Leaders: Consider Creating a Crisis

Here’s an odd organizational phenomenon that you’ll notice if you look for it: Organizations often don’t pay attention to important stuff until there’s some sort of crisis related to the aforementioned stuff. Any of the following sound familiar?

An organization will only call a strategic planning consultant after it’s obvious to 93.5% of the organization that they have nothing resembling a coherent and forward-thinking strategic plan.

An organization will only put together anything resembling a legit leadership development philosophy after realizing that for all their talk about “developing the future leaders” of the organization, they really haven’t done anything significant and tangible toward that end.

An organization will only start giving a flying flip about employee engagement after it becomes clear that a significant chunk of the humans that trudge through the employee entrance are increasingly miserable every day.

An organization will only give a rat’s derriere about employees being innovative after they sense that they’re not simply a bit behind the curve–they’re woefully behind the curve.

An organization will start using “culture” and/or “core values” in substantive ways only after they realize that employee morale has dipped so low that they’d view being laid-off as a welcome respite from the not-so-friendly confines of your building.

So what if we take a new strategy in our organizations? What if we decided to create a crisis mindset in our employees sometimes instead of waiting for actual crisis? What if we adopted a survival mindset on an ongoing basis rather than trying to turn it on only after the feces hits the fan?

Crisis has this way of sharpening our focus, doesn’t it? It has the effect of forcing us to spend time only on important things instead of the meaningless nonsense that we tend to get sucked into sometimes.

Think about an ER, for example. When a patient is lifted off the back of an ambulance and rushed to the operating table, there aren’t a lot of politics at that point, are there? Not a lot of turf wars. Not much stupid bickering between colleagues. And gossip? How could they? They don’t have time. To invest in any of those things would seem really, really dumb in light of the situation in which they find themselves.

So how ’bout it? Should we try to cultivate a crisis-mindset in our people so that we’ll rid ourselves of some of the negativity that’s sprung up? Perhaps trying to think of our organizations as organisms fighting for survival in a Darwinian-dog-eat-dog world would motivate us to traverse that gap between surviving and thriving. Maybe we’d spend less time whining and complaining and more time trying to make each other and our organization better. Maybe it would force employees who for too long have been allowed to be a cancer to the organization to do one of two things: either buck up, work hard, and be positive and awesome to their teammates; or pack up their horrible attitude and take it somewhere else where it would fit right in.

Why is it that only in a time of crisis will we focus on the important stuff and rid ourselves of dumb workplace nonsense? It’s a shame it has to come to that.

6 thoughts on “Leaders: Consider Creating a Crisis

  • Gotta disagree with you here. While complacency can certainly be a problem for organizations, manufacturing a crisis is a risky tactic.

    First off, there will be plenty of people in the organization who will see right through it. They will know there is no real crisis, and leadership’s credibility will this group will be damaged.

    Second, the leadership team would be better advised to instill confidence in the direction and strategy of the organization. (Maybe you recognize the lack of confidence problem that our current administration has re: the economy).

    How the leadership team handles a real crisis can be the make or break point for the team. The confidence that’s instilled through the successful handling of a real crisis becomes an asset that the team can leverage for some time.

    But artificially creating a crisis is a tactic that has far too high a risk of backfiring.

    • I more meant creating the sort of mindset in folks that seems to more often exist in crisis situations than it does outside them. I’m not talking a wag-the-dog sort of thing. I’m not saying to deceive our employees.

      What I’m saying is that humans tend to band together when they have to to make great things happen. But it’s a shame we can’t have that same thing–that same universal focus on only important things–all the time.

      So the point isn’t necessarily to create a crisis in the literal sense. It’s to figure out how to get the team working as if they’re in a crisis. I’ve edited my wording in a couple spots to hopefully make that a little more clear.

      As always, thanks, Ron. I really appreciate your thoughts; they challenge me to think (cue the mission impossible soundtrack).

  • This topic reminds me of David Hurst’s excellent book, Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change. In it, Hurst advocates much of what Matt laid out above. That said, either creating a crisis or a crisis-mindset is incredibly difficult to pull off. It takes the right type leader with a strong level of trust in him/her to have the end result be a positive one.

  • Interesting idea, although I have to say that I’ve found that when a company is in crisis, people tend to hold onto their own and help less, trying ensure their own survival. Even if direction from the top is given to do just the opposite, sometimes it’s not carried down to the worker bees if there is a “self-survival” mode in upper management. Quick cost cutting strategies are put in place to create a short term solution, which has a negative effect on the long term. I wish everyone would come together in a crisis and band together, but I’m not sure a large company could do that.

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