The Difficult Art of Responding to Public Criticism

When accusations are flying or scandal erupts, it’s crucial to get the initial response right.

How do you respond when your agency or jurisdiction is called out for poor performance, terrible customer service or even scandal? When the charges are false, how do you correct the record without appearing defensive? When there’s some truth to the allegations, how do you regain public trust (and fix the problem)? This is far more art than science, but one thing is for certain: Nothing is more important than your initial response.

First, some tips on how not to respond. Don’t blame the messenger, minimize the problem or circle the wagons. That only raises suspicions. At the same time, it’s important not to accept the criticism at face value; you need time to investigate what happened. If there is some truth to the allegations, you’ll need to address the problem and recover from the bad press. Don’t make matters worse by issuing initial responses you’ll need to correct later.

And it usually doesn’t help to fire (or transfer to bureaucratic Siberia) a staff member who had major responsibility for the problem, although there’s often great pressure to do so.

The University of Virginia experienced some high-profile events in recent years that raised doubts about the prestigious public university’s truthfulness and priorities. UVa’s initial responses during two of these events offer guidance in both how and how not to respond to public criticism.

In July 2016, a former member of the UVa Board of Visitors, its governing body, claimed that the university had created a secret $2.3 billion “slush fund” to support “pet projects” and to improve its reputation. That’s serious money for any university. That amount, plus the board member’s terminology — “slush fund,” “pet projects” — ensured that her accusation would receive wide media attention.

UVa leaders didn’t apologize or get defensive. Within days, the UVa rector (the chair of the Board of Visitors) issued a statement noting that the fund in question had been approved by the board in a public meeting five months earlier. He explained the fund’s purpose and said the board had discussed it several times since 2014. He added that UVa officials would soon provide details outlining the sources and goals of the fund.

Just six days later, that detailed information was released. A UVa official explained that the fund would be used to minimize tuition increases, increase the financial aid program, hire new faculty and provide research money without straining operating funds. The university also posted a Q&A page on its website responding to questions being raised in the media.

A state legislator then charged that the decisions about the fund had been “all done in closed-session meetings.” Another stated that UVA has run “a covert surplus” for years, and announced an investigation.

A few days later, the UVa chief operating officer provided further records documenting specific public meetings held over the past two years at which its board discussed the fund, adding, “We have absolutely nothing to hide.” He also pointed out that the investment fund was included on the university’s balance sheet and audited annually by the state auditor.

The university’s leaders handled the initial response-to-criticism phase well. They:

• Acknowledged the criticism promptly, without going into details they had to put together.
• Took the issue seriously and didn’t minimize it.
• Provided a detailed, point-by-point response to each criticism in a timely fashion.
• Didn’t become defensive or blame the messenger.

Some of UVa’s leaders probably did want to castigate the messenger. She was the same person who, as rector four years earlier, had created widespread outrage when she convinced the Board of Visitors to fire the university’s popular president, only to “unfire” the president two weeks later following withering criticism.

UVa’s response to the “slush fund” allegation stands in marked contrast to its response to a devastating article in Rolling Stone magazine published in 2014. That article, since discredited and retracted, detailed an alleged gang-rape of a student who said that UVa officials responded passively when she reported the incident.

In that event, the president said that the university “takes seriously the issue of sexual misconduct.” Then she left for an overseas conference. That led to outrage; she had called an alleged gang-rape “sexual misconduct” and then left town? After a law firm was hired to look into the rape allegations, university officials refused for over a month to say whether the report to be issued by the law firm would be made public. Fortunately, UVa leaders regained their footing and soon started to take aggressive steps to deal with sexual assault.

Your initial response to public criticism poses significant challenges: You need to say something, but may not have enough facts to make a definitive statement immediately. Your superiors and staff will expect you to support them and the agency, even if the information you have suggests serious wrongdoing is possible or likely (consider a police chief’s dilemma when a video shows a white cop shooting an unarmed black man). You may face pressure to find a scapegoat as a way to calm the public and make it appear the problem is “solved.”

If you have a reputation for openness, honesty, and high standards, most people will be patient while you find out what’s going on … if your initial response is appropriate. Credibility is everything in this business. Be sure to maintain yours when responding to public criticism.

When the Heroes Are Also the Victims

PTSD is common among those who respond to disasters and other emergencies. It’s hard to deal with, but there are ways to help them.

Emergency-services professionals know that one of their key tasks is to take care of the people who deal firsthand with crises and trauma: firefighters who run into burning buildings, first responders at the scene of a mass murder, personnel who try to rescue people from floods and tornadoes. These brave people do truly heroic work under the most trying conditions. Sadly, they often suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Consider:

• On April 16, 2007, a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people and wounded 17 others. It was the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in our country’s history. Police got inside the classroom building in eight minutes and found the shooter dead. But the suffering had only just begun. As medical personnel carried the dead students out of the building, cellphones on the students’ bodies began to ring. Horrified parents were calling to see if their children were safe. Some of the first responders had great difficulty getting over the scene. At least one of them retired early from a career he loved.

