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Risk and Fear: How Do You Perceive Risk?

As a risk management consultant, trained and experienced in helping people assess risk I am always a little surprised by what scares people. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 many people refused (and still refuse) to fly although statistically you have a greater probability of being killed in a car accident than a plane crash. Similarly people fear cancer but according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Also why do some many people fear change?

David Ropeik, an instructor at Harvard University and consultant in risk perception and communication, has done a lot of work in the area of risk perception. He has written two books, RISK!!! A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You (with George Gray) and How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts which help answer these questions.

Ropeik based much of his work on the research of Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and founder and president of Decision Research. Dr. Slovic through his research identified the psychological factors that enable us to decide what to be afraid of and how afraid to be. His book, The Perception of Risk is often cited when discussing the perception of risk.

As you would image our perceptions of risk and subsequent fear is a very personal issue framed by life experiences. Some people are risk averse (oh no, don’t go there) while others are risk prone (full speed ahead).

RISK AVERSE < ———————————————————————->    RISK PRONE

I don’t think you can change a person’s place on the risk continuum but an awareness of the psychological factors at play may help you understand others’ positions. Achieving a balance between risk prone and risk averse may lead to better decisions.


Ropeik’s article “Understanding Factors of Risk Perception” established fourteen (14) factors that affect our perception of risk. Some of the factors may be in conflict with others or have a stronger effect than others. In this post I’ll discuss four (4) of the factors – I’ll write about the others in future posts.

  • TRUST – As expected the more we trust the people, institutions (government, agency, corporation, association, or organization) and decision-making process, the less afraid we are. In light of the Gulf oil spill and several missteps, very few people trust the information provided by BP but they are starting to trust the statements made by Adm. Thad Allen (Ret., USCG).

Another important aspect of trust is the level of faith the person has in the decision-making process.  Involving people in creating the process as well as their participation reduces their fear levels.

  • CONTROL – The more we feel we can control the outcome of a hazard, we are less afraid of the risk. The control can be either physical (driving the car) or having a sense of control of the process (participating in discussions and decision-making). Unfortunately we tend to perceive we have more control than we actually do. We fear the other person driving while on their cell phone than when we are driving and using our cell phone. Our illusion of control often leads us to perceive risks as less risky than they are.
  • RISK vs. BENEFIT – The more we perceive benefit from the risk the less fearful we are of it. I am an avid skier so I don’t perceive skiing as being that dangerous but the sport terrifies others. Also many people saw significant benefits from the use of social media to associations and nonprofits and were not overly concerned with the risks. Others were afraid of the reputational exposures from social media and hesitant to embrace its use. Neither side is right or wrong it’s just how you perceive the risk-benefit analysis of social media.
  • PERSONIFICATION – When we know a “real” person or victim of the risk the more frightening it becomes. When we can put a face to a risk it becomes more fearful even though the actual risk is no greater than it was before a victim personified it. When we learn of a child abducted and hurt by a stranger we preach “stranger-danger” but a child is more likely statistically to be harmed by someone he or she knows than a stranger.

Fear is an emotion that can’t always be calmed by statistics and facts, so people do not always act rationally.  Decision making including risk assessment is a complex process affected by participants’ individual beliefs and life experiences.


Awareness of your and others’ perception of risk is the first step to more effective risk assessment and management. Our perceptions shape our decisions so we need to explore these factors while making risk decisions. Here are some questions to ponder while assessing risks.

  • Where are you and others on the risk continuum – risk averse or prone? How can you address the differing views?
  • How trusting are you? Do you trust your information sources? Do you trust the process? Do you trust the people working with you?
  • Are you a control freak or like to be controlled?
  • For you, at what point does the benefit outweigh the risk? Others?
  • Have you put a “face” to the risk? What effect does that have on your assessment?

First explore your assumptions about risk then ask these questions of the group involved in the process. Identifying your risk perception factors and assumptions can help you differentiate between “perceived” and “actual” risks. What are the real risks you need to manage to be successful?


