4 steps to engaging people in risk conversations

Risk management is about managing uncertainty; it is the planning, monitoring and handling of the unexpected. All of this happens in a specific context. You have something you want to protect from various risks, and you have the people who depend on that something. Communication with those people is key to all phases of risk management. If you cannot involve your colleagues, your suppliers and your customers in the way you deal with risk, you are going to fail. Let us first look at who the people you most likely need to deal with are.

The boss

The supplier

The workhorse

The consumer

The boss is responsible for the stuff you are trying to protect and must be involved in determining which risks are OK to take. The boss also needs to own the outcome and make sure everyone is on board pulling in the same direction. Getting the boss on your team should be a high priority.

The suppliers are all the people you depend on to do what you do, to make what you do. If the suppliers don’t want to play ball you are going to have a hard time understanding what can hit you, and you may not be able to deal with difficulties without their help. Communication can be difficult here, because the suppliers also have their own context and see the world from a different mountain top than you do.

The workhorse is the doer, the expert, your colleagues. These are the people you need to understand how things work, and the people you need to take action. If they don’t work with you on dealing with risk, you will definitely not succeed. Not all workhorses are going to want to help – this is where you need to engage through others; the boss, other workhorses that already are engaged, and perhaps even the suppliers and consumers (hopefully not).

The consumer is the customer, the client, the user. It is the people who depend on you to provide a service or product. Risks hitting you are hitting the entire supply chain, and the consumer may be the people who have the most to lose from bad risk management. The consumer may also be able to help with dealing with risks, and in resolving difficult situations. Involving the consumer in your risk management should always be a priority.


Your communication style must be tailored to the role of the person you are trying to involve, and to the ability of that person to contribute. If you do not think about this in advance, communication is not likely to be successful. This is why you need a plan.

Step 1: Make a communication plan

The different roles need different information to feel engaged. They may also have different interests in the asset you are trying to protect. The key to creating engagement through communication is to tailor your plan to the interests of your stakeholders. That being said, you also need this to be a two-way street; you need feedback, you need to gather information. Your communication plan shouldn’t be a long and formal document, a simple plan where you think through the key aspects of communication with each stakeholder is enough. The key steps are:

  • Identify the stakeholders and roles: who are they, what are their roles, what interest do they have in your asset, how much time do they have to support you and what do you need each of them to do?
  • Plan what each person needs to be involved in and how
  • Plan how you distribute information in various channels to the stakeholders – a matrix or table is a nice way of doing this in a condensed format. Think face-to-face meetings, town-halls, e-mails, intranet/web spaces, social media, phone calls, whatever channel you are planning to use. Keep in mind that effective communication works best in the channel the receiver prefers
  • Set up a schedule for how often you are going to communicate with each stakeholder – and make sure you don’t make it a “set and forget”

Step 2: Value relationships as much as results

Risk management is people management. Often risk managers are quite technocratic by nature and prefer to focus on results and technical matters. This is of course necessary, but you also need to value the relationships you have with the people you are communicating with. This means spending time with people, thanking them for their contributions and actively listening to what they have to say – even if it is not related to you risk management activities.

Step 3: Don’t give pole position to compliance

Compliance is important but far too often risk management is reduced to a checklist exercise of controls. This mindset is detrimental to good communication and can contribute to increased risk. The most important risk in risk assessments is overlooking the obvious – and the reason people do this is because they are not engaged in the process. Don’t forget compliance but use it as a driver for continuous improvement instead of being the focus in every activity.

Step 4: 30.000-foot view

With regular intervals, you should take a step back and reflect. Ask yourself open ended questions and try to find answers based on your experience with the various stakeholders in the project.

  • What did Mr. X contribute with?
  • What did Ms. Y not tell me and why not?
  • Do I have what I need?
  • Who is satisfied with their involvement and who is dissatisfied? Why?
  • What do I need to change to get what I need?
  • What do I need to change to make sure every stakeholder feels valued?

If you follow these steps, things may still go wrong. The chances are, however, that you will get much more useful involvement, much more engagement from the people you need to deal with, than if you go about communication in an unplanned ad-hoc way.

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