• When firefighters began fighting a house fire in a New England town a few years ago, most of them went to the main floor where the fire was blazing. After a while, one firefighter went to the top floor (the most dangerous spot in most fires) and found an unconscious young woman. He brought her outside and medics administered CPR. But it was too late; she died of smoke inhalation. The firefighter who had found her blamed himself for not getting to her earlier; he had nightmares and suffered depression for months.

Why do so many emergency-services personnel suffer PTSD? There are many reasons. One has to do with the nature of people drawn to the profession. According to trauma experts, emergency management attracts people of a particular sort. They are caretakers, action-oriented, flexible in chaotic situations, proud of serving others, very tolerant of stress, excited by high-stimulation events, and in need of structure.

Of course, many of these qualities are perfectly suited to emergency-services work. Many, but not all. Those with high needs for structure are frequently frustrated by situations in which systematic methods aren’t effective. People who thrive on high stress and constant action often get depressed when the emergency is over. People who love to care for others sometimes blame themselves when they can’t save someone, and it often sometimes help to provide evidence showing that it was impossible to save the person.

What does help? Emergency-services personnel find a number of interventions useful. Some seek individual therapy. Others benefit from group counseling. One effective group approach is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, a seven-phase supportive small-group intervention that has helped many people with PTSD. Those who work in law enforcement are usually more comfortable talking with other law-enforcement professionals, which is why peer counseling works well for them. And some people benefit from telling their story to a supportive friend or colleague.

And what can leaders do to address the human side of crises? Three key leadership tasks are to identify people who seem to be suffering from a traumatic event, help them understand that they need some kind of assistance, and show that it’s normal for people with PTSD to require some kind of help.

Many emergency personnel feel that it’s weak to seek counseling, so they tough it out on their own. A study conducted by the Army in 2011 revealed that 40 percent of soldiers believed leaders will blame them for having post-trauma problems, and 50 percent believed they would be seen as weak if they sought help. But in many situations, the person simply needs to hear from a trusted colleague or respected leader that there is nothing else he or she could have done.

Here’s a poignant example from the NASA Challenger accident. On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle exploded in an inferno of fire 73 seconds after liftoff. The night before the launch, Bob Ebeling and four of his colleagues at Morton Thiokol (a NASA contractor) tried to convince NASA managers to delay the flight, arguing that rubber seals called O-rings wouldn’t function properly in the cold temperatures forecast for the next day. One of NASA’s managers told the engineers’ supervisor to “take off your engineer hat and put on your management hat.” The engineers stopped protesting, and the rest is history.

Ebeling felt extreme guilt about the launch. “I could have done more, I should have done more,” he told people. For 30 years he blamed himself. Many people tried to tell him that he did the right thing. It didn’t help. Then, after Ebeling told a National Public Radio interviewer a few months ago that he still blamed himself, a former NASA official who worked on the Challenger launch wrote to Ebeling: “You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you. You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame.” And NASA sent Ebeling a statement which said, in part, “We honor [the Challenger astronauts] … by constantly reminding each other to … listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.”

Those two messages were what Bob Ebeling needed. His guilt started to ease. His daughter noted a real change in him: “He doesn’t have a heavy heart like he did.” Bob Ebeling died three weeks later, with a clean conscience.

You Won the Election. What Do You Do Now?

It takes a lot of energy to get elected. But that’s the time to think about how to accomplish things once in office.

It’s been said that there are two kinds of political candidates: those who run for office because they want to do something and those who run because they want to be something — that is, the motivation is more about their egos than the community’s needs. I’ve often seen a third type of candidate: those who run because they want to do something but don’t figure out what they want to do or how to go about accomplishing it until it’s too late.

Some examples of the third type:

• Two candidates for a county governing board emphasized during their campaigns that they were independent-minded. “I’m not running to be part of a team,” one of them boasted. “I’ll make up my own mind how to meet my constituents’ needs.” They both won. Neither accomplished anything that their constituents cared about.

• A woman running for a city council seat promised to bring civility to a fractious council. She had great interpersonal skills and lots of energy, and defeated an incumbent. She was a model of professionalism while on the council, but had no impact on her colleagues. Few voters could identify anything she’d done when she ran for re-election.

• A state agency head ran for a seat in the legislature, promising to use his experience to “make the trains run on time.” He won his election handily; the voters were looking for competence in state government. Alas, he wasn’t able to make any difference in state agency performance and retired two years later in frustration.

These were bright, well meaning people, but none of them took time before their campaigns started to think through a few key questions: Why were they running? What were the three or four most important results they wanted to achieve? Which candidates or incumbents might be natural allies on their key issues? Who would oppose them? And what are the keys to getting things done once in office?

