The fiscal cliff. The sequester. The continuing resolution. Whatever name we’re using to describe Congress’s budget predicament of the moment, the media’s tone of consternation remains consistent and seems tinged with a sort of looming dread. As if these “crises” are like asteroid collisions or threatening weather events—things that are about to happen to us.
Wait a second, folks. Let’s not forget an essential point here: This didn’t happen to us; we made it. The government created this budget “crisis” so they’d be forced to take action. Our president, senators, and representatives invented this and voted for it.
And before you get critical of our lawmakers, remember how hard tough changes are—and think about what it takes to make them happen. What we’re seeing in Congress is in fact an example of an effective behavior-modification technique: create a crisis.
Rahm Emmanuel, a long-time political operative who is well known for getting things accomplished, says that we should “never let a crisis go to waste.” And he’s right.
Sometimes, in the face of difficult behavior change, we might all benefit from creating a cliff of our own. Since people don’t generally gravitate toward change, urgent deadlines can provide just the push we need to take action. And where those deadlines don’t exist, we can set ourselves up for success by creating them—and associating real consequences with them.
Consider that executives who take charge of companies in serious trouble often have an easier job than the leaders of healthy organizations. Why? In part because people facing serious trouble—bankruptcy, for example—are more receptive to drastic change. If all is running smoothly, it’s hard to convince stakeholders that it might be beneficial to shake things up.
Although it seems counterintuitive, the fact is, calamity can create positive change, and when necessary, smart leaders can spur crisis to ensure change where it’s otherwise unlikely.
One word of caution: there’s a fine line between leveraging crisis as a tool to ignite behavior change and flat-out fear mongering. If you’re thinking about using this tactic—or (even more so) if you know just what I’m talking about and have indeed taken this approach in the past—remember that making a habit of building crises will eventually render your people numb to its effects.
I’ve seen this happen when executives use crisis-type language quarter after quarter: “We will be in a dire situation if…” Say it enough, and your words lose all power.
So use the tool sparingly. Be real, be honest. And if and when it becomes necessary, get out there and build a cliff.