EMERGENCY ALERT: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
This emergency alert understandably drove widespread panic and confusion throughout the state of Hawaii when it was wrongly transmitted last month. The alert stood uncorrected for 38 minutes, which likely felt like an eternity for those who were expecting disaster to strike at any moment. As each minute passed, I can imagine the panic spreading as people frantically called friends and loved ones. I can also envision the frustration at all levels of leadership as they tried to understand what was really happening so they could regain control of the situation.
Obviously, very few leaders will have to deal with an event of this magnitude. However, on a much lesser scale, problems and friction can arise within an organization when employees get wind of activity that might negatively affect them, be it rumors of impending layoffs, reorganization or acquisition activity that might threaten their position within the company, or a myriad of other events that may spread doubt and discontent among the ranks. As in the Hawaii incident, the longer it takes leadership to address a significant issue, be it correcting significant misinformation or providing ground truth on items of concern, the greater chance the rumors will spread and negatively impact performance within the organization. How leaders address the issue is just as important…there are some basic principles I’ve found useful when faced with these situations.
Be proactive. Once aware, address the situation as quickly as possible. As Zoey Day said in a New York Times article, “in the absence of information, employees will make their own information.” If employees perceive the boss as unwilling to address the situation, it tends to confirm their fears and suspicions…and bad news never gets better with age.
Be visible. Whenever possible, bring the organization together and personally address the issue with frank, open communication. With large organizations, this may require several sessions that enable attendance by the majority of the organization. It’s also important to compress the time between events as much as possible, knowing that people from the first sessions would tell others what they heard. Remember the game where a statement is whispered around a circle from one person to the next? By the time it makes it back to the originator the message is often distorted…it’s the leader’s responsibility to provide a clear, consistent message.
Be honest. If in fact there are issues that will negatively impact people in the organization, providing the cold hard facts is much better than dancing around the issue in an attempt to “ease the pain”. Significant events such as layoffs, reorganizations or pay-cuts will definitely impact people’s lives—they deserve the opportunity to know the truth as early as possible so they can plan accordingly.
Be succinct. When bad news needs to be passed, don’t unnecessarily prolong the agony. Since good leaders care for their people, there is a natural tendency to want to console them once the news has been passed. True concern is often appreciated…however people will likely not be listening closely to your consolation as they try to process the information you just gave them. Give them time to absorb the data, with a sincere offer to come back and talk further once they’ve had a chance to process the information.
As reported in the Washington Post, part of what worsened the event in Hawaii is there was no system in place at the State Emergency Agency for correcting the error. There’s no reason to let that be the case in your organization.
Maj Gen (ret) Jim “Rev” Jones retired in 2014 after leading organizations at all levels in the Air Force. He is now a partner and senior consultant in Two Blue Aces, a firm with a focus on strategy, leadership and business solutions at the executive level. Visit twoblueaces.com to learn more about how Two Blue Aces can help your company meet its goals and objectives.
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