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Alan M. Webber

Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

Shooting the Panicked Cow

Panic, as we all remember from our Greek mythology class, comes from the Greek god Pan, who would run through the forests playing his pipes and inspiring the innocent shepherds and shepherdesses to, um, misbehave. That's what we're up again, whether dealing with the prospect of a pandemic or a corporate crisis that causes the organization to freak out and start to, um, misbehave.

Animals also panic, and in the old days, when a herd of cows started stampeding, the cowboys would solve that problem by riding to the front of the stampeding herd and shooting the animal that was leading the charge. That had a way of calming the herd. However, in the case of corporate panics that technique is frowned on.

So what's a leader to do? Over the last few days, as the question of a pandemic has surged and receded, only to surge again, we've seen some pretty good object lessons. They apply equally to corporate leadership and to public institutions. But the rules are not hard to perceive.

1. Use information to combat irrational fear. The basic competition is between fear and reason. Fear is a lot easier to create, but information is the antidote. Put out lots and lots of down-to-earth information. Think like a stampeding herd and respond to the questions a herd of mindless cattle would ask: Are we all going to die? If we get sick what should we do? Is the company going to fail? Will I lose my job? Is that a cliff ahead--and should I just run off it? Answer these questions, then answer them again. Be grounded, specific, and pragmatic.

2. Don't make promises you can't keep. In the case of companies, after a lay-off or a devastating financial report, employees always want to know, "Is this as bad as it's gonna get?" In other words, will I lose my job? In the case of pandemics, people want to know, "Will more people die?" Don't make promises you can't keep.

3. Local is better than universal. David Brooks made a good point in his column: While the economy is global, we tend to trust people who are closer to home. That's true for companies and pandemics. When the person who's talking to you about the company is someone you know and see on a regular basis, you believe them more readily than when it is a global officer speaking via video-conference from Switzerland.

4. There's no such thing as being too visible. When panic is in the air, you can't ever retire from the field. You can make a report to the employees about the current situation--but as soon as the situation changes, you've got to get back in front of them and provide an update. Keep up with changing events.

5. If all else fails, try riding to front of the herd and shooting the lead animal. This only works, however, with cattle and certain kinds of salespeople.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  April 29, 2009; 10:56 AM ET
Category:  Managing Crises Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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