Hurt, Hindrance, and Unhelpful "Help": How Lack of Candor Deepens Organizational Crises

August 16, 2016

Hurt, Hindrance, and Unhelpful "Help": How Lack of Candor Deepens Organizational Crises

Lack of candor characterizes what leaders struggle with most. We define candor in a way that captures its Latin origins and reflects its cognate, candle. The essence of candor is to shine or glow and produce light and heat. Leaders need to illuminate conditions in a crisis with meaningful information, and they need to foment action. They need to shed light on what to do and turn up the heat to get things done.

We spoke with dozens of leaders seasoned by organizational crises to research our book, Navigating an Organizational Crisis: When Leadership Matters Most. We were curious to learn what good leaders do when the chips are down: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 stock market crash, for example, or less public events such as scandals, bankruptcies, or employee accidents.

We gleaned three leadership behaviors that relate to candor, and a number of missteps that dim the light and extinguish the heat. The message: Don’t do these things, unless you want to make matters worse:

Don’t’ Ignore Your Hurt

When organizations are injured, leaders are hurt too. As the person in charge, the last thing you want to do is tough it out, or duck and cover. Be candid—you’re in this thing too!
 

  • Don't hide out in your office. Waiting for the storm to blow over while you get a grip on your emotions isn’t leadership. You’ll be left behind as your organization moves on.
  • Don't pretend everything’s all right. Saying, “Let’s just get back to work” after a traumatic experience ignores the elephant in the room. A crisis is business as unusual, and pretending otherwise doesn’t change anything.
  • Don't blame. Going on and on about an adversary or bad luck is ranting, not leading. Finger pointing doesn’t identify solutions.
  • Don't play the victim. If you lose your shirt in a financial disaster, keep it to yourself. Openness without empathy is not candor, it’s malfeasance.
  • Don't outsource your job to human resources. If HR takes care of communications and “the people side” for you, what’s left for you to do?
     

Don’t Be a Hindrance to Truth

When crises occur, leaders need to determine what really happened, and why. Undermining that effort by quarantining facts or “protecting” the organization locks up the truth.

 

  • Don't give a pep talk. When people are suffering, offering panaceas makes no one feel better, and no one wants to listen.
  • Don't become an explainer. Rationalizations—“we’ve been through worse… this is just how it is… this time is no different than last time…” —do little to lift the veil on what occurred and how the business (and employees) will move forward.
  • Don't lie (not even with the best intentions). Avoid forecasts that are wish and whim. We heard the CEO in a takeover say to the managers of the acquired firm, “This is a merger of equals.” Why say something no one believes?
  • Don’t take full responsibility for everything. Things happen out of your control. When you say the buck stops with you, and the case is closed, you impede organizational learning.
  • Don't come up with a quick fix. Disasters have long tails. Their effects are lasting. Memories are vivid and permanent. If you rush the process of recovery, you may be back where you started—in a crisis.

 

Don't Offer "Help" That Is Actually Unhelpful 

When leaders cannot be there for people as human beings, they can’t offer much in the way of caring and compassion. Sometimes leadership is an exercise in healing—no more and no less.

 

  • Don’t hide your feelings. When you display feelings that match the moment—sadness in the wake of tragedy, anger in the face of injustice—you establish bonds. Ignore the voice of your inner John Wayne: “Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much.”
  • Don't talk when you should listen. When people are shaken up and disoriented, they have to sort it out. You can't tell them how to feel and react. You can only be there for them by being there with them.
  • Don't forget that you are a human being. Be you, be real, and be authentic. There is no other way.
     

Now if you want to lead through a crisis, let candor be your go-to behavior:

1. Tell the truth and tell it fast.  When something bad happens to a good organization, all eyes are on you. No matter how trusted you are, this mess just happened on your watch. The organization wants to see you, to see you act, and to follow your lead. No need to have all the answers, or to make promises or apologies—show up and tell the truth. Never shade the truth, withhold bad news, or hide behind legalistic techno-speak.

As more is learned and new facts show up, go at it again. Report the latest and fullest description of reality as soon as you can.

Tell the truth with courage and candor. Sounds simple, but it’s likely the single most frequently violated crisis leadership rule.

2. Take care of you, so you can be there for others. A crisis is a great time to be selfish—not narcissistic or self-serving, but the kind of selfish that helps you maintain your balance, enables you to think clearly, and keeps you in the game.

Get help if you need it. Remember your strengths—why you’re the leader, how you’ve handled emergencies in the past, and whom you can count on. And be candid about your process of healing and recovery. When you let others in on the fact that you recognize the human side of the crisis, you help everyone.

3. Create meaning through story. Emergencies require urgent communications. Leave the building immediately! Solve the problem right now! Call for help!

And then there is an afterward. When your ship has righted itself after a storm, you need to take stock, find answers, and establish a way forward. Put aside the slide shows, ignore the talking points—and communicate! Talk candidly about what happened, according to you, by staying in the story you tell.

Leaders told us story after story about their storytelling in a crisis. Sometimes what they said wasn’t what people wanted to hear. Rarely did they guarantee absolute safety or unconditional survival. Sometimes they requested patience or sought engagement. Always, it seemed, their acts of storytelling served a deeper purpose, to satisfy a longing for the light that comes from truth and meaning and the heat that gets generated by movement toward recovery. In a word: candor.

The Authors: 

Harry Hutson is a trusted advisor to leaders on every level of the pyramid. His strength is framing complex issues in a clear way and speaking truth to power in a way that can be heard. Hutson's current and former clients range from large to startup—public, private and nonprofit. For 25 years he served in senior human resources and leadership and organizational development roles in four multinational companies, and as an independent consultant. Hutson is an instructor in the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. His lastest book is Navigating an Organizational Crisis (2016). Learn more at www.harryhutson.com

 

Martha Johnson is a leadership expert who draws on the lessons learned as an executive with a more than 30-year career in business and government. In 2015, she launched her executive coaching practice where her work with individual clients occurs in formal coaching sessions in which the discussion is lively and uncovers new information, perspective, and energy for clients' next chapters. Learn more at www.marthajohnson.com.