How do you motivate employees during times of intense public scrutiny?

Susan Scott, CEO & Founder of Fierce, Inc.

How do you motivate employees during times of intense public scrutiny?

Rumors, criticisms, anonymous blasts in public forums. You made a well-regarded employee available to industry – but there is a backlash. Why didn’t we throw a going away party?  You know what was going on behind the curtain and it was a disaster but what do you disclose to those clamoring for an explanation?  Or there is a false rumor about your company – The company is being sold, or the CEO is being lambasted by the press.  You have no idea who started the rumors or why and they aren’t true.  Should you address them? If so, how?  And what about inaccurate, anonymous posts in public forums by disgruntled former or current employees. The executives receive huge bonuses.  Everyone is leaving the company. Not true. 

Where, when and how should you respond? And what if there is some truth to the accusations?  Or a lot of truth?  How do you motivate employees, keep them focused, and keep them, period?

Of course, the short answer is - tell the truth, admit to mistakes, reveal your plan. What gets talked about in an organization and how it gets talked about determines what will happen or what won’t happen. If a problem exists, it exists whether we talk about it or not, so we might as well talk about it. Sounds straightforward, but telling the truth, simply and courageously, doesn’t always solve the problem because of challenges all truth-tellers face.

Here are things for leaders to consider in addressing sticky-situations:

  1. The “truth” is complicated.  There are multiple, competing truths existing simultaneously on just about every topic under the sun. Leaders can’t see everything that’s going on and be aware firsthand of every broken or limping segment of an organization. What don’t you know?  Who does know?  Are you sure you’ve got the whole picture? Have employees withheld what they know in fear of retribution?  
  2. Even if you lay it all out for all to see, some will reject your version. We tend to make up stories and behave as if our stories are true. As a friend said to me, “I have my truth and you have yours but my truth is truer than yours.” We’ve pitched our tent on our truth and plan to camp there indefinitely even if we’ve camped on stony ground. Human nature is strange in that many prefer tragedy to comedy, sturm and drang to blue skies, melodrama to documentary.
  3. Human nature is also hard-wired to lie, to protect itself at all costs, including putting a for sale sign on its integrity. Sadly, this is what many employees expect of leaders, so why should they believe you? Lie to us once, stretch the truth, or gloss over unsavory truths, painting a rosy picture that we know to be bogus, and we’re on to you.

So what do you do if your organization is under scrutiny? 

  • Keep telling the truth and inviting it from others. The level of candor in your organization depends on your level of candor every day.
  • Own up to mistakes. Don’t say, “Mistakes were made.” That’s a duck and dodge.  Fess up to any blunders that have your name on them. 
  • Lay out your conclusions, your solutions, your strategy and invite input from all points on the compass. 
  • Keep employees current and make yourself available for impromptu conversations. It may take more than one meeting, one email to settle the dust. While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of your organization, any one conversation can. You don’t know if the person asking, “Do you have a minute”, could be one of those conversations.
  • Stay calm and grounded.  Unless your organization has engaged in wholesale, massive deception, this storm is temporary. Issues heat up and cool down. 
  • Remain open and available to those who don’t believe you or who may have helped spread rumors. Gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time, you can regain their trust.

And what if your company did something unethical or careless that caused harm and now it’s out there in the world? Think banking practices that brought the US economy to its knees.  Think emissions cheating, toxic chemicals, faulty airbags. Or something terrible and unintended  occurred through no conscious involvement or intent on the part of your company. Think E. coli. 

The same advice stands. Tell the truth, lay out the plan, invite input. In The Horse Whisperer Robert Redford’s character says, “Knowing something’s easy. Saying it out loud is the hard part.” Most importantly, fess up to anything you did or didn’t do that contributed to the problem. If you did something you knew was deeply wrong, admit it and resign. Do what my mother instructed my siblings and me to do. “Go to your room and think about your sins.”  Think long and hard. Clean up your act. You may need to start over. Somewhere else.

While working with top execs, an environmental disaster involving their company occurred.  When I asked if they had taken the specific action that would have discovered and averted the disaster, after a long silence, the CEO said that they had. I learned later that he was lying. In fact, he was being coached how not to tell the truth in preparation for his appearance before a U.S. Senate panel. It didn’t go well. He and his executive team ended up contemplating the ashes of their downsized opportunities.

Leadership is not a title, it’s a daily practice and so is transparency.  Don’t just talk about transparency.  Be transparent.  There is something within us that responds to those who level with us, who don’t suggest our compromises for us. Rumors blow over. Disgruntled employees move on.  Your job is to navigate the riddle of leadership, the terrain, the unpredictable weather and the narrow margin of approval by which you retain the right to lead. Strong leaders know that things will improve only by coming to grips with how bad things are and how they got that way, building a good plan, and staying the course – one conversation at a time.