What should leaders do when crises happen?

Three significant crises happened recently. The first was the data misuse crisis that hit Facebook that led to a senate hearing. The second incident was two African Americans being arrested in a Starbucks store in Philadelphia. The third was the Kathua rape-murder incident. In each of these situations, how the concerned leaders dealt with the respective crisis holds lessons for managers and leaders.

Data from Facebook being misused by a third party was the biggest crisis the company has faced so far. The senate hearing was the first serious public scrutiny of the working of that organization. The hearing was significant not just for the senators’ perceptions of Facebook, but also for the organization’s image among its users, authorities in other countries and shareholders.

With the statement, “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it and I’m responsible for what happens here", Zuckerberg made sure everyone was aware he is in charge of the situation. When questioned on the significant impact his organization has around the world or its business model, he was not on the defensive. But for the data misuse issue, he offered unconditional apologies. He came across as a vulnerable person who is prone to making mistakes once in a while.

Behavioural experts who analysed his testimony pointed out that his compressed lips and the inordinate time taken to drink water during his testimony and his higher-than-normal blink rate, 50 beats per minute, during the early part of the testimony, showed that he was under stress. This in one way enhanced his image of vulnerability.

The world has always seen Zuckerberg in a grey T-shirt. The T-shirt is the costume of the teenager, perceived to be a rule-breaker. For the testimony, Zuckerberg wore a formal suit with a blue tie, perceived to be the costume of a responsible adult.

Overall, with his unconditional apology and a sense of vulnerability, he, and in that process the organization he leads, came across as humbled but authentic. This can only provide positive outcomes for him, his company and the shareholders.

The next incident involved the behaviour of the staff of a Starbucks store in Philadelphia where two African-American patrons were sitting in the store without ordering anything. The staff called the police, who in turn, arrested the two men. The incident cause national outrage. The Starbucks chief executive officer Kevin Johnson knew how this incident could hurt the positive image of his organization. He took personal responsibility for it. Although there might have been justification for his employees to act that way, he not only issued an unconditional apology but went much further.

Starbucks announced that all 8,000 stores in the US would remain closed for one day so that all his employees could be given training on racial biases. We know that behavioural biases cannot be erased with a day of training. But behaviour change experts know that vivid symbols that portray the intent to change are as important or may be more important than the real actions one takes to achieve larger, long-term behavioural changes.

In this incident too, the leader himself took control of the situation. By issuing a public apology and providing a visible atonement for his colleagues’ mistake, he admitted that he and his organization are vulnerable.

In contrast, the reaction of the political leadership of our country to the Kathua rape-murder incident was appalling. No political leader took control of the situation in, say, the way the defence minister took control of the emotional reactions of the survivors of Cyclone Ockhi in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Even the statements that subsequently came from the political leadership portrayed the leadership as not being at fault or vulnerable in any way.

In his Harvard Business Review article “Great Leaders Know They’re Not Perfect," Ron Carucci says, “A leader’s greatest source of credibility is, ironically, their vulnerability. Owning imperfections wins trust; hiding them doesn’t".

According to Paula Niedenthal, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, humans are wired to read each others’ expressions in a very nuanced way, a process called resonance. Onlookers non-consciously register lack of authenticity.

Many of the apologies tendered by today’s leaders are justifications couched as apologies. The airline’s announcement “We are sorry for this delay. This delay is due to the aircraft arriving late from the previous sector", is a justification, if not an excuse. The passengers see right through this and feel emotionally disconnected from such messages. But imagine if the announcement were instead, “We are sorry for this delay. We know how this might have upset you. We deeply apologize for the inconvenience caused to you." This sincere apology signals vulnerability and allows the repair of interpersonal relationship to begin immediately.

Organizations and individuals do make mistakes or respond poorly to events and circumstances. It is futile for leaders to project an image of infallibility. Instead, occasionally creating an image of vulnerability will help build stronger human connections. It can help convert mistakes into opportunities that could build even stronger emotional bonds with the affected party.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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