Growling Angry Wolf

Leaders Who Cry Wolf May Leave Their Flock to be Eaten

As the story goes a child shepherd, seeking attention, cries false alarms of “Wolf! Wolf!” on several occasions.  Over time, the townspeople and neighbors learn to ignore his cries and soon, stop responding at all.  As a result, when a wolf really does come and the boy shouts for help again, he’s left to fend for himself.  The wolf eats the flock and, in some versions, even eats the boy.  This tale offers wisdom to us in a business context as well.

Have you ever seen someone jump from fire drill to fire drill because their boss believed every issue was a crisis?  Often, this stems from the culture of the organization and the overreaction is simply passed down the chain of command.  Regardless of their source, constant fire drills may:

1. Burnout employees

2. Reduce creativity and innovation

3. Emphasize expedience over quality

So what can you do in response to unending cries of “crisis”?  Here’s a couple ideas that may help:

1. Clarify Priorities – Ask your boss which “emergency” must be addressed first, calling attention to the potential of multiple emergencies you must address.

2. Define Timelines – Be sure to understand by what date / time each emergency must be addressed and the driver fot that time.  By understanding the driver behind timelines, you’ll be better equipped to juggle priorities as you hear more cries of “wolf”.

3. Gauge Others – If you’re not sure something is really a crisis, observe how others, especially your peers and those of your boss are responding to the matter.  Communicate the response to your boss in this framework (for example, “Jason’s boss has given him a longer timeline – are we aligned to deliver on the same date?”).

Certainly, there are plenty of true emergencies in business.  The trick seems to be learning to distinguish between an actual crisis and exaggerated enthusiasm.  With the right response, hopefully we can avoid losing our sheep when the real wolf comes.

Question: Have you had a boss that cried Wolf?  How do you manage expectations in similar  situations?