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Sacrifice, Sackcloth, and Ashes

Throughout the years, I’ve had the unique opportunity to help many organizations come to terms with the relational impact of internal scandals and ethical failures. Often, those failures have become very public.

Over a long enough period of time in any organization, one or more trusted leaders will fail in their professional, personal, and human obligations to protect those people and processes in their charge. Some will actively work to hide and obfuscate what happened, which only deepens the harm. As Nixon taught us, the cover-up can do as much damage as the crime itself.

Such times raise a crucial question that few management programs can truly prepare us for…

What do you do when your organization has fundamentally failed in its legal, ethical, or moral obligations?

As any experienced leader will tell you, the answer will vary greatly depending on who you ask. Priorities will be different for each stakeholder. The legal team might see the limitation of liability as the top priority. Communications might reflexively shift into damage-control and image-management mode. Staff often just want things to go back to “normal”. Perhaps the board is looking for a sacrificial lamb that will demonstrate that the company is taking action and has things under control.

Those harmed might be ready to see the place burn. Come what may.

In the midst of a real scandal, leaders have to face this web of interlocking demands, needs, and obligations. No matter how many case studies you read, it’s very hard to understand the pressure, confusion, and personal internal conflicts that these situations generate until you’ve had to lead your organization through one yourself.

Having helped many organizations through these storms, here’s a few insights:

You cannot do it alone. During a scandal, no one is really thinking clearly. This includes you. We each will react differently in a crisis. Some freeze and are paralyzed by indecision. Others take refuge in the illusion of knowing exactly what to do. They act too soon and confidently plunge the organization off a cliff without adequate reflection and planning. Many lash-out at the nearest convenient scapegoat. A few simply melt-down as the stress and fear overwhelms them, magnifying their existing character flaws or unhealthy coping strategies.

Accept that no one person has it all together or knows precisely what to do. However, each of you has an essential component what does need to happen next. Work together and support one another as a team.

Deeply listening to everyone impacted is one of the most important first steps in the wake of harm caused by the scandal. Feeling heard is one of the core needs of all involved, even if they have diametrically opposed viewpoints, needs, or opinions.

At this stage, your own opinion is not important. Save it for now. First, everyone for whom you are responsible and to whom you are accountable, needs to know that you’ve heard them. The opportunity to be heard is the one thing you have the power to give everyone equally.

Knowing that they were truly heard is more fundamentally and psychologically important to all concerned than whether they get what they want. Outcomes do matter, but the process matters more.

You will not be able to give all stakeholders everything they say they want. Accept it. If you attempt to do so, you will make things worse. Re-read the common list of stakeholder priorities above. Each one conflicts with the others in some fundamental way.

While avoiding paternalism, you’ll have to make some tough choices about what you think each group truly needs. That might not be what they say they want. Make some clear choices. Be explicit about your rationale for each choice and own it.

The “mirror test” trumps all. At the end of the day, the final test for any plan of action should be whether or not you can look yourself in the mirror the next day be proud of how you handled this. You might have the best legal minds advising you, or the world’s most impressive collection of advisors. They might be crafting a brilliant crisis management plan.

However, if you will not be able to look yourself in the mirror in the morning, reconsider your plans. You cannot hide behind the advice and counsel of others. The right thing to do, might not be the safe thing to do. Retaining your integrity and self-respect is your responsibility and yours alone.

Finally, accept that making things better will involve sacrifice, sackcloth, and ashes. Someone, perhaps everyone, will need to humble themselves, take responsibility, admit fault, make amends, and do penance. If these events happened under your watch, this means you too.

Resist with all of your strength the temptation to scapegoat, compartmentalize, avoid, or cover-up. These tactics only delay suffering in the short-term. They are not sustainable.

Have faith that the long-term future of the organization will be owned by those most committed to the full and unadulterated truth.

For more on this topic, check-out these articles:

Check out the Leading Conflict store for more practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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