If you’re thinking that these seem like obvious questions to ponder, you’re right. So what did these candidates do before they were elected? They focused all their energies on getting elected. They remind me of the Robert Redford character in the 1972 movie “The Candidate” who turns to his campaign manager after his amazing upset victory and asks, “What do we do now?”

Here’s a happier example. It’s about three candidates for city council. They were very motivated to achieve important results if elected. During the campaign they met every week. As one of them explained, “We needed to get a feel for each other. We knew that we weren’t likely to be successful on council (if we won) unless we started building bridges. And we understood from the outset that once you’re on council it’s easy to get overwhelmed by hundreds of emails, long issue papers from staff, phone calls and endless community meetings. We had to pull together before taking office.”

Their meetings involved several dimensions, Some of the exchanges became passionate; they didn’t agree on everything. All of the sessions were candid. But they all were aimed at developing that most precious interpersonal factor: trust. More specifically, they:

• Got to know each other. They hadn’t worked closely together in the past, so some discussions focused on learning about each other’s backgrounds, values, hopes and concerns. And they talked openly about the things that pushed their respective buttons. One of their early agreements: Don’t surprise each other.

• Identified priority issues. They talked about the problems and opportunities they each cared most about and the issues most important to the community. Over time, they found some issues that all three could enthusiastically support.

• Educated each other. At several sessions, one or another of them discussed an issue on which he or she had deep expertise and experience: planning, housing, economic development, education. As one of them reflected, “Not only did we learn a huge amount, but we also gained confidence and trust in each others’ abilities and knowledge.”

They also met with the two existing city council members, sharing their hopes, concerns and priorities. And they reached out to past council members who were known for their collaborative styles to seek their advice and wisdom.

All three won seats on the council. It’s too early to tell how much they will accomplish. But I’m confident that they will be successful. Why? Because they did the hard but critical work of building relationships, developing an agenda and thinking strategically before getting overwhelmed by what I call “the tyranny of the immediate.” Unlike the character in “The Candidate,” they know what they want to do now and have a strategy for getting it done.

Pope Francis, Change Agent

There’s a lot that we all can learn about leadership from him.

As a student of leadership and change, I’m intrigued by Pope Francis. He is both “old pope-francisschool” and revolutionary. While maintaining fundamental church teaching (he opposes gay marriage, for example), he also reaches out to gay priests, saying of them, “Who am I to judge?” His recently published encyclical on climate change has been called “radical.” Francis says that we shouldn’t be so “obsessed” with culture-war issues like abortion: “We have to find a new balance.” And he has saved some of his strongest words for a critique of unfettered capitalism: “Let us say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service.”

The pope certainly has his critics among the Catholic clergy. But his popularity around the world is enormous. Many Catholics who take exception with his positions nevertheless say that they love him and find his words and deeds inspiring. How does he do it?

At least part of the answer, I believe, is that Pope Francis uses some very sophisticated change principles that all leaders should consider:

• Honor the past (and present) as you push for change.

• Speak to shared values and shared background.

• “Shrink the change.” That is, make it less daunting; take it in small steps.

• Think politically without appearing political.

• “If you can’t solve a problem as it is, enlarge it” (a quote from Dwight Eisenhower).

• Talk about the change and its impact in human terms.

Excerpts from Francis’ speech to the U.S. Congress last month illustrate many of these principles:

He began by saying, “I am most grateful for addressing this joint session of Congress, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It drew a huge ovation, in part because it so clearly honored both our past and present. It also showed his ability to think politically without appearing so. His gentle demeanor was so sincere, so transparent, that even hard-nosed and often cynical members of Congress seemed touched and delighted by the compliment.

He went on to say that “I, too, am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much, and toward which we share a common responsibility.” (Speak to shared values and shared background.) Francis is from Argentina and spent most of his life there before becoming pope. He had never visited the United States. But he found a simple, authentic way to connect with the members of Congress. And in this one simple sentence he did much more: He gently challenged the members to see their role as much broader than focusing on their states or districts.

Then the pope got personal when he moved to one of his strongest passions, the need to embrace immigrants and refugees: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, and I know that so many of you are also children of immigrants.” (Speak to shared values and shared background.)

In an especially moving and politically savvy part of his talk, Pope Francis went on to discuss four eminent Americans and certain values that they embraced: Abraham Lincoln as a guardian of liberty who showed a love of the common good; Martin Luther King Jr., who gave all Americans the possibility to dream of equal rights; Dorothy Day, a tireless crusader for social justice; and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who promoted peace between peoples and religions.

Francis noted that these individuals “shaped fundamental values that endure forever in the spirit of the American people. These values support a people through any crisis or conflict.” (Speak to shared values and shared background; talk about the change and its impact in human terms.) In a few sentences, Francis took core American values — liberty, equality, justice, freedom of religion — and put a personal face on them. He also made a subtle suggestion: that the nation has faced and addressed huge challenges in the past, so we must have the courage to face and deal with today’s challenges. This is an example of “shrinking the change,” framing it in a way that it doesn’t appear overwhelming.

