Business To The Rescue?
For much of my 20-year career I have been a counselor on one corporate or reputational crisis or another. I love it. Not because I enjoy the 15 – 20-hour days or because I revel in the stress of others. I love it because as any good crisis counselor knows, behind every issue there is a tremendous opportunity for growth. In fact, I see these events as a powerful call to companies to stretch themselves, become something new and evolve into something bigger and better. What I love is helping and watching companies take these terrifying moments and do the hard work to uncover something greater within them. To use the lessons they’ve learned to take a new stance, do something bold, make better decisions and help others.
When I take a step back and look at the various issues I’ve helped companies navigate, one common theme rises to the top: by taking an adversarial view of the issues or people involved this opportunity for growth is missed entirely. Which brings me back to the subject of empathy.
When something is calling our attention, as is the point of any crisis, sometimes it does so by getting personal or attacking our very sense of security. When an organization faces a reputational crisis – for example, United Airlines dealing with a passenger being dragged from their plane in 2017 and the ensuing social media outcry that followed – it is incredibly easy to become defensive. To immediately issue a statement, to inoculate the company and its employees by putting up walls and enumerating the counterpoints. This is human nature – fight or flight. We are built to protect ourselves.
But, as we explore empathy in business, a new path is emerging. By looking at it through this lens of empathy, it’s clear that these adversarial situations and/or individuals are asking us to lean in, to listen without judgment and to SEE them. This is not to say that we give up our boundaries or that businesses should stop protecting themselves. That would be foolish. However, what I am saying is that the standard in any issue or crisis management protocol should first be to put ourselves in our adversaries’/victims’/boycotters’ shoes. To see the broader context for their pain, frustration, anger and to look within and find common ground with those very human emotions. From there, it is incumbent on the organization to use its resources to solve real problems. To say ‘thank you for educating me’ and to put its power behind addressing the bigger needs that sit at the core of the issue.
We’ve seen empathy employed in a crisis with Southwest Airline’s first in-flight fatality in April 2018. An engine exploded in mid-flight, killing one passenger and forcing an emergency landing in Philadelphia. While the in-flight crew made sure the plane landed safely, Southwest worked to ensure passengers had travel and accommodations arrangements in Philadelphia as well as onsite trauma counseling. They also kicked off an immediate investigation to discover just what went wrong. Afterwards, the CEO kept the public informed of all updates and progress, and Southwest continued to provide ongoing support for the passengers affected (including counseling and financial assistance). Lastly, they paused their social media advertising and instead started listening and responding in real time to online conversations about the incident. Examples like these stand out in our mind because we ultimately want to see powerful, resource-rich brands come to the rescue. To use their own trials and tribulations as a moment to display empathy, to watch them say, ‘we are here to learn, to understand and to do better.’ That is a superpower.
Remember this: when faced with the unthinkable, empathy should be the starting point. With that foundation, even in the worst situations, it’s what makes a hero out of a villain.