Risk Management: Doing the Right Thing

In addition to being a risk management consultant extraordinaire, I am a passionate skier who also teaches people with disabilities how to ski. So it’s important to me for people with disabilities to have the opportunity to take part in snowsports and other aspects of daily life. I get annoyed when businesses (associations, stores, restaurants, movie theatres and ski resorts) are not accessible to people with disabilities. I experienced this frustration in December when I co-presented a session on mainstreaming children with special needs into traditional snowsports lessons. The audience included snowsports schools’ directors, managers, staff trainers and program directors of adaptive programs

3 Track Skier

The workshop began with what we thought would be a brief overview of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). However we spent 2 hours explaining how the ADA applies to snowsports schools (click here for information on public accommodation requirements). Most people know the ADA as a civil rights, employment anti-discrimination law not as it applies to accessibility.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised almost 18 years after the Department of Justice issued its regulations (January 1992) many people still don’t know or understand the public accommodation requirements of the ADA. After all it took over 20 years after the 1954 Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision for public schools to be desegregated. Stereotypes take a very long time to change.

Naturally I have to look at this non-compliance issue from a risk management perspective. First I recognize that very few associations or businesses have formal risk management programs with goals, objectives and policy statements. Therefore employees and key volunteers only occasionally consider the risk implications of their decisions and usually as an excuse to not do something (too risky). However my business mission is to get associations to consider risk when making both strategic and operational decisions so I am using this as a teachable moment.

Risk implications

A risk assessment of the ADA and similar state laws could lead an organization to decide it is acceptable to be non-compliant. The possibility of a public accommodation discrimination complaint being filed against you is probably remote and a chance you may be willing to take. Further, some ski area staff (and other organizations) justify their non-compliance by the “safety” exception that people with disabilities participating in snowsports or other activities present an unacceptable danger to themselves and others. However the cost to defend against a discrimination complaint can be expensive. Disability attorneys, depositions, meetings, and potential public relations issues are costly. Your association may also be subject to fines such as $55,000 for the first ADA violation. Finally, if you lose, the government (federal, state or local) will require immediate, strict accommodation compliance including staff disability training which will be more expensive than implementing the proper programs and services now.

From an economic perspective, non-compliance may be a valid business decision but short-sighted. There are non-economic reasons to consider such as being legal and more importantly doing the right thing. Even without a formal risk management program your association has corporate goals and values which hopefully include valuing your members. Your association no doubt has people with disabilities as members, employees of member companies and perhaps some of your employees. Have you thought about how accessible your office, web site, meetings, benefits and other events to people with disabilities? Providing access often involves additional costs – deaf interpreters, lift buses, materials printed in Braille or large print, and closed captioning. However many accommodations cost nothing but a little extra effort –wider aisles, wheelchair seating (other than in the back of the room), help at a buffet for people in a wheelchair, visually impaired, uses crutches or other assistive devices, ensuring the restaurant or facility is accessible (a lot still aren’t) and simple paper and pencil to ease communication.

For most temporarily able-bodied people (known as TABS since we are only one accident or illness away from a disability, we just don’t think about accessibility. Even as an adaptive instructor I don’t always think about it. While traveling with a friend who uses a wheelchair at his suggestion I had to call restaurants and other public places to make sure they were accessible. Accessibility is an issue of personal dignity and common decency for people with disabilities – not just a legal requirement.

So I’ll get off my soapbox but ask you to think about the ways your association provides accommodations to people with disabilities. There are many disability discrimination laws in addition to the ADA that you need to be in compliance but regardless of the legal issues I urge you to find the barriers your association has for full participation by people with disabilities. It is in your best interest to make sure your association is “disability friendly.” Make the accommodations because it is the right thing to do not just to avoid fines and defense costs. It is good risk management and best business practices.


Sadie – The Risk Dog

Sadie - The Risk Dog

I’m pleased to introduce my new risk management mascot, Sadie, a Belgian Malinois or Dutch Shepherd. She joined our family in July after we lost our shepherd mix Dusty. Sadie is a rescue dog from the local SPCA so she came with some emotional baggage (don’t we all?). This breed is often trained as police or personal protection dogs since they are smart, agile and quick. Her former owner trained Sadie for personal protection but she was trained compulsively so she follows her commands out of fear, not to please us. Therefore Sadie is afraid of a lot of stuff.  Thunderstorms turn her into a quivering bowl of dog gelatin while seeking cover under anything (including me or a piece of furniture).

