This is the 29th 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 website. This one can be found (significantly condensed, and with minor copyediting changes) in the May 2014 issue of The Synergist, pp. 30–31.
A refinery client had horrible relations with its residential neighbors. So management decided that whenever anything unusual happened at the plant that might be noticeable offsite, someone would call the local police precinct and tell the desk sergeant what was going on – even if the event was completely risk-free. That way, if a concerned neighbor called the cops, the desk sergeant could say, “Oh, yes, the refinery called. Here’s what’s happening….”
In the first five months of the new protocol, the refinery made 19 such calls to the police, all a part of this new community relations plan, not its emergency response plan.
Then one day an acrid odor was wafting through the neighborhood. Lots of people called the cops. “It can’t be the refinery,” the desk sergeant told every caller, “or they would have called.”
The refinery earned that response with 19 technically unnecessary telephone calls. In logic this is called reasoning from the contrapositive: If you always tell people when something happens at your facility, then when something happens and you haven’t said anything, it can’t be at your facility.
Obviously, if the refinery ever failed to report an event that neighbors found worrisome, the desk sergeant would have stopped assuming that not getting a phone call meant nothing was happening at the refinery. You don’t earn the right to keep a secret by telling the truth a bunch of times first. But as long as you keep telling the truth, you earn the right for people to assume that your silence means there’s nothing you should be telling them.
This is as true for the workforce as it is for the neighborhood. If you consistently tell employees what’s going on, they learn to trust that nothing’s going on behind their backs.
In my seminars on risk communication, I call this outrage management strategy “acknowledging your current problems.” But it’s not just about actual problems; it’s about anything that stakeholders might consider a problem, especially if they weren’t told about it promptly.
Believing the Solution
The logic of the contrapositive is one of several reasons why it’s good risk communication policy to tell people what’s going on. Another reason is to build trust in your solutions when you eventually come up with some.
Suppose you have an actual environment, health, or safety problem. Naturally you’re going to do what you can to solve the problem: to figure out what’s going wrong, assess how serious it is, consider alternative solutions, pick one to try first, pilot your solution to see if it looks like it will work, etc. More often than not, it takes awhile to get a problem solved. There’s a certain amount of struggling, even flailing, before you implement an approach that works.
The natural human tendency – and the even-more-natural corporate tendency – is to do our struggling privately. Nobody likes outsiders, especially critics, watching while we struggle. So unless there’s a pressing reason to go public, we tend to keep the problem quiet until we’ve got it solved or nearly solved. Then we tell people it’s solved. Or worse, then we tell people it’s not really a problem… which it isn’t, anymore.
Quite often they don’t believe us.
Why? Because they didn’t get to watch us solve the problem. Watching a problem-solver struggle for a while and then ultimately prevail is a confidence-building experience. It’s a major reason why we believe in our own problem-solving abilities: We have watched ourselves struggle. When we get a problem solved, we believe it partly because we were there when we didn’t have the problem solved, when we weren’t sure we could solve it, when we didn’t even know yet what we were going to try.
That’s one way employee safety committees and community advisory panels add value, especially if they include critics. Until your critics sat on the committee/panel, they just didn’t realize how tough your problems are, how hard you work (and how much money you spend) trying to solve them, or how much progress you’re making.
The downside of letting your critics watch your problem-solving efforts is that if you fail (or worse yet, if you hardly try), they’ll know it. The upside is that if you succeed, they’ll believe it. So if you expect to succeed, succeed while they watch – which means telling them about the problem while you’re still struggling. Even if you expect to fail, there’s a lot to be said for candor. But that’s a tougher call. Inviting your critics to watch while you successfully solve a problem should be a no-brainer.
Athletes are a role model here. If you want credit for breaking the world record for the broad jump, you can’t do your jumping in a dark gym at midnight, and then hold a news conference that you broke the record. You need to jump with the judges in the gym, and the judges need to include some people who hope you won’t break the record, critics (or at least skeptics) who aren’t rooting for you and won’t let you cut any corners. If athletes can bear to struggle in the glare of unsympathetic attention, so can we.
How Much Is Enough?
So far I’ve been writing as if EH&S problem-solving were dichotomous: You succeed or you fail. But we all know that’s not so. Usually we improve the situation without managing to solve the entire problem. And usually a key question is how close we have to come to solving the entire problem before we can say “enough is enough” and call the problem solved.
That’s a key question because the cost of problem-solving can rise exponentially as we get closer to the solution. Take cleanups, for example. The first 90% of a cleanup is typically pretty cheap. The next 9% costs more, and the last 1% costs a lot more. Finding and removing the very last molecule of spilled dimethylmeatloaf is infinitely expensive.
But people tend to discount heavily the portion of the solution that occurs before they’re aware of the problem. If you complete 90% of a cleanup before I even know there was a spill, I tend to think of the remaining 10% as “the spill.” Maybe I’m predisposed to insist on always capturing at least 99.9% of what spilled. You cleaned up the easy 90% before I got there. Now I want you to clean up 99.9% of the remaining 10% – a lot more expensive cleanup than I would have demanded if I’d been around from the outset.
I’m not suggesting that you let a dangerous problem fester on the grounds that your stakeholders haven’t arrived yet. That’s carrying outrage management too far, at the expense of hazard management. I am suggesting that you tell your stakeholders what’s going on as soon as you can, so they can watch as much of your problem-solving as possible, in the hope that they will be satisfied with the solution that much earlier.
The Bottom Line
I have covered three reasons for telling people what’s going on – especially telling them what’s going wrong before you get it solved:
- To establish the rebuttable presumption (accepted until you break faith) that when you haven’t said anything you don’t have a problem.
- To make your solution believable by letting people watch you figure it out and implement it.
- To make sure people notice how much of the problem you have solved, so they don’t demand a more exhaustive and expensive solution than they would otherwise have found acceptable.
This is easier advice to give than to take. Nobody likes going public before we know what we’re doing. In my seminars I often survey participants on which of my outrage management recommendations their organizations would find most objectionable. Acknowledging current problems often wins the competition.
And you can’t do it halfheartedly. People (especially critics) don’t expect you to tell them about your problems. They’re not surveilling for it. So if you mention a problem casually or quietly they’re likely to miss it. You need to alert them vividly, noticeably. Remember, your goal is to get them to watch, not just to be able to say later that you tried to tell them about it but they weren’t listening.
I should add that if you’re encouraging stakeholders to watch you solve your problems, some of them are going to have suggestions. Telling people what’s going on leads naturally, even inevitably, to listening to their input. From my perspective that’s an upside, not a downside. But if you don’t want to hear from your stakeholders, you probably don’t want to invite them to watch either.
It all boils down to the counterintuitive recommendation to let your stakeholders – internal and external, and especially the hostile ones – watch you struggle. As American humorist Tom Lehrer put it in his 1950s song “Be Prepared!” (dedicated to the Boy Scouts): “Be prepared! And be careful not to do / Your good deeds when there’s no one watching you.”
Copyright © 2014 by Peter M. Sandman