When most people hear the words ‘crisis management’, they most often think of dramatic corporate disasters such as the BP oil spill, Toyota’s accelerator pedal recall, or the Chicago Tylenol murders. For most of us, these infrequent events catch our attention but do not affect our everyday lives. Instead, individuals face a constant barrage of professional crises that must be managed. At the very least, these situations increase stress and reduce happiness. In the extreme, they threaten your career.
One of the most impressive and consistent characteristics among senior leaders is how calm they seem despite the enormous responsibilities and the political pressure that surrounds them. You want to be the one that other people want in the foxhole with them when the bombs start flying. Your ability to remain, or to appear to remain, calm under fire will define you as an unflappable crisis manager.
Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Chicago area Tylenol poisonings is widely regarded as the best example of corporate crisis management. Let’s look at their actions to extract best practices that you can apply to your everyday crises.
On Wednesday September 29, 1982, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois died a few hours after taking one Extra-Strength Tylenol to treat her cold symptoms. Doctors initially attributed her death to a stroke. The same morning, Adam Janus of Arlington Heights, Illinois took a Tylenol to sooth his mild chest pain. Within hours he was dead of what doctors suspected to be a massive heart attack. That evening, Adam’s brother and sister-in-law consumed capsules from the same Tylenol bottle while gathering to mourn. They met a similar fate. Dr. Thomas Kim of the Northwest Community Hospital suspected that the deaths of the three Janus family members were linked, but his hypothesis was exposure to poison gas.
On a typical day in the Chicago metropolitan area about 200 people die of natural and unnatural causes. So, identifying any common thread between the deaths of Mary Kellerman and the three Janus family members amounts to finding a needle in a haystack. However, two off-duty firefighters did just that and at lightning speed.
Knowing that young Mary Kellerman had taken Tylenol before her death, Elk Grove firefighter Richard Keyworth asked his friend Arlington Heights firefighter Philip Cappitelli to check with paramedics to see if the Janus family members had also ingested the pain reliever. Once the connection was found, police retrieved the suspicious bottles from the Kellerman and Janus homes and sent them for testing.
By Thursday September 30, Cook County Chief Toxicologist Michael Shaffer confirmed that capsules in the bottles were filled with approximately 65 milligrams of potassium cyanide, about 10,000 times the dose necessary to kill the average person. Johnson and Johnson was notified immediately and Chicago police officers drove through the streets blasting warnings through their loudspeakers urging people to avoid taking Tylenol. All three major television networks reported the story in the evening news.
On Friday October 1st, the Food and Drug Administration issued a consumer advisory to avoid taking Tylenol capsules “until the series of deaths in the Chicago area can be clarified.” Despite the warnings, three more people perished from tainted Tylenol in the Chicago area by the end of the day bringing the death toll to seven.
In the ensuing chaos, Tylenol took as much time as they could to analyze the facts. They discovered that the deadly bottles had come from four manufacturing lots produced at two separate factories over the period of many weeks. Though cyanide was available at the factories, the company concluded that the bottles must have been tainted after shipping since the deaths were concentrated in one geographic area and in a short time span. The evidence pointed to the hypothesis that someone must have purchased the bottles, added the poison, and put the bottles back on the shelf. (Though a conviction has never been obtained, the prime suspect served 13 years of a 20 year sentence for attempting to extort $1 million from Johnson and Johnson as well as six unrelated counts of mail and credit card fraud).
Johnson and Johnson had taken the time to establish the root cause and considered their next move. On Tuesday October 5, the company halted production and advertising and issued a nationwide recall of 31 million bottles with a retail value of over $100 million. After extensive testing, investigators found a total of seven bottles with between three and ten tainted capsules placed in six Chicago area stores.
In the aftermath, Tylenol’s share of the pain reliever market dropped from 35 percent to 8 percent. Respected industry pundits confidently pronounced that the Tylenol brand could never recover. Against this headwind, Johnson and Johnson reintroduced Tylenol a mere five weeks later on November 11, 1982 with new tamper proof packaging, a large advertising campaign, and a $2.50 coupon. Within a year, Tylenol had regained the entire share it had lost. As of this writing, Tylenol remains a household name and is likely sitting in your medicine cabinet.
Give yourself as much space and time as possible
A crisis is a crisis because you are faced with a threat or opportunity and not enough time to make a clear, fact-based decision. Everyday crises include being confronted by a co-worker, making a keep-or-kill choice on a project, and managing work-life balance. Whether the crisis is actual or perceived, the stress is palpable. Under such strain, the worst blunder you can make is to execute without a sufficient knowledge.
The only way to gain a fact base is to carve out as much space and time as possible to diagnose the situation. In extreme situations, you should at least have the ability to step out of the room and collect your thoughts. Most often, you will have hours and even days to act. When carving out time, remember your mission is to resolve the crisis to the best of your ability the first time, not to solve it as fast as possible at all costs.
On Thursday September 30th, Johnson and Johnson learned that the company was facing an epic corporate and public health crisis. Rather than make an immediate defensive and emotional reaction, the company took five days to figure out what to do with the product on the shelves and five weeks to figure out how to re-launch the brand. By taking as much time as they could to determine the facts and craft a decisive response, Johnson and Johnson established the model of what great looks like in crisis management.
Apply your rational rather than emotional problem solving skills to the crisis
Although you will be facing a compressed time scale, apply your full set of problem solving skills to the crisis. Form an initial hypothesis, gather facts, identify complications, and choose a resolution. When crisis strikes, the most important and oft ignored part of problem solving is fact gathering. Take a deep breath, remove the emotion, and try to identify the true root of the problem. Make a fact based decision, not a gut decision.
In my experience, most professional crises come in the form of interpersonal conflict. To solve this form of crisis, you need to get into the head of the other person and know how they want the crisis to end. Though you may have interpreted their actions as a direct attack, much of the time the other person’s motivations have little or nothing to do with you.
Unfortunately, there are times when a fellow coworker really is out to get you. Though this happens less frequently than you perceive, the recommended course of action is fortunately the same. As long as you are physically safe, hunker down and do your job to the best of your ability. By spending all his or her effort on unproductive machinations, your nemesis will ultimately be out of a job. Moreover, by excelling at your work, you will lower your stress since you will not have time to think about the other person.
If you remain calm when faced with a crisis, you will be able to bring an effective resolution with a minimum of both effort and drama. Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to be a great crisis manager:
- Give yourself as much space and time as possible
- Apply your rational rather than emotional problem solving skills to the crisis