I see correlations between Sadie’s behaviors and the actions organizations take to manage risk. As a fearful dog she is volatile and becomes aggressive quickly. She is very protective of us (that was what she was bred for – to protect sheep from predators). Consequently I am always slightly on edge, vigilantly trying to identify any threats that will send her into her crazy dog state. Sadie doesn’t like people on bicycles, skateboards, scooters or inline skates (seeing a pattern?). When she sees a skateboarder she goes berserk, barking, running in circles, jumping and won’t listen to commands (I had a manager like that once). But if I get her attention before crossing into the “red zone” I can influence her behavior. Similarly an organization that identifies and manages its risks before a loss, can also avoid chaos.

To further complicate things, Sadie was taught her commands in German which we uncovered when we met a woman that knew Sadie from her former life. We couldn’t figure out why a “trained” dog wouldn’t sit, stay and lie down. After a Google search for German dog commands we could finally talk to Sadie and have her respond. Keeping with the risk management analogy, risk managers often speak a foreign language (Klingon perhaps) – risk, exposure, risk or loss  control, loss prevention, peril, not to mention insurance-speak. It’s my job to translate my risk language to your business language so we can work together and accomplish a lot.

Follow the adventures of Sadie as we deal with her behavior issues and risk management. She graduated recently from Basic Obedience Training and begins her advanced training soon. Anyone who has ever trained a dog knows it’s the human that is being trained not the dog. So I have a lot to learn. Sadie will have her own Twitter account and eventually a Facebook fan page. Look for her barks (tweets) and words of wisdom.

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Social Media, Risks and Urban Legends: What are you afraid of?


Jeff DeCagna of Principled Innovation, LLC spoke at the ASAE Social Media Workshop on November 6. His talk, Connecting Social Tools to Organizational Strategy and Capability focused on how important strategy is in your social technologies efforts.  His second question in Jeff’s Top Ten Social Strategy Questions for Association Leaders got my attention with the word “risk.” How much business risk are we willing to accept? Risk assessment is an important part of any strategic discussion not just social technologies.

Manufactured Risk

Jeff defined three types of risk – manufactured, manageable and momentum. Manufactured risk caught my attention because the perceived severity of a manufactured risk often causes an organization to not pursue a specific strategy because it’s too risky. A manufactured risk in one that everyone talks about, worries about and keeps them from acting. The risk is usually taken to the extreme, worst case scenario threatening the organization’s survival. To me people repeat the concerns so often the risk takes on the persona of an urban legend . Urban legends are neither false nor true but usually have a grain of truth as does a manufactured risk. But people don’t analyze the exposure to decide if the potential outcome is truly that awful or devastating. People just use the manufactured risk as a reason not to do something.

They’ll say bad things about us . . .

The most common reason (manufactured risk) an organization resists social media is that “someone may something bad about us, our members, clients, sponsor, etc.” The grain of truth is that yes people will say something bad about your organization or members – it is inevitable – not everyone will like what you‘re doing. The exaggeration is that the comments will cause irreparable damage possibly leading to its demise. Damage to your reputation is a risk that you can and should be managed, but the final outcome is rarely the end of your organization. When an organization does fail it is due to inherent structural or cultural faults that existed before the bad press.

Wendy Harman , Social Media Manager of the American Red Cross (ARC) , spoke at the workshop and helped debunk this manufactured risk. Wendy joined the Red Cross in late 2006 when Hurricane Katrina was still a trending topic. Her task was to stop people from saying bad things about ARC on the internet. However when Wendy began listening in the 400+ mentions of ARC each day the majority were very positive. According to Wendy in an interview with John Haydon, “People are more generous and more willing to engage than we gave them credit for being. Now, we’ve been able to figure out how to start building an online movement of people empowered by us and themselves to make a difference.”

What to do . . .

To prove this to yourselves and your bosses do both a Google and Twitter search for your organization’s name, acronym and industry topics to see what people are saying about you. I think you’ll find most comments are positive or a worse case no one is talking about you. It’s better to know what they are saying so you can respond appropriately. A quick review of public relations and marketing failures such as United Breaks Guitars,’s snafu with listing its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender books in the “adult” category and the “Dell Sucks” campaign were the result of the companies not responding to criticism by its customers. Greater damage is done by not responding or replying in a defensive or patronizing way. A quick and honest response goes a long way plus your members will come to your aid. Don’t let the manufactured risk of “bad public relations” keep your organization from engaging online with its members and other stakeholders. There are bigger risks to manage than this one.


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