Judy Smith is the author of Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets. She is one of the premier crisis management experts in the world, Smith has become the go-to person for corporations, politicians, and celebrities seeking counsel in times of crisis. She has worked on: the Iran Contra investigation, the prosecution of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, the impeachment process of President Clinton, the Chandra Levy investigation, as well as the Enron Congressional inquiry. She also serves as a counselor to BellSouth, Union Pacific, Starwood Hotels, Nextel, Federated Department Stores, among other companies.
In this interview, Judy talks about how to handle a workplace crisis, how to handle a bad manager situation, the worst crisis she's experienced, and more.
What is the first thing you should do if you're in a crisis at work? What should you avoid at all costs?
The first thing you will want to do is conduct a 360 degree assessment of your situation. You need to know the facts, the players, and understand the landscape in which you are operating from in order to develop an effective crisis communication strategy. At one time the landscape would have simply meant the office or corporate environment but in today’s age of information and global connection, often there are layers to the landscape to be considered. For example the recent situation with JP Morgan, if that crisis happened 15 or 20 years ago, it might not have been so likely that the JP Morgan would have been called up on the hill. But in light of the countries financial situation and resulting financial climate—it is a big difference. The amount of media given to it is far greater, more probing and given to a wider range of opinions from many with different agendas. Such attention, especially in a complex setting such as finance, can give rise to out of context statements that can negatively impact the brand. It’s much easier today to become a target.
So determining the scale of the crisis would obviously determine the response. What you should avoid at all costs is to lie, it might buy you some time but it will eventually mushroom your problem. Find someone you can trust to discuss your options with, you may be too caught up emotionally to see clearly. In order to gain some control of the situation you will need to be proactive rather than reactive. If you know a problem is looming, initiate dialogue before it breaks there’s a better chance of you handling it on your own terms. And realize that it will be a difficult time but not an impossible one.
What do you do if you can't get along with your manager? Should you quit or try and work it out?
It is always prudent to make honest efforts to work out issues with your manager. However, while some issues can easily be resolved through frank dialogue, there are situations where it may be in one’s best interest to seek other opportunities. And assume that whatever you say about your manager will get back to him whether that was your intention or not. If you do leave and need a reference try to go to someone else, if you can’t, discuss the situation with your possible future employer.
Out of all of your experiences, what was the worst workplace crisis you've ever seen and why?
The recent environmental disaster involving the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an example of a monumental corporate crisis that was compounded by the company’s response. The company’s failure to initially communicate clearly and accurately to the public the magnitude of the crisis, coupled with the numerous gaffes made by its CEO, severely damaged the company’s reputation and credibility with the public.
In your book, you identify seven traits found in a crisis. Which ones do you find most often and how do you prevent them from getting out of hand?
I think Ego and Ambition are the two most frequent traits that can lead to a crisis. They are usually the driving force that can cause other traits, such as denial, and fear to arise. In my book I isolate the traits to better discuss them but there is certainly overlap and most crises develop as the result of a mixture of them. For instance, Ego is a healthy quality, it gives us confidence and often propels us to success but when it is out of control—it can really reap havoc. Once Ego pushes too far it can create situations that trigger other traits such as Denial. A person may hold such a high regard of themselves that they are blind to what is happening before them. How do you repair a broken work relationship at the office?
Never underestimate the power of open and honest communication. Often times people talk past one another and don’t really listen to what it is their colleagues and managers are truly saying, and in my experience this disconnect often leads to problems in the workplace. Try to understand their position as well as yours and see if you can come to an agreement on how to proceed.
Dan Schawbel is the managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and management consulting firm. He is also the #1 international bestselling author of Me 2.0 and was named to the Inc. Magazine 30 Under 30 list in 2010. Subscribe to his updates at Facebook.com/DanSchawbel.