Finally, in his efforts to build the church Francis effectively uses the idea expressed by Eisenhower: “If you can’t solve a problem as it is, enlarge it.” Ike realized that certain issues can only be understood and addressed when seen as part of something larger. As the president of a Catholic institution noted, Francis “is connecting people to things that are timeless, fundamental truths.” He wants a church that is more positive, that accepts people as they are and addresses them in a loving and welcoming manner. This “big tent” approach is encouraging more people to join the church and creating enormous excitement and pride among millions of Catholics. Most priests and other Catholic officials who disagree with Francis on certain issues probably share the goal of a church that grows.

Time will tell how much impact the pope makes. He’s already accomplished one enormous change: getting hundreds of millions of Catholics and others to take a new look at an ancient institution. This pope has something to teach us about leadership and change.

Public Employees and the Path to Resilience

Knowing your organization’s story and why it’s important can go a long way toward helping workers cope with change.

Resilience — the ability to bounce back from a significant challenge — is on many professionals’ minds these days. Schoolteachers, middle managers, psychologists, leaders in homeland security and others are trying to learn where resilience comes from and how to help people develop it. Given the enormous demands on government employees today, it’s no surprise that resilience is on their minds as well.

How does resilience develop? Why is it that a child who demonstrates great resilience has a sibling who shows little or none? Can resilience be learned? Recent research on resilient children offers some clues to these important questions.

In a March 2013 article in the New York Times, Bruce Feiler pointed to studies indicating that children who are taught their family’s story — their ancestors, the family’s strengths, its challenges — tend to be more resilient. They handle stress better and have a stronger sense of control over their lives. The most powerful story, Feiler added, includes examples of a family’s ups and downs and the ways family members have hung together and supported each other. Kids who learn such stories develop an “intergeneration self” — they know that they belong to something larger than themselves.

Research on resilient kids shows that it isn’t the family story itself that builds resilience but rather the process by which kids learn it. In a word, it’s about communications. When kids hear their family’s story repeated during family trips, vacations or social events, they gain a sense of identity and learn that they can rely on others when they need to.

Interesting, you might be thinking, but what does this have to do with government agencies and their employees? Many leaders believe it has everything to do with their work. Some police and fire departments, for example, invest considerable time and effort in teaching their new recruits about their profession’s culture and how it developed. At the U.S. Naval Academy, seniors are urged to take plebes on “history-building exercises” by visiting places of historic importance to the Navy and telling stories of those moments and what they meant.

At the National Security agency, new employees are brought on their first day to NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum. They learn the history of cryptology (the study and deciphering of codes) and the enormous contribution it has made in warfare and in preventing wars. They also learn the story of how NSA came to be. Then the employees are told that they are needed to help the NSA tackle the huge challenges it faces. Finally, they take their oath to the Constitution and are reminded that the oath is to the nation, giving them a larger sense of purpose.

Veteran employees of an agency can benefit from hearing its story as well. I once consulted with a municipal social-services department that was going through an enormous change: Staff were transitioning from being subject-matter experts in one narrow field to being multi-skilled generalists who had to know something about many areas. Naturally, the agency’s workers were filled with anxiety.

We brought in a respected, recently retired colleague of theirs to talk with the staff. She discussed the conditions that led to their former roles and the many contributions the staff had made. She also reminded them that part of their department’s story was that it had gone through a number of major changes in the past decade or more and had always managed them well. Indeed, she pointed out, staffers had developed a “whatever-it-takes” attitude toward change.

The retiree had the workers talk about what they valued in their former organizational structure and what they would miss. Then she finished by acknowledging the huge challenge facing them, and expressed her confidence that they would rise to that challenge. “I know who you are,” she told them. “I know that you’ll manage this change very well, because it’s right for our clients. And that’s always been our compass, doing what our clients need.” The agency’s staff members accepted the challenge and regained their confidence.

Does your staff know your organization’s story? Do you?

Public Projects and the Optimism Trap

Rosy, unrealistic scenarios just cause trouble down the road. It’s far better for managers not to deceive their leaders — or themselves.

On Dec. 31, 2007, the “Big Dig” in Boston was officially completed. The largest single highway project in the country’s history, it was nine years late and had cost more than $14.6 billion, a stunning $12 billion over budget. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the project was plagued by corruption, scheduling overruns, leaks, design flaws and the death of one motorist.

