Managing Your Public Risk


August 2000

The Politics of Denial

Denial is the opposite of confirmation. There are times when denial is only proper, others when silence is apt, but many occasions when denial can be harmful, if not deadly. 

Denial is profoundly psychological and  takes many forms: subconsciously dismissing the alleged problem, discrediting a pesky critic, symbolic (but insincere) placation, or, even threatening those making the allegations that you wish to deny. Although there is a growing management literature on the politics of denial, much of it quite Machiavellian, I do not advocate this tactic as a general strategy for managing public risk.  Far from it.
  Being disarmingly candid is usually much better.

In What Asbestos Taught Me about Managing Risk, (Harvard Business Review, March-April 1994) executive Bill Sells says denial of his industry’s problems brought on its demise. (Not to mention that of many workers) Denial was part of an unhealthy management culture of scrimping on maintenance, poor labour relations, and an over-confident, arrogant cynicism within executive ranks. Laying blame elsewhere was widespread.  Instead of telling the truth, Sells says people interpreted the truth to best suit their own interests. Denial thus kills candid communication, learning, justice and flexibility. Ironically, these are the very ingredients needed for safe, long-term growth.

Paradoxically, when someone steps up to the plate to tell the truth, especially against their own self-interest, their credibility goes up.  Your effectiveness as a risk manager is based on your credibility.  It is really all you have.  People who accept rather than deny their responsibility, even if they are responsible for a loss can be forgiven, if not respected.  Only then and in truth can lessons be learned.  Once the shock wears off, the media rapidly lose interest, whereas repeated denials attract continued attention. Far better to admit the risks and point out what is being done about them - and, of course, to do it.  “We have a Task Force running 6 days a week and a community consultation project underway until we get to the bottom of this problem”  is a lot more reassuring and effective than a flat corporate denial.

Being "in denial" may well be the greatest obstacle to overcoming the current safety impasse.  Denial originates in the boardroom or is so perceived by others.  It permeates the entire culture of an organization, flowing down the chain of command. Nor are the troops immune from it.  That is why managers must continually and unambiguously encourage staff to speak freely about risk , without fear of retribution.  CEOs have to set the example

Criticism gives us an opportunity to reflect and grow.  If it the criticism is true, we can only learn.  If untrue, a fair assessment dispatches the complaint efficiently and with no lasting harm.  Understanding the true nature of our problem is always preferable to denial. 

Recommended Reading for Risk Managers

Patterns In Safety Thinking, by Geoffrey R. McIntyre  Hot off the press, this slim and concise literature review summarizes over 100 years of safety management thinking into 130 pages. Although written with a slight aviation slant, this book starts with rail and industrial safety and is sure to be a handy companion for any risk manager


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Mike Murphy has been a risk management consultant for the last four years. Prior to that, he spent 17 years (78-96) with Transport Canada, his last five as Regional Director General, Aviation in Winnipeg.  Originally trained as a professional pilot, he is the author of an internationally acclaimed 500-page report entitled "An Evaluation of Emergency Response Services at Airports in Canada."  He is also the Chairman of the Air Passenger Safety Group (APSG) , a Director of Transport 2000 Canada,  a Director of the Ottawa Chapter of Christian Businessmen's Committee (CBMC) and the Secretary General of the Peugeot Club of North America (PCNA).  

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