In many respects, it is not what the risk event is but how we react to it.  The book, The Psychology of Pandemics by Steven Taylor is fascinating in that it describes how people react when a risk manifests into an event. Last week I discussed how Professor Taylor was a Cassandra in identifying what would happen when a risk like the COVID 19 pandemic manifested itself in Every Disaster has a Cassandra – COVID-19 is no Exception. This week I am going to continue with referencing the book and discuss the different ways people react to the “risk turned into an event”.

Resistance to Our Risk Plans

Risk Managers are responsible for identifying the risk and drawing up the plan to deal with the risk (hopefully not alone). And in many organizations (especially smaller ones), the risk manager is responsible for leading the reaction to the risk once it turns into an event.  It’s frustrating when people don’t go along with the plans we spent so much time developing. As consultants we get involved in assessing risks, developing the plan, validating the models used to address the risk and, when things turn bad, assisting with addressing the event. In my opinion, the biggest challenge of planning and reacting is how people emotionally react to an event. Why is this a challenge, you may ask? Because it is key to the communication process and the successful emergence from the event.

Overreaction is sometimes as bad as non-compliance…

As Dr. Taylor discusses (remembering this was published three months before COVID 19), “…during the next Pandemic, many people will become fearful, some intensely so. The psychological “footprint” will likely be much larger than the medical “footprint”….This was seen during the Ebola outbreak…. Excessive public fear of Ebola even arose in the united States even though there was little or no risk of contagion”.

People’s emotional reaction is very complex. “reactions can be diverse, ranging from fear to indifference to fatalism….At one end of the spectrum, some people frankly disregard or deny the risks, and fail to engage in recommended health behaviors….At the other end of the spectrum, many people react with intense anxiety or fear. A moderate level of fear or anxiety can motivate people to cope with health threats, but severe distress can be debilitating”. In short, overreaction can be as bad as non-compliance with our plans.

The People side of the Risk Plan…

What does this mean from the risk manager’s perspective? First, it is important that the risk manager assess how they are coping with the pandemic. This includes how your family or those close to you are reacting. For while we self-assess risk and our exposure (and reaction) we rely on those that are close to us for their emotional support. As an example, as COVID 19 was emerging in March and I was travelling, my son and daughter-in-law were expecting my grandchild. The actions I was taking (travelling) were highly stressful to them and as a result I quarantined in a hotel two miles from my house for two weeks after I stopped all travel in mid-March. As a family, we adopted mask wearing and social distancing early on. We used the new baby as an excuse (with those who were less prudent) but in reality needed no excuse because we were reacting prudently. I can guarantee you this affected my ability to communicate effectively with my clients and my family. I am fortunate to have a strong support network to continue to work and be effective. But what if I didn’t?

Second, it is very important to have the human resources professionals on your team. Not only from the people management aspect but also from the emotional aspect. I was talking with a risk manager about how they activated their pandemic plan and how it was going. They said that after a few glitches at the beginning, mainly servers, line speeds and screens for at home that it was going as well as could be expected. In fact they are thinking about having people work remotely into 2021. The biggest “personality” issue they were dealing with was the CEO, who wouldn’t wear a mask or social distance. We discussed how this was affecting some of the work groups by signaling that the safety actions the risk manager was requiring didn’t really need to be followed. An action plan we discussed was to engage human resources in addressing the risk communication, including the emotional reaction by employees in order to maintain a safe work environment and ensure everyone understands the risk and the actions they should take to protect themselves and others. If you can’t get someone to be a support you may have to work around them.

Third, it is important to understand the psyche of our customers and clients. They need to understand the support your organization can provide. This is something that is communicated through your customer facing personnel and the leadership of your company.

Your “Risk” Personality

In order to be an effective and successful risk manager, it is important to understand the set of personality traits that manifest themselves during a pandemic (and other risk events/crises) Dr. Taylor identifies these as; negative emotionality (neuroticism), trait anxiety and harm avoidance (anxiety and avoid risk), overestimation of threat (see themselves as especially vulnerable to the threat), intolerance of uncertainty (need for predictable circumstances), monitoring (looking for information) versus blunting (avoiding information on the pandemic) and unrealistic optimism bias (sense of invulnerability) along with others. Understanding does not mean becoming a psychologist but rather making sure not to force people into seeing the risk the way you see it. Forcing others is an inherently unsuccessful effort. But, in conjunction with human resources, if you can identify non or overly compliant people, you may be able to identify a strategy to enable compliance with guidelines or rules. This doesn’t mean just providing the facts but to also to communicate using emotions that may be easier to understand.

This pandemic is a metaphorical punch in the gut…

This pandemic is a metaphorical punch in the gut to us, our loved ones and our organizations. This “risk” that has turned into an “event” requires us to enact our plans and to also understand how people deal with the event. There will be long term effects on people as a result of this pandemic. A successful organization will think about this and provide supporting services and a supporting culture. This type of planning is well outside the role of most risk managers but should be something risk managers are involved in.

Stay healthy everyone – physically and emotionally.



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