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What the Ebola Crisis Can Teach Business Leaders

Executives have much to learn about how fragile the public’s trust in them can be.

I have been watching the unfolding Ebola response drama with concern. The situation in West Africa is tragic; there have been more than 13,000 reported cases (with significant underreporting suggested) and mortality rates as high as 70 percent in some locations. In the U.S., the response to this disease has sometimes been misguided: for example, an asymptomatic nurse was held in a tent in a Newark hospital, as New York, New Jersey, and various other states embarked on disparate policies to address an issue that can be solved only through a unified response. At other times, it’s been downright bizarre: A photo of a woman wearing a homemade biohazard containment suit in an airport recently went, well, viral.

Despite the variety in responses, there has been one consistent thread throughout the past few weeks—the fragility of trust. Policies and actions that ignore established medical knowledge and practice demonstrate how little trust we have in science. The independent actions of governors and mayors are evidence of diminished faith in the federal government. This is especially troubling, given how important many of these federal and state institutions are to our societal well-being in times of major and complex threats.

The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that only 44 percent of those surveyed around the world trusted government institutions to “do the right thing.” Business did better, at 58 percent, but that is still troubling when you consider that business leaders fall short on key metrics such as “make moral or ethical decisions” (21 percent); “tells you the truth no matter how complex or unpopular it is” (20 percent); and “solve social or societal issues” (19 percent). Trust, um, soars to 26 percent when survey takers were asked if business leaders “correct issues within industries that are experiencing problems.” Government leaders lag with scores in the teens on each of these measures.

What can the leadership of the Ebola response teach us about how we might make trust more robust? To start, those who expect to lead would do well to think about it broadly and intentionally:

Understand the master narrative. Our communications plans often start with what we want to say. But no statement exists in a vacuum—they’re all part of a larger story. My colleagues and I have studied crises for many years and have noted that one persistent stream in the narrative since the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is the belief that “the government is hapless and will screw this up,” coupled with the long-standing quip that “you can tell a politician is lying when you see his or her lips move.” Similarly, business leaders must contend with the narrative that they are heartless oligarchs who happily plunder the planet and exploit its people in their relentless pursuit of profit. Because this is the starting point for many people, you must overcome this trust deficit before your message can resonate.

Articulate your context. When CDC Director Thomas Frieden said, “I have no doubt that we’ll stop this in its tracks in the U.S.,” he said it in the context of the thousands of cases in Africa. Relative to that, limiting the spread of Ebola in the U.S. to a couple of dozen cases can be considered stopping the disease in its tracks. And the results to date are excellent: Ebola cases can be counted on two hands and there have only been two fatalities. But the U.S. media and public saw Frieden’s statement as a promise that the virus would not spread at all in this country. Their context was the number of Ebola cases in the U.S. in 2013: zero. And amid those expectations, the CDC seemed to fail to deliver on its promise.

You have control over what you say but no control over how it is heard, reported, and interpreted. Be careful with your words and intentional about setting the backstory to your comments, because that will influence how they are received. In doing so, you help manage perceptions and set the stage for increased trust.

Be careful with your words and you help manage perceptions and set the stage for increased trust.

If they can’t understand you, they won’t trust you. Medical and public health officials, like any professionals, come with a set of concepts, vocabulary terms, and risk/reward calculations that they understand but that may be incomprehensible to others. Never assume someone understands your business. Even as basic a term as bodily fluids may not be clear: Does that include mucus from a sneeze or not? (The answer is yes—but as sneezing is not a symptom of Ebola, the chance of catching it as a result of a sneeze is minute.) Using jargon can signal one’s membership in an exclusive group and engender trust with those colleagues. But when you’re trying to connect beyond that circle, the effect —whether you’re talking about medicine, food production, or waste disposal management—can be exactly the opposite. Plain speaking is essential.

Prepare people for change. Guidance around dealing with Ebola has changed since the story came into the public eye. Has this been a reactive correction of errors or evolving knowledge resulting from the dogged pursuit of greater understanding? It can, and will, be interpreted both ways. If you have been clear about what you know and what you don’t know, and foreshadowed that your advice may shift or even be reversed as you learn more, change can help you build trust—you will be doing what you said you would do.

It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver. Leaders tend to want to reassure in a crisis (this may be obvious), but although you can't control the initial crisis, you can control the, the second crisis that may emerge from a real or perceived bungled response. In this case, officials would have been wise to tell the public that a case of Ebola in the U.S. was highly likely.

Forecasts indicate that we’re likely to see more public health emergencies, disruptions of food and water supplies, severe weather, and mass migrations in the coming decades. These are in addition to any corporate or government malfeasance or extremist violence that may arise. It is incumbent upon every official and executive to think beyond his or her own career and his or her organization’s short-term results. Leaders need to attend to the trust we have in one another and the institutions we share, working to make it robust—for their benefit and ours.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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