This is the ninth 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 April 2006 issue of The Synergist, pp. 49–59.
I just did a Google search for the phrase “every possible precaution” and got 51,000 hits. Among the top ten (only Google knows why): The U.S. Postal Service (in 2001) said it was taking every possible precaution against anthrax; an educational computing company says it’s taking every possible precaution to keep its data secure; an internet technology company promises to take every possible precaution to make sure its products perform as advertised; Japan’s Prime Minister Tojo (back in 1941) was taking every possible precaution against public unrest in the face of enemy propaganda; in the event of an airline hijacking, the interceptor crew will take every possible precaution to avoid startling passengers on the hijacked plane; and adventure hikers in the Southwest are advised to take every possible precaution not to let their campfires burn out of control.
Among the 51,000 hits are endless environment, health, and safety professionals assuring somebody (neighbors, employees, management) that every possible precaution is being taken to see to it that pollutants aren’t emitted or that accidents don’t happen.
All these claims are, of course, lies.
Any risk manager who is actually taking every possible precaution is taking far too many precautions, inevitably including many that are prohibitively expensive, disruptive, or ineffective. The reality of precaution-taking is that some precautions are obviously wise, others are obviously foolish, and still others are in a gray zone where it’s hard to decide whether to take them or not. Every decent risk manager carries around a mental list of precautions in the gray zone – the ones you decided to spring for but you’re not sure you should have; and the ones you decided to pass up but you might change your mind next year if your budget (or the level of concern) increases.
This is the dilemma of deciding how safe is safe enough. More often than not, it is also the dilemma of making cost-versus-risk tradeoffs. You know it well. But odds are you don’t talk about it much in public.
Coming Out of the Closet
The question is whether you should come out of the closet. Granted, the claim to be taking every possible precaution is false – but isn’t it a harmless falsehood, just a piece of conventional hypocrisy that doesn’t actually mislead anybody? I don’t think so. I think the net result of 51,000 such claims is that we are beginning to have a society that believes every possible precaution should be taken.
People are coming to feel they have a legitimate grievance if they can think of a precaution you haven’t taken. Before things go wrong, their grievance takes the form of advocacy on behalf of additional precautions – precautions that may not be cost-effective but are surely possible. After things go wrong, it takes the form of lawsuits pointing to all those possible precautions you didn’t take (and pointing to all your assurances that you were taking every possible precaution).
Once a controversy arises, of course, companies have no choice but to come out of the closet. They usually do so in statements that drip with contempt for the employees or neighbors who are expressing the “irrational” view that it makes sense to take every possible precaution – as if the company hadn’t been promising to do exactly that.
“Every possible precaution” belongs on the list with “zero risk” (also “no risk” and “perfectly safe”) – all phrases that should be banished from the lexicon of EH&S [environmental health and safety] professionals, and of PR professionals as well. When you claim the risk is zero, you set yourself up for demands to get to zero, not just close; when you claim you’re taking every possible precaution, you set yourself up for demands that you take the ones you haven’t taken yet, even if they’re not worth taking. Worse, you set your stakeholders up to misunderstand the realities of risk and risk management.
Public agencies make the same mistake. When it comes to emergency preparedness, in fact, they often make an even worse mistake, claiming to be “prepared.” After 9/11, most federal officials learned to promise less. By the time flu pandemic worries got into high gear in fall 2005, only local officials were routinely using the word “prepared” without a modifier like “better” or an action verb like “getting”; some federal officials were even modifying “prepared” with “not.” But they still promised to take every possible precaution.
How do you break the news to your stakeholders that you can’t take every possible precaution – worse, that you don’t really think it makes sense to try? The key is to share the dilemma, to concede that you are not entirely sure what to do.
That may mean you haven’t decided what to do. Certainly one very powerful way to share a dilemma is to seek advice from your stakeholders. “We’re trying to decide whether to do X or Y. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of X. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of Y. What do you think?” Asking your stakeholders’ advice has many benefits. They might know things about X and Y that you didn’t know. They might be able to come up with a better answer, a Z you never thought of. And even when stakeholder involvement doesn’t actually improve the decision, people are likelier to support a decision they helped make.
But dilemma-sharing isn’t confined to decisions you haven’t made yet. Suppose you have made a difficult and debatable decision – such as the decision to take certain precautions but not others. You decided without asking for stakeholder input. Even though you didn’t share the decision itself, you still have an opportunity to share the truth about the decision: that it was a dilemma.
