Are You Ready for the Next Organizational Crisis?

Abstract painting by Bryan Dubreuiel

Abstract painting by Bryan Dubreuiel

Whether it is retrieving astronauts from space or clarifying a tactless comment that created a firestorm for someone in the communications office, all organizations face challenges that force employees to think and act differently in response.

At a time when many agencies just want to fly under the radar and focus on mission work in anticipation of the next administration, there are a few that can’t seem to avoid critical attention for their handling (or mishandling) of organizational issues. The VA continues to struggle with ridding the agency of underperformers. Homeland Security faces questions about executives’ use of private email. And the National Park Service faces accusations of employing “scum” by one especially vocal Congressman.

As the public gets a glimpse into the leadership’s handling of public crises, one has to wonder what’s going on beneath the surface with the career staff. How does a pounding in the press affect morale and engagement?

We intuitively know that an engaged workforce—one that shows dedication and effort in their work—is crucial to high-performing organizations. In fact, one study  in the Harvard Business Reviewshows that employee engagement is key to reaching organizational goals, reducing turnover, improving work quality, and improving overall individual employee health.

We also know that high-performing organizations are better able to handle moments of crisis. But what about those organizations at the other end of the spectrum? What are they missing?

The very nature of some organizational challenges makes employee engagement especially important. For example, problems stemming from unethical conduct or incompetence among one or a handful of senior staff can be hugely damaging for organizations already on uncertain ground with their employees. Conversely, those with strong workforce engagement are more likely to view those events as one-offs and not as systemic problems. In moments of crisis, an engaged workforce can be the key to a quick recovery that minimizes the distraction and disruption when big problems arise.

According to one study, 73 percent of full-time workers surveyed encountered ethical lapses in management. Of those, 36 percent say they were distracted by the incident. For some, distraction means an entire day or more of productivity lost. Because of their size, large organizations have more to lose in terms of productivity and engagement when a crisis occurs.

The solution is preventative: Engage employees now to improve performance when times are good and minimize disruption when problems occur.

How? Most traditional approaches focus on leadership action and attempt to isolate employee engagement from other issues. Often, well-meaning organizations start by conducting an employee survey to collect insights into engagement drivers and barriers. Then, senior management convenes to discuss the results and develop an action plan to address the findings. More experienced executives then review progress against the plan at regular intervals and hold leaders accountable for results.  

While this approach may incrementally improve results, there is a better, simpler way: Engage employees on actual problems. Invite them into a participative process to share what they and their teams need to fully unlock discretionary effort. Employees who believe their opinions are valued will have the best ideas to create a better workplace experience that benefits them, their teams, and the overall performance of the business.

This post originally appeared in GovExec.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.