Complacency can be a Killer


I recently saw an e-mail on the OD List that I want to share verbatim with my readers and I have the writer’s permission to do so. The e-mail is written by Allon Shevat, an OD Consultant from Israel.

My comments straight after this e-mail.

4 years ago, the train station where I board was bombed at 0700 am. (I was to have been on the 0900 am train.) The station was torn apart, the security guard died, and many people waiting in line were maimed.

Ever since then, there is far more security…….but like many things in my country, it is sloppy and undisciplined.

An airport scanner was installed and now, everything goes on the scanner and passengers must personally walk thru a detector after first emptying one’s pockets.

People wait in the sweltering heat to be checked, and at peak hours it is more or less like JKF in peak hours.

The person who mans the scanner is on her cell phone all the time. She yaks and yaks and yaks, and, like many Israelis (and Indians), she has more than one phone; as she yaks, she send text messages on the other phone.

A few weeks ago, I yelled out “what good is this check point when she is not looking at the screen”? She pulled me aside and told me “I will make sure you take the bus”. I showed her my card with my military reserve rank, and she almost passed out. Within two days, I had a written apology and she was given 2 weeks suspension.

Now she is back again, and…..on her phones.

I was faced with a real dilemma. Since our society is VERY VERY tolerant of bad discipline, (life is hard so we all deserve breaks), I know that I have no chance with getting her off her phone or dismissed.

Yesterday I made my decision and filmed her on her phones and sent the clip to the head to the train hq.

Last night I got a call that “she really needs her salary but you are right; we will have a good talk to her and ensure corrective action is taken……in other words……there is to be no change.

Some societies and cultures are sadly more resistant to random acts of responsibility.

My response.

Until the next bombing……

For the past 16 years I have been an independent consultant focusing on Corporate Reputation. Yet, there is another side to me. I am also a trainer and consultant in Occupational Health & Safety – and it is a passion of mine.

For the past 16 years I used to perform Health & Safety training and consulting a few days a month on behalf of an ISO registered OSHA Compliance consultancy.

What I find so enticing is to raise people’s awareness of health & safety issues (dangers) in the workplace. After these workshops delegates cannot express enough gratitude and the statements are always universally the same:

“Thank you for raising my awareness”!

How do we make people more aware about potential crises in the workplace?

This question should interest all managers.

I believe that it is necessary to expose managers to that type of thinking, that we educate and train them, and we share knowledge. The South African Occupational Health & Safety Act has a number of conditions and issues that has made it one of the most benchmarked Acts in the world. One of the interesting requirements and questions that arise from it:

Have you given the employee adequate information, education, and training in his task considering the task, the hazards, potential outcomes and consequences of non-compliance?

jpg_00004473A few years ago I had the opportunity of standing at the top of the Empire State Building in New York. Standing there with the wind blowing me nearly off my feet, I could not help but visualize friends jumping of the burning World Trade Centre.

911 has come and gone. Yet for many organisations the impact, reality and lessons from it does not remain. How many organisations have not slipped back into the normal mode of doing things? Assuming that an incident like 911 will never happen to them?

Recently I was in a building in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa when I decided to use the fire escape instead of the lift, but between the 3rd and 4th floor was a locked gate. When I called the Facilities manager he said the following words to me: “Deon, you worry too much. If a fire breaks out, someone will come and unlock this gate!” No way, in my experience most people look out for number one in any crisis – themselves.

Standing at the 911 site, the thought arose in my mind as to what should an organization do if you are faced with a situation that is beyond an organisation’s normal scope to act? Health & Safety experts teach that 2% of accidents are “Acts of God”, 10% caused by unsafe conditions but that 88% of accidents are caused by unsafe behavior.

How does a company deal with the hand of fate and at the same time protect its reputation and integrity? How can a company come out “smelling like roses”.

One simple lesson is that stakeholders will forgive you for mistakes, but they will not forgive a company for not caring. Therefore in line with industry experience a company who aims to be a good corporate citizen should prepare for any eventual crisis.

But for what and how? Since 9/11, nearly every emergency preparedness and business continuity regulation and industry best practice in the USA has been strengthened, several even mentioning the threat of terrorism as a prime motivation for their enhancements. In South Africa, interest seems to be only to cope with the demands of the latest sporting events.

Considering the following points will help you prepare your organization for the worst.

