To survive a crisis, organisational leaders must do two things.
First, they must address the problem. If a building is on fire, they need to put out the flames.
Second, they must maintain the confidence of several key groups: staff, citizens, opinion-formers and others as they handle the crisis.
This means that, as they put out the fire, they must do so in ways that maintain confidence. Lose confidence and you lose everything.
Since we know that crises will happen, astute leaders prepare and plan. Crucially, they understand why people have confidence in them in the first place. When they know expectations, they can ensure that they are able to behave in ways that maintain – or even build – confidence in a crisis.
The best way to understand why people have confidence in us is to ask them. I’ve looked at this question with leaders in several organisations. Following one crisis, we asked staff and managers “What would make them believe in the leadership going forward?” The answers were revealing. It was often little things: responding to questions, promptly and honestly; doing what you said you were going to do; doing the easy stuff well.
One staff member said: “When they can fix or move the broken photocopier that’s been there for 18 months, then I’ll believe the leadership can manage change.”
Confidence is often not about blistering competence. All too often we use proxies to determine whether we are confident in something. I spent an afternoon with a group of service managers looking at how to build their customers’ confidence. I asked them, “What would make you confident about a restaurant?”
Their list was impressive: weighty cutlery; ambient restrooms; friendly staff; whether it was busy; a lack of sticky carpets; starchy tablecloths. Oddly, nobody mentioned food.
Identifying why people are confident in your leaders and your organisation will enable you prioritise the actions that will help to maintain it in a crisis. It’s why heartfelt apologies can help shore up confidence: people expect it and are disappointed when one is not made.
But there’s a second challenge in a crisis. It’s that wherever there’s a crisis, there’s an opportunity for someone. Crises are milked by those keen to advance their own aims.
These people can be harder to spot often because they’re sitting at the leadership table today.
Mark Fletcher-Brown is a Communications consultant and public sector comms expert