Risk or Negativity?
Are you part of an organization incurring NO RISKS, or without negative concerns crossing your desk? If you think so, you’re unaware or have a blinder risk.
Did you know leaders can easily mix up a Risk and Negativity – Negative Opinion – if they are not careful? Why? Because Leaders are busy and responsible for the overall business, including its performance, growth, and employees. Leaders are expected to outperform the competition in an increasingly globalized marketplace. They are preoccupied and have very little time left for the Debbie Downers in the business.
Only you know how you assess the issues that cross your desk, whether the risks are evaluated based on merit or discounted due to personal biases. Biases such as the person’s negative tone, the negativity of the issue, or how the issue was raised. This article discusses tips and strategies to minimize biases while providing strategies to effectively discuss and differentiate between risk and negativity.
“Risk is not a bad word“. Do you know any team that sees risk as a bad thing, people who perceive risks as criticisms or a personal attack on their performance? Teams that labelled risk bearers as people who saw the glass-half-empty, negative or pessimistic. Experience reveals that the topic of risk makes most people uncomfortable, which can lead to premature dismissal of a risk as negativity. What can be done if this is a possibility is to build awareness, develop the awareness to differentiate between risk and negativity and recognize the subtle behaviours and prejudices that can cause someone to discount risk as mere negativity.
What is a Risk?
A basic definition of Risk is Risk is the possibility of something going wrong. In a business environment, risks are dependent on other business activities. More commonly, risks are discussed in conjunction with a new investment, project or the decision to do something differently. The business decision to take action is designed to achieve a result that would not be possible otherwise. The actions create the opportunities within which the risk can happen.
The downside of avoiding risk is the business continuing on its current path – playing it safe – which, based on current projections, will cause the business to stagnate, decline, or incur losses. This reminds me of one of my all-time favourite quotes by Charles Darwin, “It’s not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” Business needs to evolve to survive.
It is important to recognize that Risks are not simple subjective statements of possible adverse outcomes but Analytical Hypothetical Theories comprising the following characteristics.
- A Decision can lead to certain risky events happening in the future. However, there are no guarantees that the events will occur, only a likelihood that the events could occur.
- The business will suffer Negative Consequences if the risky events do occur.
- The business will determine if the negative consequence is something that it will accept as an acceptable cost for growth or a consequence to be minimized.
- The business can minimize or eradicate the negative consequences of the risk only if they act. The business can assess whether there are Actions that can either reduce the negative impact of the threat or eradicate it.
If the business ought to grow, improve and survive against new and existing threats, the business must take on risks – A logical though unpleasant activity inherent in the management of a business.
Negative feedback, opinions, or concerns are conclusions made without any logical reason to support the conclusion. It can be construed as a fear response to a decision or action taken by the business.
There is value in someone having instincts based on experience; however, it is not acceptable to use years of experience as the only justification. A responsible person will not ignore their intuition but apply critical thinking to evaluate it. At a minimum, the person should state, based on their experience, the evidence indicates that if certain actions are pursued, the following events will occur, which will negate the benefit of the action in the following ways, and list out the impact on the business; and use their experience to provide the context within which others can use to evaluate their concern.
It is worthwhile to be mindful that negativity has no logic behind it. No case can justify taking up the valuable time of your busy leaders to consider your negative opinions. If a negative opinion is worth discussing, it is the responsibility of the person raising the issue to engage in some critical thinking; otherwise, they risk their contribution being discounted. And remember, as aspiring leaders, it is worthwhile to engage in critical thinking as often as possible; it will create better arguments both for and against an idea and elevate you as a thought leader in the business.
Why are Risks Not Simply Someone’s Negative Opinion?
There was a recent public debate on “unconscious bias”. On the one hand, it was argued that it is the organization’s responsibility to educate their teams on unconscious bias; while the opposing argument was, how could you know if it is unconscious bias? This logic cannot be used to differentiate between risks and just negativity.
Why? Because it’s the leader’s responsibility to equip themselves with the tools necessary to effectively evaluate risk. Leaders know that there are both know-unknowns and unknown-unknowns when it comes to identifying and managing risks, and they cannot rely on others to think for them. They recognize that they cannot just discount negative feedback but follow the thinking of the person raising the issue to evaluate whether it’s a risk or not.
- Risks are founded on Sound Business Judgement, Information and Scenario Forecasting. At the same time, Negativity lacks insights and is based on emotions, fear or being overly cautious, without any evidence to support the concern.
- Risk promotes the proactive management of the business, task, or project, while Negativity promotes judgements and arguments.
Thus, whether an issue is a potential risk or an overly pessimistic reaction is not always immediately apparent. If not, here are a few questions to help evaluate the issue to determine whether it’s a risk or pessimism.
- Why is this a concern?
- How will it impact the task, project or business?
