Crisis Management: Juan Williams – emotional decision making?: From the archives
Let’s do a thought experiment. You run National Public Radio and your veteran news analyst Juan Williams talks about Muslims on Fox News”s O’Reilly Factor and generates complaints. Williams has been making paid appearances as a “liberal” on the conservative Factor for years while still commentating on NPR. The Fox visits have been a philosophical thorn in your side because you believed them inconsistent with his news analyst role for you. His latest comment, that he gets nervous when he sees people on planes in Muslim garb, is the last straw. You’ve been doing a slow burn and now Williams has gone too far. Though his personal remark made some sense when heard in context, you’re still angry, embarrassed, and still fending off griping listeners. The bile rises. You’ve had it! It’s time to throw out Williams and put this current and chronic mess to rest. You are about to pick up the phone and dismiss him.
Now pause. As a decision-maker reading along with me, what would YOU do? Your emotions are running high. You’ve felt this way before in challenging situations: fuming, indignant, feeling it’s your company and time for you to act. In a small way, it’s reminiscent of having drafted a blistering email and your finger hovers over the “send” key.
But haven’t you found through experience that this is precisely the time you do NOT send that nasty email? Likewise, it is not the time to preemptively fire an employee. You’ve learned to listen to that gnawing in your gut that when you’re wrought up it is best to stop. Step back. Take a breath. Consult your team or a trusted advisor who speaks truth to your power. Don’t force it. You’ve discovered the hard way that once you fire off that hot email or precipitously acted that there is no turning back. It is permanent. There’s no retreat. You understand that these are the times to be the quiet voice of reason. How often have you pulled back from the brink of reacting emotionally and later thought, “Thank goodness I didn’t do that?”
I don’t know how much NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller calmly reflected before firing Williams but given the predictable fallout that has since crashed on her network and all NPR stations, it would appear she did not deliberate sufficiently before dumping Williams via telephone. Pollster Frank Luntz said a focus group composed equally of Republicans and Democrats unanimously opposed the firing. Ironically, Muslim freelance writer Emilio Karim Dabul wrote in The Wall Street Journal that even he sometimes feared other Muslims on planes and that Williams’ dismissal was “…one of the worst examples of rush to judgment since 9/11.”
Speed saves in a crisis but rush to judgment doesn’t. Passionate leaders seeking a process to offset their emotions during decision-making consider this: first, predict the worst outcome of your planned action and decide whether you could live with it. This way, even if you are still convinced of your correctness you will have anticipated the blowback and how to respond. Second, favor the option likely to generate the fewest unintended consequences.
My bet is NPR management would have handled Juan Williams differently if they’d stopped, stepped back, took a breath, discussed it, and contemplated the worst-case outcome now in their lap.