The crisis crisis -- Don't let this happen to you!
No, that's not a word-check error. I do mean the crisis crisis and I'll explain it in a moment.
It struck me the other day, reading about Rutgers University's unrelenting athletic program problems, that crises are showing up all over the place. Here, along with Rutgers, are a few of my recent favorites.
- The Catholic Church and its propensity for hiding sex crimes under its robes
- BP and its failure to deal with the Deep Horizon explosion before the fact (and after it, for a time)
- Penn State and its protection of its football program over the protection of young children
- The BBC for the sexual misconduct of 81 staff -- half of which still work for the broadcaster (so much for the "integrity of the source")
- The US for the Great Recession, which put us all at grave risk, leading to the destruction of wealth as well as human dignity, due to the loss of millions of jobs
The label matters
I'm not sure if all of the above institutions would characterize their particular problem as a crisis: a fundamentally destabilizing event leading to decisive change. Doing so takes keen self-awareness and lots of courage. It's easier to "not go there," to address the symptoms rather than their cause. But call it a crisis they must. Why? Because every one of these seismic events cuts deep into flesh and bone and when you you're dealing with flesh and bone, you're dealing with a crisis.
Speaking of labels, the well-known Chinese definition of "crisis" refers to danger as well as opportunity. The danger linked to crises typically refers to the possible undoing of the enterprise, in whole or in part. Opportunity speaks to the idea of change, fundamental, game-changing change. Change designed to right whatever wrongs led to the crisis in the first place, and to grow and thrive as a result. Which leads me to ...
The crisis crisis
From where I sit, the greatest danger lurking inside a crisis is not recognizing it for what it is, which produces a kind of crisis inside the crisis, or simply, the crisis crisis.
The crisis crisis happens when you claw your way through it by hook or by crook. You survive it, but you don't change. And then, what? You're doomed to repeat it. A crisis ignored, skirted, or denied is cancerous. It may recede for a time but it will be back, stronger, and more virulent than ever. That is the inevitable result of a crisis crisis.
Who are we (now)?
No matter how different each is, all crises have one thing in common: they all cut to the core identity of the institution. They challenge the sacred cows we worship. Beneath the obvious symptoms of a crisis, the "Who are we and what do we stand for?" questions loom large.
The identity factor points to a key behavior institutions in crisis should adopt. I'm not sure who said it, but here's the admonition: If you can't get out of it, get into it. Embrace the notion of 'crisis' and dive into the deep end of the pool. You'll survive. Ironically, if you don't dive in, you might not survive.
Think about a crisis as though it were a monster: It gains strength by feeding on fear, denial and paralysis, all the while secretly waiting to be slain. If only wounded, the monster comes back to life angrier and more dangerous than before. Make sure you kill the monster the first time.
A leadership window
One of the unintended leadership benefits of a crisis is that people are more apt to change when an organization is truly in crisis than if you mandate change in order to become a 'different or better' company.
Crises are profoundly human experiences. They are felt in the gut, implicitly understood despite (or because of) the moral discomfort they cause. People personalize crises, fast. The lesson? In the tradition of the Chinese definition, crises are opportunities. As crazy as this may sound, make a crisis your friend; make the most of it, even as you work to overcome it.
How to diagnose a crisis in the making
The good news: Not all problems are crises. Be discerning. Here are three thoughts -- should one or more of them cross your mind -- that do indicate a crisis is looming:
- The world has turned against us
- Our actions are out of whack with our beliefs
- People are leaving in droves
People have crises too
In fact, that's where all crises start -- with people.
We're all subject to crises. In fact, without one or two major crises in one's life, it's hard to grow up. Divorce, job loss, loss of a loved one, career confusion can all trigger a bona fide crisis. And the mid-life crisis may be the most predictable -- and acclaimed -- crisis of all!
In all cases, the same rules apply to individuals as apply to organizations. Denial won't work. Questions of identity loom large. Better to get into it for a while than try to get out of it too soon.
Allowing for a few word changes, here are similar thoughts you may have had that signal a crisis is at hand:
- The world has turned against me
- My actions are out of whack with my beliefs
- My friends are leaving in droves
As I say in the title to this newsletter, don't let this happen to you. What I mean by "this" isn't necessarily having a crisis. It is, rather, not allowing a crisis crisis to occur, whether it is in relation to your company or yourself. If a crisis hits, own it. Get into it, don't just try and get out of it. Learn. Change. Grow.
Is there a crisis, personal or institutional, that has left an impression on you? Share your story at Identity Beacon.
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