- What information do you have to support this thinking?
- What further information do I need to determine if further action is required?
- What are the consequences of ignoring this concern?
- What are the consequences of pursuing this concern?
- What resources do I need to redirect to evaluate this concern, and is it worth it?
- What are the scenarios that will make this thinking a reality?
- What if anything can be taken to avoid negative consequences?
Why are Risks easily confused for Negativity?
Risks are easily confused for Negativity and vice versa because Risk and Negativity share several superficial traits. Superficial because they appear the same only at the surface level; when digging a little deeper, risks are not just an adverse knee-jerk reaction to some activity in the business.
- Both Risk and Negative Opinions are possible adverse outcomes if the business decides to pursue certain activities. Risk is a result of an analytical process, clearly that there is a likelihood of a negative consequence if certain conditions are met. At the same time, negativity results from unsubstantiated fear or worry.
- Both Risk and Negative Opinions are discussed with a degree of urgency and concern. Risks discussion takes the form of an assessment discussion, while negative opinion takes the form of complaining.
- Both Risk and Negativity are possible negative future outcomes. Risk is a possible forecasted outcome if certain conditions are met, while negativity is the fear bad things will happen if the business decides to move forward with a decision.
- Both Risk and Negative Opinions are the results of either an action or a decision the business is considering. Risk is a discussion of possible things that can go wrong with a plan to prevent it while working towards acquiring the benefits of this action. While on the other hand negative opinion is a recommendation not to pursue the planned action for fear that something will go wrong.
In addition to the above Risk and Negativity superficial traits, other reasons why risk can easily be perceived as just another glass-half-empty point of view.
- Communication Strategy: When people are concerned or worried about something going wrong, they often start the conversation with the most urgent news first – the bad news. The news people can interpret as negativity.
- Timing: Poor timing is another reason people may rashly judge an attempt to discuss risk as negativity. If you spring bad news on their supervisor at an inopportune time, your supervisor is more likely to view the information as negative; especially if they lack the time or context to consider it further.
- Personalities: It is not logical, right or wrong, and not something anyone wants to admit; however, there is no denying the fact that some conversations are more effortless with people who are like us; and much more difficult with people who oppose us – opposes our style or preference. It is much easier to conclude that the news bearer is negative when their personalities conflict with our own.
Experience makes it easier for leaders to differentiate risk from an over-concern employee’s negative opinion. However, even with experience and tenure, some issues will cross a leader’s desk that will challenge them. When it is not obvious whether an issue raised is a risk, start by gleaning more information using the questions listed above, and use the risk characteristics discussed to differentiate risk from an opinion; and remember, the risk is based on a logical assessment of possible future conditions that can result in potential losses.
A word of caution, avoid labelling staff as negative, or the glass-half-empty type of people, because:
- Business is a fluid entity in which things are always evolving. At times risks may not be fully fleshed out in the minds of employees; however, with some guidance and a collaborative discussion, the ideas can be fully developed or confidently ruled out. This process is also a valuable coaching opportunity for leaders as they develop their teams. There was this incident a few years back in which an employee raised a high impact, high likelihood risk with their supervisor. The risk was dismissed for reasons that were unsatisfactory to the employee, who was visibly concerned. However, the risk materialized later, costing the business a material sum and a customer. Suffice to say; the cost would have been insignificantly less if the issue had been addressed when raised.
- Not everyone is a savvy communicator, and when put in the spotlight to address a complicated issue with an impatient group, the stress of the situation can override the urgency and importance of the issue. When nerves and fear compound concerns, it can exasperate the situation making the message more aggrieved than the communicator intended. Ruling it out as negativity instead of a possible risk.
Thus far, the focus has been on leaders, the people having to determine whether the issue raised is a risk or not. Despite knowing, it is a leader’s responsibility to lead; an employee raising a risk also has a responsibility to ensure that they get their facts straight and do some due diligence – critical thinking – before discussing with their boss. It would benefit them significantly to minimize the chances that they are crying wolf. The next section focus on the employee, the person who is responsible for bringing a possible risk to the attention of their supervisor.
Strategy to Discuss Risk.
Whether you’re a leader, an aspiring leader, or a subordinate, communication is about conveying your message in a way the receiving party understands. Effective communication is about understanding what is important, how the message will be communicated and when best to communicate the message. If communication is such a common everyday activity; then why are so many messages dismissed and critical information missed? Because; the person communicating their message was not able to communicate their thoughts clearly, and/or the person receiving the message either did not have the time or was not interested in decoding it.
It is understood that the bigger the impact on the risk bearer, the more emotionally charged they may be, and the greater the likelihood that the message will be communicated poorly. It is equally likely that the message will not be received well and will be easily dismissed. Pay heed to your emotional response to the different risk situations you find yourself in, pause, take a breather and think through the risk in the steps below. Do the work and improve your chances that your boss will entertain your concern. Don’t do the work and risk being dismissed.