It’s not that the project itself was unnecessary. On the contrary, for decades traffic to and from Boston’s Logan Airport was terrible, and it was difficult for the most experienced Boston drivers to negotiate the tangled streets and constant congestion downtown. The project greatly reduced congestion, air pollution and confusion. But because of its well publicized problems, the Big Dig has become a symbol of big government at its worst — unethical politicians, contractors who cheat, costly projects, shoddy quality. Whether it’s highway projects, weapons systems for the Pentagon, or NASA’s two shuttle disasters, the stories of botched government projects seem unending. Why is that?

One answer, of course, is that good news doesn’t sell. When did you last read a front-page headline proclaiming, “New Government Office Building Opens on Time, Under Budget”? Many government projects are well designed and executed; we just don’t hear about them. We can’t change media that seem obsessed with bad news. But there is another factor involved with government projects gone wrong, a factor we can control. It has to do with unrealistic projections.

Let’s go back to the Big Dig. Roger Warburton, associate professor of administrative sciences at Boston University, found that engineers knew that the original projections of $2 billion were far too low. In the late 1980s the engineers “already knew it was a $12 to $14 billion project,” Warburton wrote. “They told everybody who would listen — including the politicians — and those people kept it quiet.” Politicians worried that realistic estimates of the project’s costs would have outraged the public and that the project would have been dropped. So the politicians essentially lied to the public.

In other cases, it’s civil servants who mislead the politicos about their proposed projects. Competing with other program managers for scarce dollars, they exaggerate their project’s likely benefits and guarantee that it will come in at a lowball cost. Sadly, many managers decide that they must play the same game.

And sometimes program managers deceive themselves. They’re not lying; they’re overly optimistic. They base their projections of costs and benefits on a best-case scenario — if everything goes according to plan, if all of the contractors produce on time and on budget, if the early proof of concept proves successful and we’re confident that our model will work … and so on. I call this the “optimism trap.” As the plaque in my mom’s apartment used to read: “Man plans, and God laughs.”

Fortunately, we can counteract the downsides of excessive optimism. Here are several ways to do so. Some of these ideas come from a 2003 Harvard Business Review article by Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman, “Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions.”

Take “the outside view.” As Lovallo and Kahneman explain, the outside view requires a look at similar projects performed by other organizations. What were the initial projections? How long did it actually take? What was the final cost? What were the lessons learned? Taking the outside view helps us avoid the human tendency to see ourselves as better than others. It is especially helpful when starting an initiative that the agency has never tried before.

Bring in an expert who has no skin in the game. This is another way to take the outside view. A well respected expert who has knowledge of the kind of project you’re planning can study your plans through a neutral lens. She has no incentive to make overly optimistic forecasts. She also can spot potential errors in your reasoning and assumptions you’ve made that aren’t based on solid evidence.

Include various scenarios in your planning. Smart planners often develop best-case, worst-case and most-likely-case scenarios for their projects. They attach probabilities to each, based on current knowledge of the economy and interest rates, political trends, reputations of the contractors they rely on and the like. This kind of analysis can bolster a manager’s chances of getting funding, and it demonstrates the manager’s professionalism.

Develop a reputation for accuracy in making forecasts. Sadly, there’s a risk to avoiding the optimism trap and providing accurate projections of cost, timeliness and benefits: You could lose out in the funding game to other program managers whose overly rosy estimates are convincing to decision-makers. What to do? One answer is to talk with decision-makers about your track record — your projects that came in on budget, your programs that achieved their objectives. The message: Senior managers can have confidence in your proposals. And doing this can implicitly remind your leaders that others’ proposals fell far short of their promises.

To be clear: Optimism is not a bad thing. It is sorely needed in today’s political climate. Optimism helps us remain resilient during the inevitable ups and downs of life in the public fishbowl. But optimism, like all qualities, can be overdone. When planning and pitching a project, avoid the optimism trap and play for the long run. Your leaders will learn to trust you. And that trust is invaluable.

Sexual Assault at UVA: 4 Lessons in Crisis Leadership

There are better ways to handle a situation like the one that has ignited a firestorm at the University of Virginia.

The turmoil that has enveloped the University of Virginia since Rolling Stone magazine’s publication of a scathing article describing a gang-rape at a fraternity party and a university culture “less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal” has done more than tarnish the reputation of a prestigious public institution. It has produced a primer on how not to lead during a crisis.

The Nov. 19 article included graphic references to a UVA coed, called “Jackie” by the author, who told the magazine she had been raped by seven men at a fraternity party. The article described a university culture in which sexual assaults “are kept quiet” not only by the university administration but also by students “as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture.” Later that day, UVA President Teresa Sullivan issued a statement saying, in part, that the university “takes seriously the issue of sexual misconduct” and that Charlottesville police were being asked to investigate the alleged rape. Then she left the country for a previously scheduled conference.

That’s when all hell broke loose. Students, faculty, alumni and others were outraged not only that a coed had allegedly been gang-raped but also that university officials had apparently done nothing more than offer their support to her. Dozens of current and former UVA coeds wrote to Rolling Stone describing their own rapes on the campus. A Charlottesville newspaper reported that Sullivan and others at UVA had learned of the alleged gang-rape in September but had done little except talk to fraternity leaders.

