By Karen Couf Cohen

What should an organization do when a poor decision (or right decision handled poorly), sets off an avalanche of bad press and ill will among stakeholders?

My role as a trustee and PR professional unintentionally put me in a pivotal role in the melees of two nonprofits that each faced an organization crisis. These experiences taught me a few things about listening and the importance of empathy.

Two Organizations, Two Crises

One crisis was in a faith-based organization, when the poorly handled firing of a clergy member split the organization in half, with one side suing the other. Board meetings were filled with highly charged allegations and potential court appearances.

The other happened in a cultural institution when a decision to raze a beloved historic and aging structure and rebuild it, erupted in a slow boil of resentments.

The lack of sensitivity, transparency, and defensiveness by the Board of Trustees in both organizations fueled a climate of mistrust and escalating calamity. Each made hugely unpopular (but necessary) decisions by the mostly male board leadership.

Emotions Run High

The decisions elicited highly negative emotional responses from constituents, that had the very real potential of dividing and destroying these century-old institutions. In just days, two organizations that had spent over 100 years branding themselves as institutions of sterling values and integrity were on the brink of collapse.

The disasters were averted when each group began to understand what the opposition was experiencing. They rose above the drama and proceeded with empathy, following these guidelines:

  • Start with the assumption that change and transparency is healthy for your organization.
  • Identify the underlying emotional distress of your constituents.
  • Determine what matters need validating and validate them.
  • Discourage email communications once ANY emotions are involved.
  • Create face-to-face meetings for stakeholders to voice their concerns.
  • Follow up on all concerns.
  • Consider a change of staff when appropriate.

Effective Leadership

Both organizations, knowingly or not, participated in emotionally intelligent leadership, outlined in a theory proposed by psychologist and author Daniel Goleman. His 1995 book Emotional Intelligence was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year and a half with more than 5 million copies in print worldwide in 40 languages.

Goleman puts empathy in a five-part package of tools essential to effective leadership:

  1. Self-awareness, (don’t let your emotions rule you)  
  2. Self-regulation (don’t let your emotions control you),
  3. Motivation (defer immediate results for long term success),
  4. Social skills (team players and good communicators),
  5. Empathy(the ability to understand the needs and wants of those around you, living in an open and honest way).

And by the way, it may come as no surprise that women are more likely to utilize empathy. According to research by the Hay Group, the preeminent global people and organizational advisory firm, women score higher than men on nearly all emotional intelligence competencies. Using the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) developed by Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis, they found that women employ the emotional and social competencies correlated with effective leadership and management more effectively than men.

While a crisis may involve the health, safety, well-being and financial stability of an organization, at the end of the day, in an emergency, people respond emotionally and for that, GET YOUR EMPATHY ON.

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Karen Couf Cohen is a writer and a public relations consultant living in Franklin, MI. Visit her company website: Karen Couf Cohen Public Relations for more about her storytelling and media pitches on behalf of clients.

 A member of AWC  for over 10 years, she is profiled in the Detroit Chapter’s business directory and featured on the national Trending blog.