Coach’s Challenge for December 3, 2007

Good day, team,

This week’s challenge comes at the request of a technology manager I work with who wanted guidance on an all-too-common scenario: How to make decisions and communicate appropriately during times of crisis and high stress.

When something goes wrong—a major server outage, a system failure, or a missed deadline—how does one explain what’s happening, attempt to fix it and respond appropriately to managers when all they want to hear is that the problem has been fixed or the deadline will be met? In such situations, pressure mounts, and pretty soon the people trying to fix the problem want to throw up their hands and say, “I quit,” while the management continues to say, “Just fix it, now!”

In times of high stress, people tend to behave in one of two ways. Some people go immediately into activation mode, that is, they jump in and attack the problem with a strong sense of urgency. Other people go immediately into analytical mode by collecting all the relevant information, analyzing the problem and only then coming up with a solution.

For example, I recently witnessed a phone outage in a call center. Some of the supervisors were immediately up out of their chairs, talking with their phone representatives, and trying to address the problem with action. Other supervisors were on their computers trying to assess the problem by reviewing the numbers, and then determining who in the command center was taking care of it and what the overall impact would be on the business.

Interestingly enough, when the phones went back up and all the supervisors met to discuss what happened, everyone had something worthwhile to contribute, both those who immediately went to their phone representatives and those who spent time analyzing the problem.

Yet the manager of the call center responded most positively to the supervisors who showed a sense of urgency. Most leaders are motivated by results and are easily frustrated by people who begin with research rather than action. I’ve heard more than one business leader say, “What’s wrong with these people? The place is falling apart, and they’re analyzing our downfall instead of turning it around!”

Clearly, telling business leaders the truth when they don’t want to hear it is daunting. Sometimes we don’t know what the problem is; other times, we can’t promise it will be fixed on schedule. Sometimes we can’t even be heard, if leaders spend most of their time trying to give sometimes ineffectual orders and definitely don’t want to hear that their directions aren’t going to be carried out.

Speaking truth to power is challenging for all of us, especially if there’s a history of negative consequences. I remember one senior director telling me, “I don’t care what the problem is, I’d much rather have them tell me the truth immediately than shy away from it and have it broadside me later. I don’t care how bad it is or how much someone screwed up: Just tell me the truth, and we’ll deal with it.” The same director, however, upon hearing that an important customer’s order had been botched threatened to fire the people responsible if it ever happened again.

The same situations can crop up in our personal lives. How many times do we shy away from tough conversations with family members or friends because we are afraid of the other person’s response? Speaking the truth to anyone is difficult; speaking the truth to those who have a say in our livelihood or whose opinion of us matters is even more challenging.

But as Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is what it takes to sit down and listen.” Whether we are the purveyor or the receiver of bad news, handling the truth is an act of trust. Trust is at the heart of all healthy relationships, and we cannot trust people who don’t tell us the truth or who withhold information because they’re afraid to share it.

During times of crisis, it is especially important to be honest about what we see and communicate it to the best of our ability. Conversely, we need to listen to what’s being said and honor the person saying it. The more we can lessen our resistance to the truth and remove impediments to action, the faster any crisis can be resolved.

Have a great week!

Kathleen

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