Sullivan became the focus of much of the outrage from the UVA community. How, some asked, could she refer to gang-rape and other criminal activities as “sexual misconduct”? Why didn’t she cancel her trip and address the firestorm of protests? In response, Sullivan announced that UVA was suspending all fraternities and associated parties until early this month. She also talked in much stronger terms about the problems of sexual assault on campus and promised a long-term effort to change the culture at UVA. Virginia’s attorney general announced that he had asked a prestigious law firm to investigate the rape allegations. And Rolling Stone’s editor acknowledged major discrepancies in the article and apologized, raising the question of whether the gang-rape had actually taken place — and leading to yet another storm of anger and protest.

Any institution facing such a situation needs strong, proactive leadership. To be fair, Teresa Sullivan is a caring, honest human being who has worked hard to improve the welfare of students, faculty and the institution. In this instance, however, her leadership has been flawed. Sullivan’s and other UVA leaders’ inability to understand and deal effectively with the crisis they face is a cautionary tale for all leaders and an important reminder of four key crisis-leadership principles:

• Be wary of the initial information that emerges during crises. In our rapid-fire desire for quick explanations, it’s easy to accept the first reports about a major event. The problem is that those reports are often wrong. After the 1999 murders of 13 people at Columbine High School, some students and school officials said that the two shooters had been victims of school bullying and were acting out of revenge. That explanation was quickly accepted by many professionals who work with kids. But 10 years later, David Cullen wrote in his carefully researched book Columbine that the two were not victims of bullying; indeed, he reported, one of them was often the perpetrator of bullying. Much of the information in the Rolling Stone article about UVA is now suspect, but UVA leaders initially accepted it as fact, creating serious problems for many individuals and groups.

Crisis leaders must resist the temptation to accept the first reports they receive and aggressively seek as much information as possible before taking decisive action.

• Listen carefully to people with sound judgment. President Sullivan’s immediate actions after being told in September of the alleged sexual attack seem woefully inadequate. So, too, were her first comments when the Rolling Stone article appeared two months later. Then, just days later after the article created a firestorm of anger, she switched gears and made very strong statements about rape. People were left wondering why she leapt from a passive response to an aggressive one. Her faltering responses raised an important question: What kind of advice — if any — was she getting as the crisis unfolded?

It’s very difficult to get a sense of perspective in the middle of a crisis. That’s why it’s so important to call on people whose judgment you trust, people who owe you nothing and have experience with the issue you’re facing.

• In crises, communications are (almost) everything. There may be excellent reasons why UVA officials refused for over a month to respond to multiple requests for records related to the alleged gang rape and wouldn’t say whether the report to be issued by the law firm would be made public. Those reasons were not divulged. Thus, some people wondered whether UVA leaders had something to cover up.

The crisis leader’s most precious asset is trust. During a crisis, the leader’s most critical task is to communicate sincerely, openly and consistently with all stakeholders.

• First protect people; think about reputation later. This is one of the most difficult principles for many crisis leaders, especially those who work in agencies with very strong cultures, such as law enforcement, fire/emergency services and transportation. When such agencies experience a crisis that exposes them to strong criticism, they sometimes circle the wagons and point the finger elsewhere. Such defensiveness is understandable, but it is usually counterproductive, as UVA’s leaders have learned.

Crisis leaders need to put their focus squarely on the needs of the people they serve, irrespective of the criticism being leveled at their organization. When people see leaders showing a passion for protection, when leaders focus all of their energies on handling the crisis professionally and openly, reputation usually takes care of itself.

When the Best Intentions Lead to Disaster

The VA scandal has its roots in two related management failures. Government leaders everywhere should keep them in mind.

As the Department of Veterans Affairs begins the long, difficult and expensive process of addressing the problems that led to its scandal over falsified wait times for veterans seeking medical appointments, government managers who want to keep their own enterprises out of the same kind trouble would do well to look at the elements that brought the VA down.

At the heart of the VA scandal is the falsification of records in the face of a huge surge in veterans needing care and insufficient resources to serve them. One study by federal auditors found that, while official VA reports claimed that some vets waited 24 days for an appointment, the average wait time was actually 115 days. And there is another, equally troubling aspect to the scandal: the harsh reprisals to which VA workers who tried to report wrongdoing were subjected.

At the core, I think the VA’s problems were driven by two factors: the misuse of performance measures and an agency culture that didn’t respect candor.

