In the face of today’s continually evolving, 24/7 global environment, it’s becoming an increasing necessity for organizations to learn how they can become more agile and responsive to change. The faster-paced, interconnected nature of today’s world also means that leaders need to become more responsive and hands-on when things inevitably – and often unexpectedly – go wrong.
It’s a situation that the principal at my daughters’ high school recently had to deal with and her response and actions gave forth some interesting insights into how leaders everywhere can better manage mistakes and failure in today’s wired world.
Last month, my daughters’ high school experienced a major technical glitch in their student absentee reporting software that caused hundreds of parents to be sent emails informing them that their child hadn’t shown up for school that day.
In years past, this would’ve certainly been a serious issue that our principal and her administration team would have to handle. In today’s wired world, where information can be easily shared with a wide audience on several communication channels – this single email message created a surge of worried and anxious parents numbering in the hundreds flooding the school’s various communication channels looking for news about the whereabouts of their children.
Of course, when news broke of the message being in error, anxiety and fear soon transformed into a firestorm of phone calls, emails, and irate voice messages from outraged parents all directed at our principal and the other members of her administrative team.
Although my daughters were not among those affected by this technical glitch, my wife and I were nonetheless included in the follow-up emails from our principal, providing updates on the situation as things evolved. How our principal managed this crisis – being fully aware of how easily her every word and action could be shared through the various online channels – proved to be a great case study on crisis management in today’s wired world.
Here now are 4 measures that every leader should employ in today’s wired, 24/7 world for successful crisis management.
1. Keep everyone – not just affected parties – informed of what’s going on
The first email I received about this crisis was one sent to all the parents of this school, informing them of the software glitch that had occurred in their student absentee reporting system which lead to the mistake of hundreds of parents being informed that their children hadn’t shown up that morning for school.
In her email, our principal explained in detail how this student absentee reporting system normally works, why it’s a valuable tool for the school, after which she openly addressed the situation of what went wrong that morning. She also made sure to advise all parents that while this error didn’t impact all students, she still wanted to make sure that all parents were informed of the situation to ensure that everyone understood what had happened.
It was a simple message and again, being one of the unaffected parents, it was more of a ‘for your information’ note as compared to those parents whose mornings had been completely upturned by this unexpected turn of events.
And yet, what this gesture did was it allowed our principal to control the narrative; to ensure that – like in the childhood game “telephone” – the message and situation didn’t get distorted as information was passed about from parent to parent.
Similarly, when a crisis hits your organization, it’s important that you take control of the narrative early on. Doing so will help you to ensure transparency over the whole process because your employees will be able to better understand why the next measures you take to address the situation are necessary, as well as the potential impact it might have on those otherwise unaffected by the current issue.
2. Apologize and openly take responsibility for the situation
After informing all the parents about what had happened that morning and why, the next thing our principal did was openly apologize for the worry and concern this glitch created for the affected parents.
But she didn’t stop there – she also went on to assure parents that she would personally oversee the resolution of this problem. She also invited parents who wanted to be sure their child was accounted for to call the school (this despite the fact that her office had been flooded since that morning with phone calls from upset parents).
What was interesting about this measure was how – regardless of the fact that the source of this problem was a software glitch in the student absentee reporting program – our principal took personal responsibility for the situation. She didn’t simply apologize for the situation and defer it to another department to correct. Instead, she let the parents know that she was going to be accountable herself for making sure it doesn’t happen again.
The value of employing this measure in your organization is that it will communicate to your employees that your focus is not on deflecting blame to protect your image and level of influence in the organization. Instead, your focus is on the shared purpose of your organization – of what it is you want to help your employees accomplish.
Consequently, when unexpected problems or failures crop up that impede your collective ability to achieve it, your focus will be on what your employees require from you both to address the current problem, as well as put into place new measures to ensure it doesn’t occur again.
3. Tell them exactly what you’re going to do to fix things
After apologizing to all parents and then promising to take personal responsibility for this situation, our principal then informed parents that she had taken the program offline and that it would not be used until they had not only corrected the glitch, but had run tests to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. She also explained how student absences will be reported during this time when the system will be put offline.
In the days that followed, our principal sent additional emails informing parents of the person who would be calling them should their child be absent during this period where they will be testing the system and ensuring the problem is resolved. She also sent updates when they identified what caused this problem and with it, what measures were being taken to both resolve it and prevent any future recurrence.
By laying out what specific measures were being taken to address the situation, she reinforced not only her apology for the mess, but also how she was in fact taking ownership of the situation. And this measure not only allowed parents to know who they should follow up with, but it also communicated to her team that she would handle the irate parents to allow them to do what needed to be done.
In today’s business environment, we’ve seen many cases where leaders apologize when mistakes are made, but they fail to share what specific measures they are going to implement to address the problem. Instead, what the public is given are vague ideas of what will be done to resolve the current problem.
Such vagueness not only creates doubt about how transparent and open you are about the real nature of the issue, but it also leads to questions about how sincere you really are about doing what’s necessary to ensure the problem is properly addressed and rectified.
Providing clarity over what next steps will be taken to resolve the situation will also show your team that you have their back and will protect them while they do the work that needs to be done to correct the situation, as opposed to having to focus on defending their own status and position within your organization.
4. Share lessons learned and what will be done going forward
Once the problem had been properly fixed and confidence in the proper functioning of the reporting system was restored, our principal sent out one last email not only informing parents of when this system would go back online, but she also described what new measures will be put in place going forward to ensure parents are given up-to-minute information about their children’s whereabouts and the status of the school.
She also made a point to once again apologize for the hardships and pain this caused to the school’s parents, not to mention the frustration parents experienced in not being able to reach someone at the school because of the overflow of voice mails and emails from worried parents.
The tone and message of her last email regarding this situation not only reinforced her understanding of the parents’ reality in this situation, but also of the lessons learned by the school’s administration. It also pointed out to parents that the school’s administration was working on ways to improve the means by which they can better inform and connect with parents.
This last measure is one that so many leaders tend to overlook in large part due to our relief at finally having a problem resolved that we just want to move on to other matters. However, as our principal demonstrated, to regain the confidence and trust of those under your care, you need to be open about the lessons learned, about your understanding of the difficulties a crisis or failure in your organization has on those you serve – both inside and outside your organization.
It’s also important that you provide a clear roadmap for what you are putting in place going forward to reassure everyone that the problem has not only been fixed, but that your organization now has the insights and experience to be more responsive in addressing similar issues in the future.
In looking at how this technical glitch became a major communication and public relations crisis for our principal and her staff, it’s a stark reminder for all of us that we no longer live in a world where information can be controlled and communication channels limited to protect our organizations from similar public relations disasters.
On the contrary, as leaders we now have to come to terms with the new reality that every word, every action we make can almost instantaneously spread throughout our organization, in times taking on its own narrative as people add their own spin on possible underlying messages in your actions and words.
It’s a reality that’s especially important for us to recognize and deal with in those moments when a crisis hits our organization if we are to be successful in not only guiding our employees through the storm, but to ensuring our organization becomes more responsive and stronger when we surface on the other side.