This is the eleventh 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 December 2006 issue of The Synergist, pp. 39, 41–42.
Most of my risk communication work focuses on ways to talk about risk with publics and stakeholders – your employees, your neighbors, etc. If the risk is serious and they’re pretty apathetic, your job is to get them more concerned. If the risk is tiny and they’re pretty upset, your job is to calm them down. If the risk is serious and they’re (rightly) pretty upset, your job is to help them bear it and guide them through it. These are all tough jobs.
They’re a lot tougher if your boss doesn’t get it. This issue arises in many of my consultations and presentations. “Fine, okay, thanks for all the good advice. But there’s no way my senior management will go for it. How do I convince them?”
The problem of convincing senior management is really two problems.
First, how do you get your boss to see the risk the way you see it? This is usually a problem when you think people aren’t taking a risk seriously enough, and you want management support to sound the alarm. You’re a corporate safety professional who wants to launch a campaign urging employees to reduce their hazardous chemical exposures by implementing stricter procedures. Or you’re a municipal health officer who wants to launch a campaign urging citizens to prepare for a possible influenza pandemic by stockpiling food, water, medications, and other necessities. Assume the data are on your side. You can demonstrate that stricter hazchem procedures or more pandemic precautions are worthwhile investments. Even so, the plant manager or the mayor balks. Now what?
The second problem usually comes up when people are upset about a risk, rather than when they’re apathetic. Having studied a little risk communication, you have learned that ridiculing people for getting upset isn’t an effective way to help them relax (if the risk isn’t really serious) or help them cope (if it is). Nor will technical data do the trick. You know it’s wiser to legitimize their emotions, to acknowledge some of the reasons why they’re upset, to apologize for some of the ways the situation has been mishandled, to share control and share credit, to avoid over-reassurance and overconfidence, etc. Your problem is that none of this makes sense to your boss. Senior management doesn’t disagree with you about the risk itself. But it disagrees mightily about the risk communication approaches you want to use. It wants you to tell people the situation is under control, period. Now what?
This month’s column will address the first problem: Why do bosses sometimes resist taking serious risks seriously, and what can you do about it? My next Synergist column will take on the second problem.
It’s the Outrage, Stupid!
Sometimes, of course, senior management is as determined as you are to take safety seriously. And sometimes when it’s not, its reservations are sound: The risk is smaller than you’re claiming, or the evidence is weak, or the precautions are untested or too expensive. But what’s going on when a senior manager nixes your risk reduction recommendation even though you can prove that it’s cost-effective, a good business decision? Assume the boss isn’t too stupid to get it. If the evidence clearly supports the precautions you’re urging, and the boss isn’t dumb, why might the boss nonetheless have trouble assessing the evidence properly?
As a rule, when smart people act stupid, something emotional is usually getting in the way. I use the term “outrage” for the various emotion-laden factors that influence how we see risk. Whether or not a risk is actually dangerous, for example, we are all likely to react strongly if the risk is unfamiliar and unfair, and if the people behind it are untrustworthy and unresponsive. Factors like these, not the technical risk data, pretty much determine our response. Risk perception researchers can list the “outrage factors” that make people get upset about a risk even if it’s not very serious.
Is there a similar list of outrage factors that can make senior managers shrug a risk off even if it’s serious? I think there is. Here’s some of what’s on the list.
A senior manager who accepts that safety can be greatly improved must also accept that it could have been greatly improved in years past – that past accidents could have been prevented. Working to improve safety means dwelling on those past accidents and taking responsibility for them. That could lead to confrontations with employees, neighbors, or regulators. “Why did you wait so long to deal with this?” It could also lead to confrontations with one’s own conscience. But if management can convince itself that accidents are inevitable and the proposed new precautions are ineffective, then the organization’s accident history is guilt-free.
Let’s face it: Compared to other important management tasks, safety is low-status. It is all too often seen as boring, easy, low-tech, and stodgy, a backwater for low achievers. Even among ES&H professionals, safety typically lags behind environment and health. So when you ask a VP to think about safety, you’re asking him or her to focus on a low-status preoccupation. “I have an MBA. I negotiate deals. I don’t wrap duct tape around tool handles. I hired you for that!” Not that a boss who thinks safety is low-status will necessarily give safety managers a lot of autonomy. To the VP’s eye, your safety innovation may look simultaneously too big to leave in your hands and too small to dirty his own. So it falls through the cracks.
Lurking deep in the heart of at least some senior managers is a mostly unconscious suspicion that employees probably deserve the accidents they have. They’re not very smart; they don’t pay attention to safety training; they don’t even bother to learn English; they daydream on the job; they’re looking for some time off courtesy of worker’s comp. And aren’t they paid to take some risk? I’m not suggesting there are lots of senior managers who consciously, wholeheartedly believe these canards. There aren’t. But where labor-management relations have been strained, hostility and contempt can make employee safety feel like an unwelcome chore, not a mission.
Thinking about possible future accidents, especially bad ones, engenders some level of fear. If the level is uncomfortably high, denial kicks in. A woman who doesn’t do breast self-examinations, for example, isn’t just protecting herself from the awful moment when she finds a lump, but also from the anxiety of looking. Employees sometimes ignore safety rules in order to avoid fretting over what might go wrong. Senior managers sometimes ignore safety opportunities for the same reason. In order to escape their own fearfulness, they convert hope to belief: It won’t happen on their watch. So why take precautions?