On the performance measures problem, VA leaders made an understandable and common mistake. To get employees’ attention, they put a huge emphasis on a single measure: All vets will have an appointment at a health clinic within 14 days of their request. Given the mismatch of demand and resources, there was no way the staff could achieve that laudable goal. Nor did the goal make sense: Vets with serious problems should be seen immediately, while it’s reasonable for those seeking an annual checkup to wait several weeks or more. Further, many supervisors’ bonuses depended on the performance numbers. Put these factors together — one all-important but unreachable goal, with one’s pay riding on the outcome — and it was a disaster waiting to happen.

To some, the candor issue might have been surprising. After all, former Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki spent three weeks in the field each year holding dozens of meetings with employees and supervisors at which he insisted on candor. But the bad news never got to him. It’s not hard to see why. A VA scheduler had to decide whether to listen to the supervisor sitting down the hall who said to game the system or to the department’s top leader who meant well but was thousands of miles removed. Tragically, all too many followed their supervisors’ orders, and those who didn’t were often punished.

So how do you turn this situation around? Provide mandatory ethics training? Fire the supervisors who told staff to cook the books? Bring in a whole new team of leaders and managers?

Management consultants often say that “what gets measured gets managed.” But when you have a single, impossible-to-achieve, high stakes measure, nobody should be surprised when some people game the system. A far smarter approach is to use a version of “the balanced scorecard,” which captures data on four key performance areas: financials, customer satisfaction, internal operations and employee learning/growth. Many public and private organizations have used versions of the scorecard with good results. There is no one meaningful metric that captures all that matters in an agency. Adopting a few (emphasize few) measures is far more realistic and effective.

In addition to using a balanced set of measures, managers need to involve employees and supervisors in devising those measures. The measures need to be ambitious but not impossible; they need to focus on things that staff has the power to control. They need to give managers and supervisors (as well as external stakeholders) data that they find useful. The VA’s all-important metric — a health-care appointment within 14 days — failed each of these tests.

As for the second issue, the VA story demonstrates that candor is vital to achieving the mission. Shinseki, a public servant of great integrity, was sincerely interested in getting honest feedback from front-line staff, but staff didn’t feel it was safe to speak up. What can agency leaders and managers do to create an open, candid environment? Here’s a starter list:

• Model candor at the top. When leaders acknowledge mistakes that they or their agency have made, it sets the right tone.

• Talk about the reasons that candor is so critical. The point isn’t candor for its own sake (although that’s a good thing). It’s to continually spot problems and opportunities for improvement.

• Craft a simple narrative that highlights the cost of stifling candor. NASA’s Challenger tragedy wouldn’t have happened had NASA’s managers been open to the engineers who tried to warn them that it was too cold to launch the spacecraft. If you say, “We can’t have another Challenger disaster” at the space agency today, people quickly understand the message.

• Work closely with your middle managers; they are the key. When senior managers frequently meet with those in the middle, they should ask them what’s going well and what isn’t, and make it safe and rewarding to talk openly about problems. When middle managers experience the power of operating in an open environment, they let their guards down and realize that candor improves agency performance (as well as their own careers).

The Department of Veterans Affairs is in serious trouble. So are other public agencies that relentlessly track one high-stakes measure and that allow retaliation to replace candor. We should all take a lesson from the VA.

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You Can’t Manage a Secret

Creating a culture of openness and candor is critical to organizational success. It takes a strong, concerted effort by leaders.

“Problems don’t get better with age.” So says Colin Powell, the former military leader and secretary of state, and he’s absolutely right. But how do you get people to bring problems to senior managers’ attention when the culture has rewarded just the opposite? The recent stories of General Motors and Ford illustrate powerfully how a culture of openness, or the lack of it, can make or break any organization, private or public.

Many were outraged when it was revealed earlier this year that GM had decided back in 2005 not to spend about a dollar per car to change an ignition switch that eventually was linked to the deaths of 13 people. What’s equally outrageous, in my view, is how little GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, knew about this problem. Barra, to be fair, is new to her job and had no role in the ignition-switch problem. But when she was presented with a number of facts about the long history of ignition-switch failures while testifying before Congress, she seemed unaware of them. And when asked why it took GM 10 years to even acknowledge the defect, she had no answer.

How could it be that the chief executive officer of a major corporation knew little about a decade-long problem that ultimately led GM to recall 2.6 million cars, resulted in at least 55 lawsuits against the company and will cost several billion dollars in fines and settlements? How could this icon of U.S. industry allow the ignition-switch problem to fester for a decade without recalling the faulty vehicles and without notifying federal authorities (as required) and the public?

The answer seems to lie in the company’s culture. For decades, GM was plagued with warring fiefdoms, so it wasn’t in one’s interest to surface problems in front of your colleagues. And even when problems were brought to senior managers’ attention, action was often impeded by poor communications between GM units. As crisis-management expert Gerry Meyers puts it, “In any big organization, there’s an effort by lower-level management to insulate upper- level management. And the more layers there are, the less [likely] that a very serious matter can get to the top.”

