Culture Makes or Breaks a Company When Crisis Hits

Culture is what guides your company, for good or ill, when times are suddenly bad.

learn more about Dixie Gillaspie

By Dixie Gillaspie

Hinterhaus Productions | Getty Images

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.

Dixie Gillaspie

Writer, Coach, Lover of Entrepreneurship

Ever since she was a little girl, Dixie’s least favorite word was "can’t." It still is. She's on a mission to prove that anything is possible, for anyone, but she's especially fond of entrepreneurs. She's good at seeing opportunities where other people see walls, navigating crossroads where other people see dead ends, and unwrapping the gifts of adversity and struggle. Dixie also contributes to Huffington Post and is a senior managing editor for The Good Man Project.

Related Topics

Editor's Pick

Everyone Wants to Get Close to Their Favorite Artist. Here's the Technology Making It a Reality — But Better.
The Highest-Paid, Highest-Profile People in Every Field Know This Communication Strategy
After Early Rejection From Publishers, This Author Self-Published Her Book and Sold More Than 500,000 Copies. Here's How She Did It.
Having Trouble Speaking Up in Meetings? Try This Strategy.
He Names Brands for Amazon, Meta and Forever 21, and Says This Is the Big Blank Space in the Naming Game
Business News

These Are the Most and Least Affordable Places to Retire in The U.S.

The Northeast and West Coast are the least affordable, while areas in the Mountain State region tend to be ideal for retirees on a budget.

Business Ideas

55 Small Business Ideas To Start Right Now

To start one of these home-based businesses, you don't need a lot of funding -- just energy, passion and the drive to succeed.

Business News

I Live on a Cruise Ship for Half of the Year. Look Inside My 336-Square-Foot Cabin with Wraparound Balcony.

I live on a cruise ship with my husband, who works on it, for six months out of the year. Life at "home" can be tight. Here's what it's really like living on a cruise ship.

Business Solutions

Master Coding for Less Than $2 a Course with This Jam-Packed Bundle

Make coding understandable with this beginner-friendly coding bundle, now just $19.99.

Starting a Business

Ask Marc | Free Business Advice Session with the Co-Founder of Netflix

Get free business advice during our next Ask Marc, live Q&A, on 3/28/23 at 3 p.m. EDT. You don't want to miss it—send in your questions now.

Health & Wellness

5 Essential Steps to Expand Your Vision and Start Living Your Dream Life

It's time to break free from your comfort zone and expand your vision. When you refuse to settle for a mediocre life, you can start building a life you love.