This is the twelfth in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this web site. This one can be found (more or less identical except for copyediting details) in the March 2007 issue of The Synergist, pp. 44–47.
My last column addressed what you can do when senior management’s outrage gets in the way of risk management improvements – when your safety recommendations are getting shelved because of management’s guilt, ego, hostility, and the like. Now I want to focus on a different problem with a similar solution: What to do when senior management’s outrage gets in the way of doing good risk communication.
The trouble with risk communication is that so much of it feels wrong. It works pretty well, as a rule. But it’s profoundly counterintuitive.
That’s not true about all risk communication. Most of the ground rules for alerting apathetic people to serious risks, for example, make intuitive sense. The main exception is the widespread fear of fear, the reluctance of corporate and government officials to be willing to frighten people in order to persuade them to take precautions. But even there the problem isn’t really that senior managers doubt that scaring people is an effective way to motivate them. It’s more that senior managers worry (wrongly, I think) that the medicine may be worse than the disease.
It’s the opposite sort of risk communication – reassuring over-anxious people about small risks – that makes the least intuitive sense to most of my clients.
When people are excessively alarmed about small risks, it’s not random and it’s not the fault of the media or the activists. Something about the situation is making them over-react. I call that something “outrage.” And I call the strategies for calming over-anxious people “outrage management.” Among them: Acknowledge the other side’s best arguments instead of just making your own case; ask people to help you manage the situation instead of managing it for them; share credit for your accomplishments instead of taking the bows yourself; dwell endlessly on your misbehaviors instead of focusing on what went right (or on what’s coming next); legitimize people’s emotional reactions instead of harping on the data and commanding them to stop worrying. (See my Laundry List of 50 Outrage Reducers for a longer list.)
However provably effective these and other principles of outrage management may be, they’re a tough sell to senior management. To a typical VP without a lot of risk communication training, they just don’t compute.
Worse yet, these principles fly in the face of individual self-esteem and organizational culture. The point is too obvious to belabor. Being courteous to people who are rude to you, listening to people who won’t listen, accepting advice from people who question your integrity and your expertise, taking their opinions seriously even though they don’t understand the science, washing your management’s dirty linen in public – none of this is easy on the ego. And none of it goes down well inside the organization.
Outrage Begets Outrage
When people are outraged at your company or government agency, moreover, the odds are good that your top management is outraged right back at them. Risk controversies are very seldom battles between outraged stakeholders and calm organizations. They are battles between outraged stakeholders and outraged organizations.
It’s human nature to be upset with people who are upset with you; when A is outraged at B, B is more than likely outraged at A too. And B’s own outrage is often one of the principal barriers to B’s ability to manage A’s outrage well. Suppose your spouse or colleague is berating you for something you did, or something he or she thinks you did. Almost inevitably your critic’s arguments are going to be a mix of valid points, halfway valid points, and garbage. So when it’s your turn to respond, you have a choice. You can focus on the valid points, apologize, and promise to improve (pretty much ignoring the invalid accusations) – and you stand a good chance of mitigating your critic’s outrage. Or you say, “That’s garbage!” – ignoring the valid points and rebutting the invalid ones instead. The latter strategy may do wonders for your outrage, but it only exacerbates your critic’s outrage. The latter strategy is nonetheless the one that comes naturally. Why? Because you’re too focused on your own outrage to pay much attention to the best ways to manage somebody else’s outrage.
In the 1990s I worked with an oil company that looked likely to be forced to install a $150-million pollution-control system to prevent a cancer risk of less than one in a million in a rural community of about 15,000 people. That’s $10,000 per person for a one-in-a-million risk – a crazy expenditure that began to win political support only because of the highly outraged mood the company had allowed to develop and fester. The company spent millions, literally, on a sophisticated independent quantitative risk assessment to establish how low the hazard really was. But when the key activist group hired its own experts to go over the QRA and scheduled a “hearing” to consider it, the company refused to send its consultants to the hearing. Management almost refused even to permit a private meeting between the two teams of experts. One high-ranking executive actually said to me, not in jest, that he’d rather lose the fight and have to spend the $150 million than treat that damned activist group with any kind of respect. I assume his shareholders would have held a different view. I assume he also would have held a different view if he hadn’t been too angry to think straight.
