Image: ID 96660940 © Nipon Temsakun | Dreamstime.com
Words can be powerful. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than in Belgium, where I’m on the hunt for a new assignment. It’s proving challenging, but not because I lack the expert skills and experience of a transformation professional. Pas du tout!
In this tiny country, being trilingual is the norm. There are even secondary school education programmes where scientific subjects are taught in English, history in French and Maths in Dutch. Geweldig! I’ll wager good money that the average Belgian teenager speaks English and Dutch better than their UK counterparts.
It may sound like a cliche but Britons are the worst at learning other languages. In a recent survey by ESOL, 62% of people in the UK speak only English, and only 38% can make themselves understood in another tongue. Compare this to the 56% of Europeans who speak one other language, and the 28% who speak two! Half of EU citizens can hold a conversation in English.
At my level of seniority English is usually the business language of choice. Still, I feel at a disadvantage if I cannot express myself in fluent Dutch or French. I spent 6 months learning Dutch and practicing it as often as I can. It’s not perfect, but after 2 years I can describe what I do and how I do it and I’ve got to the point where Flemish Belgians do not switch automatically to English when they hear me speak, though they do make fun of my accent. I’m following an evening class in photography and make presentations in Dutch, so ‘ik spreek nederlands’. French is another story.
All of this has got me thinking about how important language is. Of course it’s possible to create cross-cultural rapport without the benefit of bilingualism, but somehow putting yourself in someone else’s shoes by being able to communicate in more than one language goes a long way – both personally and professionally. Shared vocabulary makes for greater connection, which is much needed in the digital echo-chamber we call work.
The devastation wreaked by Sandy on the Eastern Seaboard has suspended trading on the NYSE, closed airports and turned one of the most vibrant cities in the world into a ghost town. Watching footage on last night’s news, it’s been interesting to see how US leaders and local officials have mobilised their resources and crafted their messages to the American people. A very different response to that of Hurricane Katrina, where the former US President was caught napping. Hard lessons have been learned – it’s very clear that action (rather than vacation) is being taken.
This got me thinking about the best way to deal with a corporate crisis. I admit, unless you are a paramedic or doctor, workplace dramas are not of the same magnitude as Super-storm Sandy. It’s business after all, not brain surgery! However, get it wrong, and the collateral damage & reputational aftermath can be as devastating as a botched lobotomy.
So how can you handle a crisis? Here are my top tips:
- Stuff happens…be ready when it does. No matter how organised you are, there will always be things in business that arrive like distant relatives – unannounced, inconvenient and staying for a while. Redundancy, clients that won’t pay on time, technological snafus, product launches that bomb. Although most large corporates have contingency planning built into their strategy, there is always an eventuality that has not been accounted for. The recent banking crisis is a case in point. Even small businesses and entrepreneurs are not immune to Murphy’s Law. The point is, you need to acknowledge that things go wrong from time to time and be prepared to take remedial action when this occurs.
- One, two, three…breathe. Headless chickens are not terribly attractive. Neither are ostriches. So when things go wrong, avoid the temptation to race around at breakneck speed trying to fix things. Ever heard of the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’? I realise this may seem totally contradictory to the point I’ve just made, but the distinction here is: you take stock, not a nap! Consideration, not procrastination. I also don’t have to tell you what part of the ostrich is visible when it’s head is stuck in the sand.
- Get the right help. Depending on the crisis in question, you may need external advice. Don’t make the mistake of toughing it out on your own, because you are too proud to ask for help. You wouldn’t go to a car mechanic to get your tooth filled, would you? Make sure you have access to the best team you can get – especially if the crisis is legal, financial or medical. If you are a small business, and cost is an issue your local business bureau or citizens advice centre can provide access to appropriate resources. And remember your support team can be a virtual posse or a trusted group of colleagues.
- Words and deeds. When dealing with a crisis, make sure that any action you take is followed up with clear communication. Whether it’s your customers or employees who are being affected, it’s vital that you tell it like it is. Don’t fudge the issue, don’t make excuses. To paraphrase the philosopher Don Miguel Ruiz, you must be ‘ impeccable with your word’. Hard though it might be, that means matching language with action. Do what you say you will do to make things right. And, as crises are often as unpredictable as the weather, be prepared for things to change rapidly. Adjust your communication accordingly.
Finally, just as the US clean-up will begin once the storm has passed, the real work usually starts when you have to deal with what comes next. As John F Kennedy once said: ‘When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity’.
What do you think? How do you handle a crisis? Share your top tips on the blog.