Risk Managers’ Forum
Techniques to avoid communication impasses
The professional life of a risk manager is largely about exposure identification and treatment of both downside and upside risk. While some parts of the risk management process are too complex to be spread throughout the organization, there are other areas where all employees can (and should) be asked to contribute their insights and observations. As the contributions made by other employees have many times saved the risk manager (and been of significant benefit to the company), it is critical to solicit feedback from these individuals. However, in many cases, a communication impasse prohibits or inhibits the effective transmission of this information.
Listening is extremely important; risk managers should speak only 30% of the time and listen the remaining 70% of the time.
Because exposures are so numerous for most organizations, risk managers need help with the identification process—and the best and most reliable assistance comes from fellow employees. This is particularly true for risk managers with organizations that have multiple locations, because the laws of physics prevent risk managers from being in multiple locations at once.
The risk manager must have effective communication skills in order to engage employees in becoming the additional eyes, ears, and noses of the risk manager. In short, communication skills create the business relationships with other employees that allow a risk manager to be more successful in exposure identification and other areas as well.
Communication impasses can be caused by several factors. In some cases, employees may not be comfortable sharing information—unless they are assured that this information is confidential. There is nothing worse than an employee feeling that they are “tattling’” on their manager, and they rightfully feel reluctant to make recommendations to the risk manager if they believe that this information could be used against them by their supervisors.
In addition, and depending upon the issues that are raised, there is a vested interest for the managers who were supposed to be engaging in good risk management practices themselves, to feel threatened or affronted by the communication of this information. In many cases, their reactions may be very adverse—either to employees in their department or the risk management effort in general.
These considerations make it essential for the risk manager to operate with integrity, and to have the support of the leadership team in making it clear that risk management is part of the job description of every employee. In addition, fostering a team mentality across the organization can be very helpful in alleviating these types of concerns.
The position of risk manager is infused with organizational politics, and not having the necessary communication skills has led to the downfall of many risk managers who had the other skills required to be successful in this position. A risk manager must spend the time and energy necessary to nurture business relationships throughout the organization, because business relationships drive business and risk management programs.
For example, some risk management initiatives and programs take time to realize the intended results—the significance of the benefit can be easily lost, or the organization can lose interest. Communication skills are necessary to gain support within the organization for the span of time that passes until the results are realized. This is particularly true for risk management initiatives and programs that require behavioral change.
Obviously, risk managers should be most familiar with the risk considerations at the home location and should make periodic on-site visits if there are multiple locations. Site visits provide risk managers with an opportunity to achieve buy-in from personnel, to establish their integrity, and to demonstrate the importance of good risk management to employees in remote locations. This is also a good time to inform employees that their recommendations and observations will be taken seriously, and action will be taken where warranted.
Too many times, employees have made suggestions in the past and “nothing ever happened.” As a result, they may feel ambivalent about making any suggestions at all. Hint: a nice email thanking them for their input will go a long way in establishing your sincerity in asking for their help and encouraging them to contact you with future observations. And if their suggestion is taken seriously and action is taken, it will not take long for word to get around that you are trustworthy and that you mean what you say about all employees being a part of the risk management process. Another hint: If it was a really good suggestion, credit the department in the company newsletter or find another way to thank them for their stewardship of the organization.
A related concern is when employees concerned with a potential exposure feel intimidated or believe that there is a potential for ridicule if they speak with a risk manager. For example, in some companies, the “line” between workers and management is more firmly drawn than it is in other companies, but it is a well-known secret that sometimes an experienced employee knows more about what they do than their manager or supervisor does. In fact, these employees often have a wealth of information about the inner workings of the entire department.
It is also important not to discount input from new or younger employees, as these individuals often survey the situation with new eyes and a fresh approach that can be valuable to the risk management process.
It is in your best interest to ensure that these individuals are confident that, no matter how large or small the exposure may be, you welcome their contact and will give their concerns due consideration. Again, effective communication skills will allow a risk manager to foster the feeling of camaraderie, and it builds a relationship of trust and confidence—a good business relationship.
Risk managers must also realize that the process of building trust and confidence never stops. Diligent efforts must be made on an ongoing basis to remind employees that they are a part of the risk management team—and their efforts are appreciated.
One of the most important communication tools at your disposal is frequently forgotten. Risk managers use terms such as risk, exposure, hazard, frequency, severity, loss, occurrence, and incident on a daily basis, and each of these is interpreted differently by people inside and outside of the organization. To communicate effectively, a risk manager must remember that an integral part of a risk management program is common definitions.
Common definitions are essential for success. For example, there is significant difference between an incident and an accident, and it is most imperative that the managerial staff has a good understanding of other commonly used risk management definitions.
Inviting those who are unfamiliar with these terms to a Lunch-n-Learn, a webinar, or some other type of brief training program will help them to better understand the terminology, while simultaneously reinforcing the team concept in a manner that engenders inclusiveness. More extensive training can be held for managers and supervisors to ensure that they understand the bottom-line impact of their support for the risk management program. The last thing that you want is an adversarial relationship with these individuals.
Another communication technique is a lot harder than it sounds. When a risk manager asks other employees to help with the risk management effort, the largest part of being a good communicator is listening. Listening is extremely important; risk managers should speak only 30% of the time and listen the remaining 70% of the time. As a risk manager you must always think from the perspective of the person you are speaking and/or listening to. Unfortunately, people generally think that they are good listeners, and there are countless studies that confirm that most are not. Thus, actively pay attention to your listening habits to see where improvement can be made.
Effective communication skills are key to being a successful risk manager just as they are in so many other human activities. Business relationships must be continually nurtured; risk managers must make sure others in the organization are comfortable and are willing to assist them in implementing risk management strategies that benefit the organization.
Bill Toll is president of Bill Toll & Associates, Inc., an organization located in Austin, Texas, that specializes in insurance and risk management education and professional development. Prior to forming his own firm, Bill worked with The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research. He is a national faculty member for theSociety of CIC and serves as educational consultant for CIC institutes, CRM courses, and Ruble seminars across the country.