Every organization is at risk for a crisis, which I define as, “a people-stopping, product-stopping, show-stopping, reputation-redefining, trust-busting situation that creates victims and/or explosive visibility.” More unethical decisions are made during a crisis than almost any other scenario in management.
Although few crises reach “explosive visibility” levels, all produce victims: people, animals or living systems, forests, rivers or someone’s backyard. Mishandling victims presents an enormous threat to senior executive reputation and survival.
Some crises, like natural disasters, can only be forecast. The choice of how any crisis is managed—preempting, predicting, preparing, responding to, warning and managing victims—is determined by the surviving leadership. Empathy and apology are two of the most crucial response ingredients. The quality of the response determines the level of reputation damage or enhancement. A flawless technical response is possible, but fumble, stumble and bungle empathy and apology and that’s how your response will be remembered.
After more than 40 years in the trenches, I’ve learned that all questionable, inappropriate, unethical, immoral, predatory, improper, victim-producing and criminal behaviors are intentional. Adults and most teenagers consciously make decisions or permit actions they know are wrong. All ethical, moral, compassionate, decent, civil and lawful behaviors are intentional. The choice is always obvious.
Mismanagement typically comes in three categories. The first is what I call “invincibility,” an attitude of power that long-serving executives and younger, hotshot executives acquire. Over time, an environment of cultural numbness and justified neglect of ethical behavior is created.
The second category is the organizational failure to respond to or challenge invincibility. Risky leadership decisions are silently understood and sometimes, specifically ordered. Examples range from silence to denial that a crisis exists, to the reluctance to apologize or worse, maligning victims and those who represent them.
The third category is how manageable problems explode into crisis through intentional inaction.
How misbehavior leads to failed leadership
Most misbehaviors begin in small ways but grow as they’re allowed to proceed, often to the surprise of the perpetrator. When that misbehavior is met with silence, the perpetrator is encouraged to try it again on a larger scale. Many sources express concern at the increasing number of misbehaviors occurring in businesses and organizations of all types, even though the actual range of misbehaviors is relatively narrow. The elements of failed leadership are obvious but they survive because they’re unmentioned and unnamed.
The real value of this list is to alert leaders and those around them. Those who witness negative or risky circumstances need to inform leadership immediately. Time and again, leaders excuse their misbehavior, shifting the blame for their intentional mistakes to, “those around me who should have alerted me.” Leaders who become perpetrators are prepared and practiced at shifting blame, if exposed or caught. There are recognizable events that signal existing or pending misbehaviors. Look for them.
Warning signs and misbehaviors
A management-imposed emergency or attitude of urgency that goes unchallenged. The phrase, “do whatever it takes,” is among the most prevalent of excuses for breaking, changing or ignoring rules. This phrase is taken as an order and an authorization to ignore all rules and constraints to achieve whatever the objective happens to be.
A sense of ongoing top management pressure to “get on the program,” without challenge or without reporting through compliance channels. Too often, goals are taken as permissions, authorization or orders to ignore the rules. Those in charge—through their own behaviors and stated or implied expectations—change the rules or establish new ones unilaterally outside of normal compliance channels. Crises rarely start, “in the mail room,” or by “a bunch of rogue employees.” Crisis behaviors and attitudes start at a much higher level.
Established values and cultural systems and norms are gradually ignored, neutralized or displaced by questionable behaviors.
Early warning signs are ignored, deferred or actively defended. Who wants to be the first to point a finger or to vocalize something negative about the boss?
An atmosphere of invincibility that overshadows or simply blinds participants to infractions, questionable decisions and stuff that should work but doesn’t.
Corner cutting. One of the most common starting places for leadership failure to begin.
Increasing resistance to or minimizing compliance and oversight. There’s a natural tendency to resist compliance and oversight. The greatest resistance generally comes from organizations’ sales and marketing sectors and that resistance is often induced by the pressure to perform, the pressure to succeed, the pressure to beat the competition and the pressure to beat peer organizations.
Decreasing responsiveness to regulatory requirements. Once an organizational culture moves away from responsiveness to regulatory requirements and begins selectively ignoring or degrading the importance of these requirements, the pattern of failure grows and self-perpetuates.
Persistent, rigid, disciplined silence. The implied or direct order to remain silent is powerful and toxic.
Continuously making ever larger compromises to accommodate or cover up previous intentional misbehaviors. Once a manager makes the conscious decision to cross a line, they become a perpetrator. Surprised that there’s no real reaction, the tendency is to cross another line to see if that works, too. Surprise, surprise, it’s also ignored. All too often, when an autopsy is done on failed leadership, a crucial element in the pathology sounds like, “I took a chance, nobody noticed, so I took another, nobody noticed, so I took another and it became a habit,” “Why didn’t those people say something or do something when they found out about it?” and, “It’s their fault for not catching me and warning me or turning me in that all these bad things happened.”
Some experts have described “risk addiction” very much like the behavior of drug addicts, gamblers, smokers and sex offenders. These individuals know how devastating and damaging their behavior is but continue anyway. In risk addiction, the intoxicant is power and the willingness of colleagues, victims, witnesses, compliance officials and/or board members to succumb to that power. By failing to oppose, disclose or expose it, leaders are immersed in a culture that says “yes” all the time, and they increasingly act without waiting for a “yes” or a “no.” The boss’ unilateral decision to move ahead compels a complicit “yes.”
The management tools for detecting, deterring, and defeating risk addiction are disclosure, behavior labeling and aggressive but constructive exposure. If you witness intentional crisis mismanagement, my advice is clear: speak up. Silence is the greatest enabler and validator of misbehavior. Those who observe this, are injured or affected by it or who know how many others will suffer, must speak up despite the risks. Otherwise, executive misbehavior tends to grow and become more clever, audacious, novel and damaging. Invariably, once the perpetrator is caught or exposed, they’ll immediately blame those around them, who, “should have warned me or prevented me from making these decisions.” In truth, we have only ourselves to blame.
Jim Lukaszewski is President of The Lukaszewski Group. His latest book, co-authored with Steve Harrison, is “The Decency Code: The Leader’s Path to Building Integrity and Trust.”