling for a manager if they feel that they don’t know what to expect going forward. Adam’s admonition to eliminate the surprises is typical for managers, and they come by it honestly. Remember that your manager is accountable in two directions: upward for their team’s output, and downward to their direct reports who need coaching and feedback. Even a relatively junior manager has a lot of moving parts to keep track of, which makes knowing what to expect from people is important. For this reason, most good managers demand adherence to defined processes for reporting status and sharing critical information. They can’t manage what they don’t know about.

Every now and then we all have to break bad news to our superiors, our customers, our investors, or whatever audience to whom we ultimately answer. As it was, is now, and forever shall be, Adam’s advice to young employees holds true: the farther out you can spot potential trouble and let your manager know, the better chance there is that you can prevent it from becoming a larger issue. But we all know that things we can’t always do this. What do you do when the opportunity to nip a problem in the bud is long, long past? The great communicators separate themselves from the pack in situations like these, where the easy options are gone.

Backing up for a second, bad news you may have to alert others to comes in two basic flavors:

  • The Negative Outlook – You see signs point to something becoming a problem, but the storm hasn’t arrived yet. Depending on the situation, the problem might arrive in the near or distant future. But whether you’re worried about a big client not renewing next month, or a Mars Rover that doesn’t have all the instruments people want, you’ve still got some time to bring people in and decide how to respond.
  • The Sudden Shock – When an issue completely takes you and your team by surprise, it’s too late to start planning for the worst. Regardless of whether you should have seen it coming or could never have anticipated it is temporarily irrelevant. The problem is already here and you have to deal with it right now.

The more experience you have under your belt, the better able you’ll be to spot trouble a long way off and take corrective action early. But you can never totally eliminate sudden shocks; they are as much a part of business as they are every other aspect of life. You need to develop your skills at handling the unexpected gracefully. This is a hugely beneficial skill to learn early in your career, because crises are among the very best opportunities to demonstrate leadership at a young age. I call crises the “wormholes to leadership” because in a few short days or weeks, a relatively unknown person can greatly elevate their status in the organization practically overnight by managing a difficult situation successfully. Crises have a way of flattening hierarchies, because people look to anyone who can solve big problems. This is another reason why building specialized expertise early can really pay off, because you never know when you’re going to be called off the bench and thrust into the spotlight when the stakes are high.

Know When to Share versus Hold Information

Imagine that on Monday afternoon your doctor gets the bloodwork results from your recent checkup and sees possible early signs of cancer. Most people would want to know about the doctor’s assessment as soon as possible. They might even say the doctor has an ethical responsibility to share that information. But what if the doctor knows she’ll be getting a more detailed results the next day that can confirm or deny her concerns? Add in that caveat, and now it seems that maybe a doctor shouldn’t scare the hell out of her patients until she has the facts she needs - especially if it only means waiting another day or two. But does that preference change yet again if the results won’t be ready for two more weeks?

When you try to break bad news to people “responsibly”, you can quickly find yourself in gray areas like the above. What we want to know can change with the circumstances of a situation. Sudden shocks require you to balance the “no surprises” diktat with the importance of managing your audience’s emotions. Informing your manager at the first sign of potential trouble may not be the right thing to do if you don’t have a grip on the situation yourself. If there is one thing you can be sure of when you give someone bad news, it’s that you are about to be asked a LOT of questions. If you don’t have the information you need yet to satisfy the questions they’ll have, then you are just going to leave the audience hanging. Sometimes you don’t have any choice but to start messaging upwards. Other times, you need to exercise judgment.

With apologies to my old manager Adam, I’ll argue that you don’t always want to go to your boss at the first sign of trouble. Circumstances permitting, you, your manager, and your colleagues will all be better off if you gather information and do a little more thinking before you speak. And of course, you want to position yourself well. Sooner or later, we all think about how crises large and small affect our career standing. So you might as well recognize this upfront and make sure you’re not shooting yourself in the foot.

When to Hold onto Information

If the following conditions are met, it may be better to hold off explaining a new problem to your manager:

  • The situation does not require immediate intervention (i.e. no laws broken, no lives at risk, no bank accounts being drained, etc.)
  • You’re waiting on additional information that will make the scope of the issue clear
  • You control the flow of information, and your audience won’t learn about the issue from other sources
  • It’s possible that the situation can be fixed soon, allowing you to communicate both the problem and solution together
  • You suspect there may be related problems lurking that should be disclosed together

Obviously, if the ship is really taking on water and going down, you sound the alarm. But usually, that’s not the case though. Even the things we might think of as crises are usually pretty contained in the grand scheme of things. And remember, you’re probably doing someone a disservice by alerting them to a problem of indeterminate scope whose root cause and resolution are both unclear. As Dallas Lawrence of Burson-Marsteller (though he's now at Rubicon Project), one of the most recognized PR firms in the world, points out, “The only thing worse than saying nothing is saying the wrong thing. Yes, you must move quickly during a time of crisis, but that doesn't give you a reprieve from fact-checking anything you plan to tell the public.” In this case, you should think of the “public” as whomever your audience is.

As for responsibility, be transparent about what’s on you and own up to it. It’s the only way to operate with integrity. But also keep in mind that disingenuously taking the blame for things that clearly are out of your control is about as hollow as gestures get. One of my pet peeves is when people make a show of taking responsibility for a problem they couldn’t have possibly prevented or was completely outside their sphere of responsibility. People seem to do this when they know the consequences will be nonexistent. In my opinion, it never sounds as good as they think. Real leaders take responsibility by doing whatever they can to help fix the situation, not just talking.

Never Act Surprised

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve learned that two simple words can make a world of difference when navigating your way through a sudden shock. Those words are “As expected”, and they are your best friend when it comes to internal crisis communications.

Always seek to place the problem in broader context. People feel less anxious about a situation when they understand its cause and effect dynamic, and your job is to give that to them. Many problems can be traced back in some way to decisions that you and others in the business have made before, but crises have a way of giving people amnesia. They forget the tradeoffs and decisions they’ve made along the way, because all they can focus on is the problem of the moment. Make an effort to be the calmest, the most rational, and above all the most contextually astute participant in the conversation. Remind people of the decisions that they and you have made so that the issues can be recognized in the context of those decisions. You don’t want to place blame. Rather, your objective is to show how everything is a logical consequence of something else. “As expected, a portion of our customers are still adjusting to the changes we introduced into our pricing model last quarter,” sounds so much more professional than, “OMG the customers are freaking out!”

Presentation matters. So does poise. If you can be calm and collected in these situations and provide the leadership people crave, your stock in the organization will soar. People remember and value the colleagues who exude grace under fire in these situations, and that’s why you want to be smart about how you handle yourself in the face of sudden shocks.