1. Remember that the very things you believe cannot happen to your organisation can. Professor Ian Mitroff, who for more than 20 years headed up the Institute for Crisis Management ran a crisis management workshop in New York about two weeks before 911 happened. Most of the executives present, represented multi-national companies. In compiling likely risks, car bombs featured at the top of the list. However no one mentioned “flying bombs”. Mitroff goes on to say that something is lacking, and that “That something is our ability to think comprehensively about crisis”. Are you thinking comprehensively about crisis?

2. Equip yourself with knowledge so that you can help your organization be better prepared. One of the most frequent comments I hear from clients is not that they do not know the answers, but that they don’t know the right questions to get started in their planning or to persuade management to allocate resources for this planning. You can read the various good books out there in bookshops or you could equip yourself in the short term by attending training workshops such as my Crisis Management & Communication workshops.

3. Talk to the specialists (consultants, local authorities and emergency management service providers) in your area. If possible, contact your suppliers and find out who has done this type of planning before so that you can reduce your organisation’s learning curve.

4. Revisit the basics of crisis management. I walk into many organisations to do OSHA Compliance workshops only to find out that the organisation have not recently conducted any fire drills, if any. To assume that everyone will be able to escape the building and be accounted for is dangerous. One large firm affected by 9/11 took more than three days to account for its personnel because they lost their primary means to track and contact employees.

5. Appoint one person who is responsible for crisis preparedness across the organization and communicate his or her identity to managers at all levels.

Ensure each crisis planning team (strategic crisis management, business continuity, crisis communications, disaster recovery, emergency response, employee impact, etc.) knows the relationship between their plan(s) and the overall organization’s crisis management goals and objectives. (I provide a two day training course that enables managers to create one integrated crisis management action plan that can assist you. Or, you can purchase my Crisis Toolkit).

6. Audit your organisation’s crisis plans. The audit should cover evacuation/egress planning, personnel accountability, emergency system shutdown procedures, correct names/numbers on emergency phone lists, media and other stakeholder communications guidelines, family communications guidelines, expectations for employee communications and support.

6. Consider holding a table top exercise or discussion around a likely event.

Brainstorm likely crises; determine the roles each team member is expected to play while responding to an incident will help identify strengths and weaknesses in your organization’s ability to respond, especially for teams requiring interaction during the response. Scenario planning is a helpful tool leading to overall preparedness. No organization does everything well, and exercises are a terrific way to highlight improvement needs for multiple areas at one time.

(I work together with organisations to design, develop and facilitate likely scenarios unique to that organisation. I assisted ATNS with that before the World Cup Soccer event, and assisted the Department of Statistics during the Census 2011)

7. Nearly every survey taken after 9/11 has shown that the most overlooked area of crisis preparedness is the human and communication side. When Saambou, the South African bank closed down one employee committed suicide.

Work closely with EAP (Employee Assistance) experts, psychologists, the church and other specialists to determine modes of action prior to problems happening. Communication is integral to making any plan work and should be factored in from the outset.

8. It isn’t enough to know that your organization is better prepared. The impact of a crisis may become an industry issue and affect your business.

The Marikana shooting incidents and riots have placed an unnecessary burden on the Mining Industry in South Africa and has the potential to negatively impact investment in South Africa, and this at a time, just as we are getting things right.

Build alliances with suppliers and industry experts before a crisis breaks, so that you can make use of this expertise when the time comes.

There is lots can be done, but the biggest danger is that of Complacency. Complacency to the extent that people tell me they attended a first aid workshop 8 years ago.

Is your capability/competency still current? If not, you may just hurt the other person.

How sharp is your axe? How current are your Crisis Management & Crisis Communication plans and Capability?

Let me share with you a story written by the late Stephen Covey.

Once upon a time, a very strong woodcutter asked for a job to a timber merchant, and he got it. The pay was good and so were the working conditions. For that reason, the woodcutter was determined to do his best. His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he was supposed to work. The first day, the woodcutter brought 18 trees “Congratulations,” the boss said. “Carry on that way!”.


Very motivated with the boss’s words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could bring only 15 trees. The third day he tried even harder, but could bring 10 trees only. Day after day he was bringing less and less trees. “I must be losing my strength”, the woodcutter thought.
He went to the boss and apologized, saying that he could not understand what was going on. “When was the last time you sharpened your Axe?” the boss asked.

“Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my Axe. I have been very busy trying to cut more trees for you.”

Complacency is akin to not sharpening your axe.

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One comment

  1. Duncan Matheson

    Very well thought-out response Deon, as usual. And a very nice site. Someone looking for insights into reputation management would do well to spend some time reading your various entries – a ton of solid, no nonsense information.