How to Take Responsibility in a Crisis

UPDATED: January 9, 2024
PUBLISHED: December 11, 2017

In 1982, seven people died in Chicago when bottles of Tylenol were laced with potassium cyanide. The crime was tragic and senseless. People were afraid. If they couldn’t feel safe buying over-the-counter medicine from their trusted pharmacy, where could they feel safe?

Johnson & Johnson, the company that owns the pain-reliever brand, could have done nothing. After all, the investigation revealed that the Tylenol was tampered with post-production. It wasn’t technically the company’s fault. They could have hidden behind those results. But they didn’t.

Related: Why Real Leaders Do What Is Right

Instead the company issued warnings to hospitals and drugstores. They ordered production to cease. They recalled around 31 million bottles of Tylenol, costing them an estimated $100 million in retail value, not to mention the additional loss that comes with diminished faith in a brand. But it was undoubtedly the right thing to do—their actions have been lauded as one of the best displays of public relations in the face of a crisis.

Over time, Johnson & Johnson recovered from its loss. In fact, the company’s response resulted in a strong comeback that positioned them as one of the top brands for household goods, which is where it stands today. It also caused stricter security, warning labels and tamper-proof seals to prevent a similar tragedy.

There is an important lesson here about responsibility. Taking responsibility isn’t important only when a crisis can be blamed on you or your actions. Just like in the Tylenol case, the blame might be on a single person with bad intentions. But if it’s your company or your project, you own it. So you have to take ownership. Don’t be the person who hides behind flimsy excuses.

Related: Stop Making Excuses for Who and Where You Are

The next step is to work toward repairing the reputation. When something goes awry, there are ripple effects of negativity. People might view your organization or product—and you by association—as something they should be wary of. Now is the time to step forward, be transparent and lay out your plans for regaining trust.

For Johnson & Johnson, that meant putting their customers’ safety ahead of their revenue loss. Although you’ll likely never deal with a decision that morally clear, there are times when the needs of your business must fall in second to the trust and loyalty of your clients.

Make a plan, and then act on that plan every single day. Building trust takes time and dedication. You can come back stronger. People respect those who own up and take the necessary measures to repair mistakes.

Related: 3 Ways for Leaders to Be a Calming Force

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

John Addison is the Leadership Editor for SUCCESS and the author of Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose, a Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-seller. Renowned for his insight and wisdom on leadership, personal development and success, John is a sought-after speaker and motivator. Read more on his blog, and follow John on Facebook and Twitter.