1. Analyze your Bad News:
Whenever someone anticipates something bad that could potentially happen, it is their responsibility to put that concern into perspective so the people responsible can understand and act. Avoid dramatization and sensationalization to get their attention. Initially, dramatization may work; however, eventually, people with catch on and your strategy will fail because no one likes the sky is always falling strategy.
It is highly recommended if time permits to do some diligence before interrupting your boss with a potential concern. Review the questions above, and gather some information before approaching your boss. If this thinking is new to you, it may take some effort initially; however, with practice, you will be able to assess each concern much more efficiently.
Caution, if the issue is time sensitive and critical, do not sit on it trying to evaluate it yourself.
2. Understood “facts”:
When deciding how to communicate bad news to others, it is important to understand the possible impact of that news on the other person. Sine understood “facts” to consider.
- It is understood that when some people anticipate news they don’t want to hear, they automatically tune you off. If this is the case with your supervisor, then be mindful of this fact and find ways to reframe the news in a way that will not lose their attention.
- It is understood that the less likely the negative event is, the more likely it is to be park it. Understanding that leaders are frequently bombarded by urgent imminent issues; if it is not detrimental or communicated with urgency, it risks being discounted. If this is the case, find a way to share the urgency and criticality of the issue without inflating it.
- It is understood that the more complicated an issue, the more likely the urgency or importance will not be communicated and the greater the likelihood it will be dismissed. Complexity requires focus and someone’s attention. If your supervisor’s attention is in limited supply, find a way to summarise it so they understand the urgency in one minute or less. Once you capture their attention, they will dedicate the time to hear you out.
- It is understood that if something isn’t relevant to the person, it can be minimized or dismissed. If you want your supervisor to pay attention, determine how it would impact them and ensure the importance is communicated.
3: Use the You Frame:
Dale Carnegie’s training teaches us that the best way to get a person’s attention is to talk about what is valuable to them, and what is interesting to the other person. He also advised that the best way to get someone to listen to what you have to say is to speak about them to them. This concept is referred to as using the You-Frame. The You-Frame restructures the message using the word “You” instead of “I”, “Me”. When you use the word “you”, it makes the message about them, grabbing their attention.
Caution: Do not make something about the other person if it is not about them. But, frame your communication from their perspective as it emphasizes the importance of this issue to them, thus encouraging further discussion on the topic.
4: Structure and Presentation:
Structure and Presentation are at the core of effective communication. It is even more important to communicate effectively when the stakes are high when there is a very real risk that jeopardizes your project, your supervisor, the business or you. It is important to develop the skills to concisely communicate this risk in a manner that is easy to understand to bring attention to the urgency and importance of the issue.
- State the Risk;
- State the Impact on the Business, Person, Project or item;
- State the urgency of risk;
- State the help needed and by when.
- Communicate clearly, avoid being too wordy;
- Avoid repeating yourself;
- Avoid exaggeration, dramatization, or overly stating the importance;
- Use professional language;
- Avoid assigning blame;
- Avoid or minimize emotional outbursts; and
- Do not make it personal.
The above procedure will provide context, urgency and sufficient information for your supervisor to determine the urgency of the issue and, if they deem it necessary, to allow time to discuss further or dismiss it with an explanation.
It is unacceptable for leaders to assume the position “what you don’t know you are not responsible for” or “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”. Leaders are responsible for the business and must operate at a higher, more responsible level. So when information crosses their desk, it is their duty to evaluate it properly, to make an informed judgment using rationale and logic, not render it useless based on biases.
It is straightforward for someone to conclude that a possible risk is just some Debbie Downer seeing ‘The Glass Half Empty’. However, Regardless of how busy you are, there are effective critical thinking strategies to help determine whether the issue raised is a risk and tips and insights to minimize biases when making that decision.
As a bonus, the strategies serve as an excellent critical thinking risk determination framework for aspiring leaders.
Finally, even if you are an aspiring leader, take ownership of your issue assessment and risk communication. Gather the information, think through the issue using the guidelines provided and formulate your strategy so your point gains the attention you want it to get while developing your critical thinking skills, which will gain the respect and admiration of your peers and supervisors.
The only challenge is putting in the effort to be more effective in either your role as a leader or employee when evaluating whether a concern is a risk or a fear response to be dismissed with an explanation and avoid labelling anyone as either a Debbie Downer or someone who sees the Glass Half Empty or being labelled as a rash and dismissive leader.
Don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or want to find other cost-effective, minimally disruptive strategies to help your business. Strategy@nmcorporatestrategy.com; 289-201-2245.
Written by Nallanie Manick, Principal & Founder @ NM Corporate Strategy Inc.