Management outrage is likely to be especially severe inside government agencies that are under public attack. Corporate VPs don’t usually consider themselves the bad guys, but they’re not especially surprised when the public sees them that way. Agency people, on the other hand, signed up to be the good guys, accepting lower pay, shorter and slower career ladders, and other disadvantages in part because they wanted to wear the white hats. To be widely seen as the henchmen or dupes of corporate malefactors is terribly demoralizing. Also, corporate VPs have the profit motive to help them want to keep their own outrage under control. Agency people don’t. Finally, the norms against saying how you feel about the public (or even noticing how you feel about the public) are stronger in most government agencies than they are in most corporations. Little wonder so many agencies are hotbeds of simmering, unacknowledged outrage.
Outrage Management for Outrage Management
There is an elegant symmetry at work here. Your stakeholders are too outraged at your management to take note of the data that the hazard isn’t all that serious. Similarly, management is too outraged at your stakeholders to take note of the data that stakeholder outrage is quite serious. Your stakeholders are more deeply committed to being proved right than to believing they are safe. Similarly, management is more deeply committed to being proved right than to doing a good job of managing stakeholder outrage.
It follows that you have to manage management’s outrage before management will let you manage stakeholders’ outrage. You have to do outrage management on behalf of outrage management.
Perhaps the single most potent strategy for managing management’s outrage is to ride the outrage seesaw. Figure your boss is probably ambivalent about whether to manage her stakeholders’ outrage or give in to her own. As ambivalent people always do, she will emphasize the side of her ambivalence that everyone else seems to be neglecting. If you’re the voice of reason, apparently unruffled, calmly recommending concessions and compromises, you’re leaving your boss alone with her outrage – and she’s likely to act that much more offended and intransigent. So express some outrage yourself, and let her be the voice of reason.
A mining company client had owned an arsenic smelter at the turn of the last century. The smelter went through three or four later owners, and then it was shut down and homes grew up around the site. Decades later, a road-building crew identified local soil as seriously arsenic-contaminated, and people started thinking about cleanup. None of the other companies that had ever owned the smelter still existed, so my client had the legal responsibility. The question was what sort of cleanup the regulator was going to require. Meeting minimum requirements would cost something like $8 million. Making the neighborhood pristine again would cost maybe $200 million. Between $8 million and $200 million was the range of regulatory discretion.
So my client had 192 million reasons to manage the neighborhood’s outrage and the regulator’s outrage well. The company’s onsite managers understood that, and were bending over backwards to be apologetic and responsive.
But the CEO was angry. Only a year or two from retirement, he felt it was terribly unfair to hold his company responsible for pollution that had occurred before he was born. So he kept having temper tantrums – threatening lawsuits, picking fights, nixing the local team’s outrage management proposals, acting out … and thus pushing the remedy toward the $200 million figure. The only way I could find to get him back on course was to engage him in a seesaw psychodrama. First I clued his environmental VP in on what I was planning (in case it didn’t work).
“This just isn’t fair!” I insisted during a meeting with the CEO and the VP. “There was no environmental movement back when you owned that smelter! Maybe you should simply refuse to play ball!”
Instantly the CEO started moving toward the other side of the seesaw. “I know just how you feel,” he said. “That’s how I feel too. But my staff tells me if we fight we’ll lose, and we’ll end up with a much more expensive cleanup.”
“Maybe so,” I argued, still channeling his outrage for him. “But it would be worth it! What’s right is right!”
“That’s easy for you to say,” he responded. “But they pay me to do what’s best for the company. And what’s best for the company in this situation is to make some major concessions.”
The successful completion of the cleanup was still years down the road. But the CEO stopped being a roadblock.
The seesaw is one key tool for managing management’s outrage at the need to manage stakeholders’ outrage. I’ll list some others in my next column [posted below].
The Boss’s Outrage (Part III):
Managing Management’s Outrage
at Outrage Management
“Outrage management” is the label I have given to the kind of risk communication you need to do when people are more upset about a risk than you think the situation justifies. It includes strategies like acknowledging the other side’s best arguments, asking people to help you manage the situation, sharing credit for your accomplishments, dwelling on your misbehaviors, and legitimizing people’s emotional reactions.
