Too many business leaders don’t know how to assess risk and wisely respond to negative perceptions, both in-house and external.
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Negative perceptions happen, inside and outside a business, and when strong enough, can take the form of a wave of anger, resentment and backlash for a company, leader or both. Painful perception-related consequences are always a risk, so what can you do to avoid them, and what can be learned if they do occur?
Business is not just products, services, value, revenue and profit. People are involved, who are often closely watching and judging decisions and behavior as acceptable or egregious. It’s important therefore to accept that vocal disproval can be aimed your way. A failure to show both emotional and professional intelligence in responding to it, and promptly, and you risk being exposed additionally, not least in regular and social media. This type of mindset — whether characterized by indifference, insensitivity or aggression — is essentially playing fast and loose with risk management, reputation and financial stability.
Far better in every professional measure is assessing carefully the societal landscape and putting safeguards in place that ensure respect and care for your stakeholders, while representing yourself well to the public. In essence, the aim is to think compassionately (and thus, ethically) to foster the most productive analysis in decision-making. Learn to do this skillfully and consistently, then make it a non-negotiable standard for all staff members, and an organization will find it geometrically easier to self correct. A system thus designed will be structurally devoted to the prevention of errors — creating, effectively, insurance against mistakes of commission or omission.
How? First, become more familiar with the news. Observe incidents in which other individuals and companies fall short of expectations — the results often-expensive self-inflicted damage to reputations and bottom lines. Learn from these mistakes, and analyze the pain that resulted from them. These are invaluable lessons. Also, realize that it is not outside of the realm of possibility that you could be the next target of resentment within or outside your company — the possible consequence intense media examination, with all its destabilizing energy.
Ask yourself what governance and compliance guardrails you have set up, personally and organizationally, against possible attacks. Have you done a stress test, for example, to see if they are sufficiently strong and reliable? What structure is in place to catch problems as they begin to develop, and make certain that you see or hear about them swiftly? How specifically will you be informed about them? From whom? Will you catch everything, and if not, why not? Where are the gaps in your structure and protection?
A key component of perception insurance is empowering trustworthy people close to you and encouraging strong unhappy feedback — whistleblowing (with a verbal and written assurance of protection for staff members) — on yourself and the company so that someone outside your inner circle can’t scoop a conflict. Both can make the difference between learning of a potential crisis in time to examine and respond to it, or being publically labeled incompetent, or worse. This is a tricky proposition for executives — essentially making them vulnerable to their people, but it can do wonders for institutional wellbeing. Inviting feedback of inconvenient, upsetting and dangerous truths can be one of the best things you can do for your name, mission, career and the health and growth of a business.
The vision and commitment to engage in this type of thinking will prove invaluable, and help keep your and your company’s name away from the roil and rush of virtual judge and jury and resulting negative public opinion.