GM’s problems were hardly unique. From the 1980 until the Great Recession, the Big Three became arrogant, bloated in the middle and top, unwilling to learn from competitors, and increasingly disconnected from what car buyers wanted.

But there’s a very positive side to this story, and it comes from Ford. In 2006, Alan Mulally was hired away from Boeing to be Ford’s CEO. Ford veterans were amazed; some were mystified. After all, Mulally wasn’t a “car guy” — he’d spent his entire career working in the aircraft industry. True, Mulally wasn’t an expert in car design and mechanics, but he knew how to create an open, candid corporate culture, which was exactly what Ford needed.

One of Mulally’s early moves was to initiate a weekly Business Plan Review, where Ford’s senior executives meet to review the previous week’s performance numbers. From the start, Mulally required openness. His mantra was, “I can’t manage a secret!” He repeated it continually. Everyone at these meetings was expected to discuss current and anticipated problems along with their plans to address them.

After a few of these meetings, someone brought up a significant challenge. Mulally said, “So-and-so has a problem. He’s not the problem. Who can help him with that?” Soon, everyone got the message: Your responsibility is to the team and the company; you’re expected to be open. Nobody is criticized for having a problem; you’re only in trouble if you don’t raise the problem early or if you have no ideas for solving it.

These meetings, and the message they sent around the company, have been a major reason for Ford’s success under Mulally. The company, which lost over $14 billion in Mulally’s first year, has been solidly in the black for years, with strong customer satisfaction scores to boot. And Mulally has received multiple awards for his leadership, including being named 2011 CEO of the Year by Chief Executive magazine.

Colin Powell once said, “The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them.” Alan Mulally says, “I can’t manage a secret.” Different words, same sentiment. Effective leaders foster a climate that invites and rewards openness and candor. What are you doing to create such a climate?

Innovation and Government’s Fear of Failure

When it comes to trying something new in the public sector, we’re especially averse to risk. But there are ways to gain support for these kinds of initiatives.

“Why can’t government be run like a business?” How often have we heard that question? In my mind, many government functions should be run in a business-like fashion; help-desk units, customer-service offices, financial transactions and dozens of other government activities should seek out and adopt the best private-sector practices. But many Americans really don’t want government to act like a business if that means investing their tax dollars in innovative (and thus risky) programs.

Any experienced entrepreneur knows that the process of innovation involves trial and error, and often failure. Think of your favorite high-tech companies. Many of them — Apple, Twitter and PayPal, among others — began with failures. Indeed, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have a mantra: “Fail fast, fail often.” They know that you rarely get it right the first time. Develop the product, get the “beta version” in the hands of some users, learn what doesn’t work, fix it and repeat the process until you have a winner.

While most Americans are delighted to use the amazing products that survive this process, we are ambivalent at best about the risks of innovation in the public sector. Take Solyndra, a clean-energy startup that received over $500 million in federal loan guarantees and left taxpayers holding the bag when it went bust in 2011. Politicians and many other Americans were outraged, and it became an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign. Yet when the signs of a resurgence in clean-tech companies became apparent in 2013, few in the media bothered to cover it.

So it’s easy to understand why so many elected officials and public managers are risk-averse when it comes to innovation. The risk/reward ratio just isn’t in their favor. Except … except that Americans are also extremely proud of a host of innovations that came directly from government — things like land-grant universities, the Interstate Highway System, the technology underlying the Internet, drugs to treat a host of ailments, effective law-enforcement approaches such as “broken-windows” policing and CompStat, and hundreds of products developed from NASA research, such as safety grooving on our highways, aircraft de-icing systems and cordless phones.

Each of these were innovations, none of them were guaranteed to work, and all of them cost considerable money to develop. Now there is no constituency to eliminate any of them. But today, when government officials announce an effort to do something new and unproven, powerful constituencies emerge to argue against it.

What to do? How can public-sector leaders overcome risk aversion and gain support for their innovative projects? Here are some strategies to consider:

“Sell” the problem. “The cost is high, other (traditional) approaches fell short. Avoiding the problem is irresponsible.”

Manage expectations. Don’t promise the world. Call it a pilot, start small, focus on learning.

Be realistic about risk. Describe where this approach has been tried, and the results.

Partner wisely. If working with a private firm is appropriate to the task, find a respected company that has experience with the approach.

Develop a constituency. Seek backing from well-respected individuals in the community who have no self-interest in the program and believe it’s a legitimate role for government.

Compare what you want to do with other programs: The U.S. government, for example, has been funding cancer research since the late 1960s. We haven’t found the cure, but the need is huge and the public supports ongoing research.

Play to pride: “This is America. We don’t back away from the tough ones. We’re a can-do people.”

And perhaps the most important strategy is patience. Take the long view. It may take years to get the needed support to launch an initiative, guide it through the inevitable failures and setbacks, and finally see results. That’s a cost innovators learn to pay. And it’s often well worth it.

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