The trouble with these outrage management strategies is that they’re profoundly counterintuitive. To most senior managers they sound crazy. They sound especially crazy when, as is often the case, your senior managers are pretty outraged themselves – outraged at the people who are giving them all that trouble, and outraged at your recommendation to manage those people’s outrage more empathically.
So you end up needing to manage management’s outrage at the need to manage stakeholders’ outrage. In my previous column [posted above] I discussed one crucial way to do this, grounded in the principle of the risk communication seesaw. Here are some additional tips.
Don’t label management’s outrage.
The main difference between stakeholder outrage and management outrage is that outraged stakeholders generally know they’re outraged and act outraged. Outraged corporate and (especially) government officials are likelier to suppress their outrage as unprofessional. Inevitably it leaks out as cold courtesy, as passive-aggressive insensitivity – which provokes still more stakeholder outrage. Telling your boss he’s too angry to think straight will only lead to an angry denial: “I’m not angry. I’m just right!” You’ll need to manage management’s outrage without labeling it.
Try to provide “safe” ways for management to vent.
The French have a phrase, l’esprit d’escalier (“staircase wit”) for our tendency to think of just the right biting riposte only when it’s too late. In outrage management, l’esprit d’escalier is a safety valve. Daydreaming after a confrontational meeting about what you “should have said” is wiser than actually saying it at the meeting. Better yet, imagine what you wish you could say on your way into the meeting – and don’t say it. Managers who have a venue for safely expressing their outrage feel less pressure to act out; they’re that much likelier to okay your plans for reducing stakeholders’ outrage. So look for chances to let your boss sound off (to you) on how dumb and irritating she thinks those employees or neighbors are.
Regardless of rank, everyone who has to cope with other people’s outrage needs a safe way to vent his or her own outrage. Some years ago I was asked to do outrage management training for the “call center” of a huge electric power utility. Lots of callers freely expressed their outrage at the company (for losing power, shutting off their power, raising the price, etc.). The biggest challenge for call center personnel was to stay polite, helpful, and sympathetic even when provoked. One of the most effective strategies we launched was a “jerk of the week” contest (the word we actually used isn’t printable in this magazine). A cash prize was awarded weekly to the call center operator with the worst caller. To enter the contest, operators had to submit a tape of the call, which of course they couldn’t afford to do unless they handled the call well. So instead of losing it with an abusive caller, they stayed cool … and fantasized about winning jerk of the week.
Take your boss’s skepticism seriously.
It’s a mistake to focus on outraged people’s substantive arguments and ignore their feelings. It’s also a mistake to focus on their feelings and ignore their substantive arguments. And it’s a mistake to focus only on what’s mistaken in their substantive arguments. Outraged people are likeliest to calm down when others see merit in their opinions. So join your boss in worrying that outrage management might not work. And join your boss in worrying about the possible internal repercussions if it doesn’t work.
The second worry is especially worth sharing. If your organization takes a conventional approach to stakeholder outrage, nobody’s likely to blame you if it doesn’t work. Nobody really expects it to work. You go through the motions, fail, mutter to each other about how idiotic those stakeholders are, and move on. But if your boss lets you try something weird (like outrage management) and it doesn’t work, then everyone’s free to imagine that thing might have gone much better if only he’d handled the situation the normal way. My clients raise this issue often. I have long since learned to echo the concern, to agree that it’s a valid argument against outrage management. I do that not only because it’s true, but also because of the risk communication seesaw. Echoing and agreeing with an argument frees the other person to stop insisting on it so ardently.
Let your boss help plan the strategy.
If you’ve been in the working world for more than a year or two, you have probably discovered for yourself that it’s easier to secure management buy-in for a proposal – any proposal – if you let management tinker with it first. Advertising agency old-timers call this the “hairy arm” strategy. Account executives (and clients) just about never approve an ad without any changes; they have to earn their keep too. So smart creative types give them something obvious to change. Put a female model with a hairy arm in the foreground, goes the ancient advice. Let them order you to airbrush out the hair. And the rest of the ad is a lot likelier to survive unscathed.
