Crisis Management

Culture Makes or Breaks a Company When Crisis Hits

Culture is what guides your company, for good or ill, when times are suddenly bad.
Culture Makes or Breaks a Company When Crisis Hits
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Guest Writer
Writer, Coach, Lover of Entrepreneurship
5 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As the site of both an emergency landing by Southwest Air flight 1380, and the viral video of two men being arrested for refusing to leave a Starbucks location where they were waiting to meet a friend, it seems that Philadelphia has suddenly become an epicenter for company crises.

I’ve always said that the perfect company is not one that makes no mistakes, because any company is going to make mistakes. To be “perfect” a company must know how to handle mistakes when they happen. And when a mistake leads to crisis that “perfection” becomes even more elusive, and even more important.

John F. Kennedy erred when he said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity,” because that isn’t really what those brush strokes mean. But it is true that every crisis does represent both a danger and an opportunity. Sometimes that danger is life or death, and sometimes it is profit, but whatever is on the line, the difference always comes down to one thing.

It’s a misconception that training or policy that will prevent a crisis, or mitigate the damage if a crisis occurs. That’s no more true than Kennedy’s representation of the Chinese symbol for crisis. Training and policy are necessary, but for a business the telling factor in crisis prevention and responsiveness is the business culture.

Related: The Crisis Won't Kill Your Business If You Get the Response Right

Starbucks’ executive chairman, Howard Schultz, referenced what he called the employee’s “level of unconscious bias,” and said, “I’m embarrassed by that. I’m ashamed of that. That’s not who Starbucks is. That’s not who we’ve been and that’s not who we’re going to be.”

Who you are, as a company, is commonly called a brand. But in crisis it’s culture that really determines brand because culture will determine how you handle the crisis and ultimately how you are perceived and remembered by the public. Starbucks now has the opportunity to do what is necessary to align their culture with “who they are and who they’re going to be,” which may very well save their brand.

My definition of culture is simply this; “Culture is the prevailing mindset of any group or organization.” And it is mindset, not policy or training, that determines outcomes. Especially in crisis. Because when we’re in crisis our brain reverts to its oldest, most ingrained process, the “code” that’s running in the background all the time.

So while the Starbucks culture may be socially responsible, inclusive and equality minded, and its leadership has stepped up to say that this incident does not exemplify their culture, clearly that was not the prevailing mindset at that location. And one afternoon of training, which 175,000 of their employees will go through, will not make it so. What will be necessary is a combination of mental and emotional training, especially for the leadership of each location, as well as consistent action and reinforcement from corporate leadership.

Related: 3 Steps Effective Leaders Take When Dealing With Crisis

Mindset is not developed through rules or policies. It’s an inside-out change management process requiring the involvement of the neurological, mental, and emotional centers rather than being based only on sharing information. For a mindset to prevail in an organization the process must involve repetition and include enough of the leadership for it to affect daily decisions in hiring, customer service, and employee interactions.

So was it training or mindset that enabled pilot Tammie Jo Shults to land the crippled 737 after one of the engines blew up? Certainly she has had training, having been one of the first female fighter pilots in the US Navy. Without training she could not have landed that plane. And certainly Southwest has policies in place, over and above the safety regulations imposed by the FAA.

But it would be hard to dismiss mindset, because it was mindset that allowed her to become a fighter pilot when she wasn’t even allowed to attend an aviation career day at high school because they didn’t accept girls. It was mindset that sent her to the Navy when the Air Force made it clear they would not accept a woman for aviation officer school.

More than that, training alone won’t give a pilot the “nerves of steel” or the “calming presence” that Shults has been described as displaying in the face of death. And policy isn’t what sent her down the aisle after the miracle landing to check on every passenger on the plane. It was her personal mindset, which aligns with the culture and brand that Southwest is known for. Another pilot might have landed the plane, but without that mindset it is certain that the day would have ended much differently for those passengers.

Related: How to Communicate Effectively During a Crisis

If you are running a successful company that success will, sooner or later, be challenged by a crisis. And that crisis will include an opportunity. Whether or not you make the best of that opportunity will depend on your culture. And that culture is up to you.

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