Taming the elephant in the room – why risk management fails

Taming the elephant in the room – why risk management fails

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Recently, I was hired to conduct training for an organization that had experienced significant threats of violence.  The goal was to provide staff with the skills to handle actual violence if it erupted and what to do with threats when received.  We had covered the basics during the first half of the training.  During our break, I informed the VP that it was time to dive into the particulars of the threat that they received.  In a look of horror, the VP begged me not to speak of it because the staff might not be able to handle the truth.  Here we go again I thought – these people are already dead.

Call it what you like  – transparency, outspokenness, openness, honesty, telling it like it is, call it how you see it, or candor, but most risk managers and school administrators will tell you not to look that elephant in the eye.  That simple tip sends the ripple of failure through the organization at dizzying speeds.  Why you ask?  It’s a matter of trust.  Once trust is broken with your staff you will never regain it – at least not in the near future.  Trust is something you build, not something you rebuild.

Let’s look at the dynamic of keeping secrets from your staff as described by Ben Horowitz in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things.   Let’s say that you are faced with the decision of keeping the truth from your staff or divulging the truth to your staff.   You decide to keep the truth from your staff.  Now, when your staff asks your management team about the “truth”, if the management team  doesn’t know they will look stupid.  If they do know they will have to break trust with you and tell staff or they will have to lie to staff.  Staff can sense the lie immediately.   And if staff can’t sense the lie, then when the truth finally comes out, they will know that management has lied.  Either way your entire team is now faced with telling a lie or finding out about a lie.  And that little issue will do damage for years to come.

Here’s another big issue with not looking the elephant in the eye.  What if something does go wrong?  Now you have to live with the fact that you may have prevented the issue simply by talking about it.  You have to face reality, just as Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, said.  You can’t fix the problem if you don’t face the reality of the problem.  Some of your staff already know about the issue and have certainly shared it with other staff members that they feel close to or may be friends with outside of work.  The elephant is in the room.

Risk management fails when it does not address the elephant in the room quickly.  The elephant must be talked about because discussing him freely and openly allows the team to quickly get it out of the room.  The old management axiom that says “don’t bring me a problem without a solution” means that the particular employee who identifies the problem must have the skills to solve the problem.  But what if they don’t?  You are putting the entire team at jeopardy.  So, the next time an elephant sits in your meeting or training, talk directly to him and let the team help you escort him out the door.



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