It is often tempting to hide the dilemma, to represent your difficult decision as having been easy and obvious. Choosing to share the dilemma, by contrast, means acknowledging that other options had appeal too, and that the chosen option had drawbacks – that there was no perfect option. And it means acknowledging that you’re not 100 percent sure you made the right decision. (For extra credit, try acknowledging that there was considerable internal debate over what to decide, that some people who were in on the decision argued for a different option than the one you ultimately chose.)
What does dilemma-sharing sound like when the issue at hand is the adequacy of your precautions? First, you need to stress that precaution-taking isn’t a dichotomy; it is always possible to do more (or less) about a risk. Second, you need to explain that you are taking the precautions you think best and why you think so. Third, you need to concede that this is a judgment call in an uncertain situation, and address explicitly some of what’s in the gray area – precautions you almost took or almost didn’t take. (This may include mentioning who gave you input and what they recommended.) Finally, you need to welcome debate about whether you drew the line too far to one side or the other.
Benefits and Drawbacks
Dilemma-sharing has a lot of benefits:
- It is usually the truth – and has the ring of truth.
- It helps those who favored a different choice feel respected, and therefore helps them accept their loss. At least their preferred option got its due consideration. At least you’re not claiming they’re fools.
- It moderates the debate. It’s hard for others to claim you’re obviously wrong when you’re not claiming you’re obviously right; everyone winds up agreeing that it was a tough call.
- It makes the things you say are obvious sound obvious. If you share dilemmas routinely, people take you seriously when you say something really is a no-brainer.
- It buys you considerable protection if you turn out wrong, and makes it easier to reverse course. You always said you might be wrong.
- It sets a standard of respect for the other side and the merits of the other side’s case. If critics are not similarly respectful of you and your case, they will pay a high price among the undecideds.
- It teaches your stakeholders some fundamental truths: that most risk management decisions are debatable; that there is seldom a perfect option; and that your organization’s decision-making is robust, human, and fallible.
- In the case of precaution-taking, it teaches another fundamental truth as well: that taking every possible precaution isn’t in fact possible.
Dilemma-sharing does have three drawbacks:
- Admitting you’re not sure you made the right call can be hard on an EH&S professional’s ego.
- Coming face-to-face with your fallibility can arouse anxiety among your stakeholders – especially if they’re used to the luxury of assuming your omniscience and then complaining loudly if you turn out fallible.
- Once you admit you might be wrong, the debate you may have hoped to avoid becomes inevitable. It’s less rancorous (and less belated) than it would have been without your dilemma-sharing, but you have to give up on avoiding it altogether.
On balance, I think, the benefits win.
Some Additional Guidelines
- While you’re sharing the dilemma, share the pain of the dilemma as well. You wish you could take every possible precaution. You wish you could decide infallibly which precautions to take. You understand that many of your stakeholders wish these things too.
- Expect some people to resent the added anxiety they feel when you insist your decisions are fallible. It will probably take the form of criticism that you’re insufficiently decisive. Explain that despite the uncertainties you’re not having trouble making risk management decisions. You’re a grownup and can bear the anxiety of knowing you might be wrong. You believe your stakeholders are grownups and can bear that anxiety too.
- In an industrial setting, cost-risk tradeoffs are complicated by the reality that it’s the company’s cost and the employees’ or neighbors’ risk. Concede that this is true. Then point out the ways it isn’t entirely true. The company, too, stands to lose if accidents happen. And some of the costs of precautions – the inconvenience and discomfort of PPE, for example – are borne by stakeholders.
- Be alert for opportunities to permit (or even recommend) voluntary precautions that go beyond the ones you’re taking or requiring others to take. The more flexible your precautionary decisions are, the easier they are to accept. “Here’s what we’re doing about this risk. Here’s what we require you to do. Here’s what we urge you to do. And here’s some more you can do if you want.”
- Point out that in our own lives we all know that taking every possible precaution isn’t possible. We carry a spare tire and maybe a first-aid kit, but not a spare engine or a doctor’s bag. We angst over what risks to let our children take, but we know we can’t say no to everything they want to do that might get them hurt.
- Acknowledge – even emphasize – that even a sound risk management decision sometimes turns out badly. If horrible things happen, we will all wish that more precautions (and exactly the right precautions) had been taken. Part of sharing the dilemma is helping people understand that foresight is a lot tougher than hindsight. That will help a little (only a little) if you have a serious accident and hindsight kicks in.
Copyright © 2006 by Peter M. Sandman