Getting your boss’s input is even more important when she’s experiencing some outrage about what you’re planning. Sharing control is one of the touchstones of a good outrage management strategy. Instead of a finished document with all the i’s dotted and all the t’s crossed, offer her a rough draft with a few unsettled choices.
Share the credit, but monopolize the blame.
Sharing credit is nearly as fundamental to outrage management as sharing control. When you make concessions to a critic, that shares the control. When you make sure everyone knows you made concessions, that shares the credit. “They had a better idea” or even “they forced us to make that change” is a lot better outrage management than “we were going to do it anyway.” All this is just as true for senior managers who are outraged about your outrage management plan as it is for the actual targets of the plan.
Sometimes you can find ways to share the credit if the strategy works without sharing the blame if it doesn’t. This heads-you-win tails-I-lose deal is often the arrangement between high-level government bureaucrats and elected officials, especially in countries where the titular heads of ministries are politicians. “Let me try to ameliorate stakeholder outrage by doing this and this and this. If it helps, it came out of your department and the credit is naturally yours. If it backfires, you can criticize the approach and blame the bureaucracy.”
Don’t oversell outrage management.
At the end of my seminars on outrage management strategies, I sometimes have to pour cold water on participants’ enthusiasm. I remind them that staking out the middle rather than the extreme is one of the principles of outrage management. Exaggeration works well for those who are trying to exacerbate outrage, but it backfires for those who are trying to quell it. So if you expect outrage management to provoke some outrage, you don’t want to oversell it. Coming across like a convert to a new religion is sure to make things worse. “I’ve got the key!” isn’t the key. “We learned a few things that sound pretty weird, but they might be worth considering” is a far better way to start.
Don’t forget to collect some evidence.
In my zeal to convince clients that outraged people aren’t necessarily responsive to evidence, I sometimes give the impression that evidence doesn’t matter at all. That goes too far. If you ignore people’s outrage and address only the substantive issues, you’re not going to get very far. But if you address the outrage properly, you still have to address the substantive issues too. And not just by taking the substantive objections seriously – though that’s certainly important. You also need some evidence that you might be right. In the case of the boss’s outrage at outrage management, you need some evidence that outrage management might actually work!
Examples are usually the most persuasive evidence, especially when people are outraged. Look for both good examples (role models to emulate, successes to replicate) and bad examples (screw-ups to avoid). The most powerful good examples are usually drawn from people and organizations your boss admires – or even from your boss herself. “Look how things calmed down when you apologized at last month’s public meeting.” Bad examples, on the other hand, are easiest to hear if they come from people and organizations your boss dislikes. “Look how much trouble Susan got into when she stonewalled.”
Even quantitative research evidence has an important role to play. As a rule, outraged people are unpersuaded, even repulsed, by statistical evidence that they’re wrong. But there’s a partial exception for technical people who are outraged about outrage management. Part of what underlies this particular outrage, I think, is the bewildered feeling technical people sometimes have in the face of human emotion. The stereotypical engineer finds human beings completely unpredictable, and has a deep emotional commitment to keeping emotion out of risk decision-making. Risk communication research converts human emotion into data, and makes testable predictions about human behavior. For bosses who like data a lot more than people, this can be profoundly comforting.
Don’t neglect your own outrage.
This column is already pretty paradoxical: bosses who are outraged about outrage management, who are emotionally committed to avoiding emotion. Now let me go one level deeper. You want to manage stakeholder outrage in accordance with risk communication principles. That’s level one. Your boss, I have hypothesized, has trouble wanting to manage stakeholder outrage because his own outrage at those outraged stakeholders is getting in the way. So you have to manage your boss’s outrage too. That’s level two. But – here’s the third level – your boss’s outrage at the stakeholders’ outrage is very likely to get you outraged. Why can’t he see that this is the way to go? Why does he keep insisting on the failed strategies of the past?
Before you can manage your stakeholders’ outrage, you may need to manage your boss’s. Before you can manage your boss’s outrage, you may need to manage your own.
Copyright © 2007 by Peter M. Sandman