The word “snafu” is sometimes used to describe a bad situation, a mistake or problem that is large and unexpected. It started as an acronym coined by United States military personnel to describe the usual adverse situations they find themselves in — Situation Normal, All Fouled Up.

There were many difficult military missions undertaken during World War II. The commanders at the top wanted to be regularly apprised of the situation on the ground. The commanders on the ground and in the heat of the battle knew what they were up against with limited resources, firepower and manpower. As far as they were concerned, there was nothing new to report — the normal situation was a bad state.

Partly in jest and partly to express their frustration, the commanders on the ground would report that things were “snafu”.

Boardroom battles

There is a parallel of the Snafu Effect in the modern organisation. This is when middle managers fail to accurately report on important issues to higher management. It could be that senior managers consistently turn a deaf ear or blind eye to unpleasant issues or bad news, or that there is a culture of blame in the company, and middle managers are afraid of landing in hot soup if they have made some errors.

Take this typical scenario: Peter is a supervisor with a large multinational company. He reports to John, his regional manager, on day-to-day administrative affairs.

Recently, the company has won a large project that requires everyone’s undivided commitment. Peter realises that some pieces of equipment are outdated and need to be replaced. He mentions this to John on several occasions but John brushes this off and tells Peter to manage the situation as best as he can.

Meanwhile, the head office people are wondering why they are unable to hit their operation targets and ask John to submit a situation report. John asks Peter for his input, and Peter replies that “things are basically snafu”.

Now, what is John going to do? He can take Peter’s initial feedback seriously and give him the new equipment he needs to do a good job. But if John’s own boss is not giving him the budget he needs for new equipment or is only interested in hearing that everything is under control, John may well have to report back in frustration to the head office that the project status is “snafu” too!

Be vigilant

As a leader in your organisation, you  cannot assume that everything is fine. You have to ensure that communication lines in your organisation remain open, and that there is a culture of respect and room for errors, as long as they are immediately rectified and people learn from them. When employees — rank and file as well as management — do not feel empowered to give their best, the organisation’s health, although looking normal, is really fouling up.

Here’s how to avoid a snafu:

* Get in sync with your people. You need to be in sync with the people you lead. This means constant communication with your staff, either through formal meetings or impromptu get-togethers, to enable them to keep you in the loop on what is happening in the organisation.

Your people are your greatest resource and an excellent feedback mechanism. If you are not in sync with them, they might not tell you what is really going on and this is when you may get yourself “snafu-ed”.

* Question your actions and decisions. As a leader you have to make decisions and take actions, not all of them pleasant. What is more important is that they should be right. Therefore, you need to ensure that you are absolutely clear about how you arrived at them.

Once you have made up your mind, accept responsibility for the consequences and make sure everyone is on board too. If the whole company is working towards the same goals, there is less chance of the situation being fouled up.

* Take the bull by the horns. When you face an unforeseen challenge, how effectively you deal with it will be the true mark of your leadership.

This is where you have to draw upon all your experience, resourcefulness and creativity to resolve the situation. Leverage on the strengths of your people too. When they own the problem too, they are more likely to commit to looking for an impactful solution.

Organisations facing the snafu effect usually have a weak culture of trust and ineffective communication channels. You can turn a weak culture into a strong one by being empathetic about the issues faced by your subordinates and addressing these issues in a measured and consistent way. This will inspire a genuine trust in your leadership style, which will have a positive impact on your organisation.