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Don't shoot the messenger.



Many disasters are foreseen. Sometime after the dust has settled, it is discovered that someone knew that the catastrophe was imminent. If this is the ease, why do foreseen, preventable disasters occur? Take the two space shuttle space shuttle, reusable U.S. space vehicle. Developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), it consists of a winged orbiter, two solid-rocket boosters, and an external tank.  disasters. On the Challenger, engineers warned of the O-ring problem but were ignored. Dr. Elizabeth Pate-Cornell identified the problems with lost insulating tiles 10 years before the destruction of the Columbia. In both cases, the warnings were ignored.

The underlying problem here is a particularly human one. Even with all the tools of logic, computers and risk management, we often make irrational decisions. That we do with great frequency was studied by Daniel Kahneman Daniel "Danny" Kahneman (born March 5, 1934 in Tel Aviv), is an Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel laureate, notable for his pioneering work on behavioral finance and hedonic psychology.  and Amos Tversky Amos Tversky (March 16, 1937 - June 2, 1996) was a cognitive and mathematical psychologist, and a pioneer of cognitive science, a longtime collaborator of Daniel Kahneman, and a key figure in the discovery of systematic human cognitive bias and handling of risk. . Their work proved this so effectively that it won them the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences: see Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel under Nobel Prize. .

One does not need to read their hundreds of studies to understand where we go wrong when making decisions regarding risk. Anyone who has worked for a large organization has firsthand experience of the subtle and not so subtle pressures exerted by political, cultural and personal forces. The messenger delivering bad news is often summarily shot.

People working toward a goal tend to value a positive, can-do attitude. Those who have become emotionally invested in a project or activity tend to consider the suggestion that the project is a bad idea to be a personal attack. Anyone who speaks up and says, "This could end in disaster," has to be brave because they are likely to receive an angry response. Imagine how dissenters dissenters: see nonconformists.  at Enron Corp., Worldcom or NASA NASA: see National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA
 in full National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Independent U.S.
 were treated. None of them was promoted for pointing out potential risks.

This is where risk managers have value. We are hired to identify potential problems--to call bad ideas bad ideas. This is not to say we have to be correct. We merely need to open dialogues that others dare not.

This dialog is absolutely necessary to a healthy organization. It is the reason that the Founding Fathers added the First Amendment. It is why we have whistleblower whis·tle·blow·er or whis·tle-blow·er or whistle blower  
n.
One who reveals wrongdoing within an organization to the public or to those in positions of authority: "The Pentagon's most famous whistleblower is . .
 protection laws. Healthy organizations, teams and people invite dissenting opinions.

The risk manager does not boar all of the responsibility; others in the organization must, at the very least, be willing to listen and discuss potential problems. As soon as people attack the messenger, a cultural signal is sent out that anyone not willing to engage in groupthink group·think  
n.
The act or practice of reasoning or decision-making by a group, especially when characterized by uncritical acceptance or conformity to prevailing points of view.

Noun 1.
; anyone who raises a contrarian opinion, will be shouted down and punished. The result is that people learn to go along with the crowd and remain silent about even obvious risks.

I have experienced this in various settings. Never was this quite so obvious as after the article I wrote on the wisdom of building in disaster areas like New Orleans New Orleans (ôr`lēənz –lənz, ôrlēnz`), city (2006 pop. 187,525), coextensive with Orleans parish, SE La., between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, 107 mi (172 km) by water from the river mouth; founded . I received many e-mails. Many were supportive, but a disturbing number simply contained vulgarities that cannot be reprinted here. The general message of these missives was, "How dare you say anything that disagrees with what I believe? You should be silenced and punished." Some actually tried to mete out mete out
Verb

[meting, meted] to impose or deal out something, usually something unpleasant: the sentence meted out to him has proved controversial [Old English metan
 that punishment.

Attempting to shout down, insult, intimidate and silence anyone who expresses an idea contrary to one's own is simply dangerous. I am sure that those raising questions at NASA, Enron and other organizations received roughly the same treatment.

We as risk managers have a duty to openly discuss risks no matter how unpopular that makes us. It takes courage to do so. But even if one hasn't the courage to speak up, the very least one can do is refrain from helping to silence the messenger.

BEAUMONT VANCE is the risk management columnist for Risk & Insurance[R]. He manages risk for Sun Microsystems Inc. He can be reached at riskletters@lrp.com.
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Title Annotation:RISK MANAGEMENT
Author:Vance, Beaumont
Publication:Risk & Insurance
Date:Feb 1, 2008
Words:620
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