Recently, I spent a day working with seven highly-skilled professionals drawn from human resources, law, and compliance departments of organizations representing healthcare, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage products, glassware and a major religious order. I asked them to spend a few minutes on their own to imagine their worst organizational nightmare – a disaster that would rock their brands, image, and core. Of course, they had different scenarios based on their varying missions and purposes. What they all said, though, was that their nightmares would involve egregious conduct or a harmful product defect that could have been prevented if only individuals close to the problems had spoken up and raised danger signals. None said they feared a practice or issue so subtle, so innocuous, that no one would have had a hint of disaster until irreparable damage had already been done.
Their fears are justified. Most organizational disasters are not the result of random, unpredictable acts. Instead, they arise from repetitive practices which are ignored or a few outrageous acts. In either instance, retrospective analysis reveals problems which usually raised complaints but, too frequently, resulted in inaction or harm to complainants rather than steps to address the problems.
Many of the participants represented firms whose products, logos and marketing talents are among the best known and finest in the world. Here’s my suggestion for them and others: organizations need better marketing if they want to avoid their worst nightmares. Of course, “marketing” will only work, as it will for any organization’s products and services, if it’s backed by leadership action rather than hype.
Here are a few marketing slogans for organizations to use internally, with their customers and the public. Give them meaning and these brief phrases will keep nightmares where they belong – in the realm of bad dreams, not reality.
Explore Don’t Ignore Before catastrophes, individuals see warning signals – a statistical uptick in bad outcomes, diminishing attention to quality, customer complaints, anonymous tips and other signs – that there is some problem that may be surfacing. Too often, the natural reaction is to ignore the issue and assume it’s not serious rather than to recognize that a serious hazard may be surfacing. Getting people to explore rather than ignore is the key to changing this pattern.
Share it Don’t Bury It Sometimes, even after individuals find out about a serious problem, they keep it to themselves. They don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker and are more fearful about their fate, or that of others, than the harm to the public and their organization which their silence can enable. Unless people share what they learn, their knowledge is useless.
We’ll Fix – Not Nix Individuals know their organizations will act when problems surface. Their fear is that they will act in the wrong way – by covering up problems, ignoring them or punishing the persons who brought concerns forward. There’s a reason why the phrase “shooting the messenger” has a common meaning.
It’s vital to give employees at all levels the core solid belief that identifying problems and bringing them forward is as important as any other routine business responsibility from safely testing and manufacturing foods, beverages, and medicine to delivering high quality health care and pastoral services.
Just 12 words can help do that, provided they’re backed up by leadership support, commitment and principled follow through at every level.