If you can think of things I ought to do that I haven’t thought of, then I must not be very good at my job. As a recommendation passes from an outside consultant to a middle manager, or from middle manager to senior manager, it’s tempting to dismiss the recommendation rather than accept the implied criticism. In a crisis situation, similarly, senior managers may experience panicky feelings that they might not be up to the job. If such feelings are repressed as professionally unacceptable, they may well be projected instead onto the workforce or the public: “People are panicking. They’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”
I have a list of 24 reasons why employers sometimes ignore safety, and I don’t have any data that these five are the biggest. But they’re certainly among the least likely to be noticed and properly addressed. They’re among the likeliest to be dismissed as both shrinky and insulting. Some of the other factors on my list are closer to the surface, more psychologically and socially acceptable – factors like:
- Fatalism – “Accidents just happen. Nobody is responsible and nobody can prevent them.”
- Routinization – “Accidents are statistical and predictable. They’re already in the budget.”
- Normalization – “Our company’s safety record is no worse than anyone else’s.”
- Productivity – “We’ve got deadlines, budgets, real problems. We can’t afford to dilute our focus.”
- Cluttered desk – “I have too much to do already. Come back in six months.”
Do I think senior managers are constantly incapacitated by safety-related outrage? Of course not. But if senior management is being inexplicably unresponsive to your safety recommendations, I do think you should consider whether some kind of outrage might be responsible. (If your boss’s reservations make straightforward sense, don’t go here.)
Coping with Management’s Safety Outrage
So what should you do when you have diagnosed your boss with a possible case of safety outrage?
Bear in mind that safety outrage is often under the surface, not right on top. If so, it probably won’t help to announce your diagnosis; you’ll get a denial, maybe a heated one. You have to get the possibility into the room without actually accusing your boss of letting guilt, ego, hostility, or the rest distort her risk management judgment. So take the onus off of senior management. Talk about how you sometimes feel that way, or how somebody you used to work with felt that way, or how some people might be tempted to feel that way. This is the “I – you – it – some people” approach; it lets you talk about a touchy issue with less chance of making the other guy defensive.
Bear in mind also that your boss’s safety outrage is probably only half the story. Senior management may well be ambivalent about your safety recommendations. Safety outrage is on one side of the ambivalence seesaw; a genuine desire to prevent accidents is on the other side. Managing this safety seesaw better is crucial to talking with top management about safety.
Suppose your VP half-thinks safety is beneath her. On the other hand, she realizes that a bad safety record can really hurt the bottom line. She’s ambivalent. So she does what ambivalent people do – she goes to whichever seat on the seesaw you leave vacant. If you tell her that safety needs more of her attention, she’s likely to feel her stature/ego reservations that much more strongly. “I don’t do safety. I’m a VP.” So instead you might want to say something like this: “Look, you’re much too busy for this stuff. I figure the most I deserve is ten minutes of your time to brief you on what I want to do. You’re a VP and safety is not your main thing.” The odds are pretty good that she’ll answer: “I need much more information than that. I want to give much more attention to safety than that.”
Or suppose you suspect hostility to employees may underlie the VP’s resistance. How do you get on the other side of that seesaw? You’d be unwise to voice the hostility yourself. Suggesting that employees deserve their accidents could easily get you fired or sued. So put it in the third person: “You know, a lot of people say there are limits to what’s possible with such high turnover and a workforce that’s pretty uneducated and pretty careless. Some would say most of our accidents are the employees’ own fault.” You’re not claiming this is so, and you’re definitely not accusing the VP of thinking it’s so, but you are getting it into the room. So he can get on the other side of his own ambivalence. He can simultaneously agree with you that a lot of people would say that and identify himself as not that sort of person at all. And he’s that much readier to endorse a new safety initiative.
Guilt is one of the toughest nuts to crack. One possibility is to offer your management some kind of absolution. “There’s no way you could have known five years ago what you know today about ways of reducing this sort of accident.” (If “you ” feels too accusatory even for an absolution statement, try “we ” ... or “anyone.”) Don’t point out that management probably feels guilty. Don’t say, “Stop feeling terrible.” Address the guilty feelings without labeling them by just making the case that “it’s not your [our, anyone’s] fault.” This approach will often work. But it won’t work if the guilty feelings are deeply buried; your manager will just look at you funny and say, “Of course it’s not my fault.” And it won’t work if the guilt is largely justified, if there are ways it pretty obviously is the company’s fault.
In those cases you’ll have to ride the seesaw. “I feel awful. Here’s a change that looks like it can cut our accident rate significantly. I’m aghast that I missed it. Finding cost-effective safety improvements, win-wins for employee safety and the bottom line – that’s my job. And I missed this one for years!” Let the VP give you absolution.
By the way, some of these safety outrage factors – guilt, ego, hostility, and the rest – afflict industrial hygienists too, not just VPs. Were you thinking that as you read? Was it easier for you think about it because I was offloading it all onto senior management? That’s the “I – you – it – some people” seesaw at work.
Copyright © 2007 by Peter M. Sandman