All was going smoothly until I made a grave mistake. I submitted a dangerously incorrect turbine specification and they built it. If installed, it would have deafened the city of Toronto with the high pitched shrill of supersonic gas speeds. Terrified, I faced the music with my boss. While confessing the error, my boss remained calm even compassionate. I remember him saying that he knew I did not mean it, that I had beaten myself up enough and now we needed to team together to find a solution. He kept his word. We solved for the problem. No one pointed fingers. I will always be grateful to him. He made me feel safe to confess the truth.
Fast forward many years, I realize now how important this very idea is in my world of risk identification, quantification and control. People often ask me, "What is the key to success for effective risk assessment programs?" My answer is always the same: "Create a nonpunitive and calm environment where people feel safe to talk about risky issues and solutions. Otherwise your program is doomed to fail."
What comes to mind when we think about the word "safe"?What creates a safe environment where people feel comfortable to speak freely or more importantly, honestly? Likely we are looking for a place where we are protected, or a place where we are "free from harm or risk."
At the core of any meaningful risk management program is an organization's ability to disclose misgivings, problems and risk, no matter how charged the issue may be. If people do not feel safe to talk, the exercise is rather pointless. To many people, confession is deemed a dirty word. They naturally fear that 'fessing up to crimes and misdeeds will show a dark side. They fear judgment, repercussion or criticism. Moreover, if they are never rewarded for the disclosure but punished, you will hear only silence.
As such it is critical that an organization actively create and foster a safe environment for risk disclosure. Too often, I have sadly witnessed "the shooting of the corporate messenger" or the hunting for "the neck to choke."These types of dramas, as vindicating as they may feel in the short term, only kill any attempt at making people feel safe to talk in the longer term.
So how does one create such a safe environment? To start, one needs to lay a foundation by promoting rules that stress the importance of authenticity and commitment of the organization to following the rules. The organization must commit to a risk disclosure process and follow it with painful consistency. I call it the "if-then" process where people know in advance if they reveal this, then this is what will happen. For example, if I disclose a processing error costing the company millions of dollars, then I know (and truly trust) that the company will take the information gratefully and use it only to manage a solution.
To cement these rules, risk leaders and governors of risk offices must model the process every day without fail. It is important that risk management leaders be trusted role modelsby acting with transparency, advocacy, commitment, consistency and integrity.
JOANNA MAKOMASKI is a specialist in innovative enterprise risk management methods and implementation techniques. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 1, 2012
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