Fear Kills Credibility

The pilot just announced that after nearly two hours of flying from Canada to Mexico, we are headed back to the airport. A fault indicator had tripped for the landing gear. I’m writing this in real time. 

“We don’t believe there is a serious problem but we’re headed back to check it out.”

Now, what do you suppose some people are thinking, despite the pilot’s assurances? 

“Are we all going to die??” Unspoken, but you know it’s there.

The pilots words will not assuage people who worry. Fear shuts down listening even to our most credible leaders. 

It’s the same with change. I tell leaders that a change to the color of a computer application will lead some people to believe the whole application has been rewritten. Even if you tell them, “It’s a minor change,” they will complain that everything is different and avoid using it until someone personally explains just what the &@$! is going on. I’ve seen it happen.

When we roll out change the focus is on the benefits: “This will be good for you!” It’s tempting to downplay the pain that will be involved in change. The risks. The fact that the landing gear might not deploy.

Should the pilot have told us about the fault? Most of us were blissfully unaware. 

Yes! Just prior to the announcement I overheard a passenger ask an attendant if we had turned around as she was watching the flight map on the entertainment system. 

You can’t hide bad news. It’s never good when people wonder why they weren’t told sooner. People need time to process bad news as much as they need time to process change. I watched it happen. 

After the flight announcement there was a lot of buzz on the plane as people discussed what they just heard. There were complaints and suggestions about what they should be doing. Then it settled down. The pilot continued to give updates and reassurances. People reconciled themselves with the facts of the situation and returned to their books and videos.

Keep them informed early and often. Tackle the tough questions people are thinking about. We need to spend just as much time tackling fear as we do highlighting benefits. Don’t hide bad news. 

We landed just fine. 

Thoughtfully yours,
Jeff Skipper

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