Overcoming Resistance Part 3: Breaking Through The Political Barriers

October 2008 Issue

A common question I am asked by risk management leaders is “How can I get senior executives in my organization to pay more than lip service to systematic risk management?” When the senior leadership team doesn’t buy-in, it undermines the whole effort to enhance risk management.

Over the years I have observed that political resistance is the most significant challenge to the successful implementation of risk management. This is because to systematize risk management, it needs to become part of the organization’s culture. And culture flows from the example set by the leaders at the highest levels of the organization. This is often called the tone at the top.

In Part 1 of this series on overcoming resistance, we provided tips for overcoming rational resistance with a solid plan for change. In Part 2, we shared tips on overcoming your people’s emotional resistance to risk management. In this issue, we’ll provide three tips to overcome common sources of political resistance fromthe most senior decision-makers in the organization.

TIP#1: Get political.

To address a political barrier you must enter the world of politics.What I mean by politics is the process by which groups of people make decisions. Politics is observed in all human group interactions,particularly those involving authority or power.

The purpose of risk management is to improve the quality, transparency, and ultimately the outcomes of decisions. Implementing systematic risk management usually requires enhancements to:

  • How information is gathered and selected (or discarded) based on its relevance.
  • How decisions are made, including whose input is sought and whose judgment prevails.
  • How the outcomes of decisions are monitored and evaluated for the purpose of learning and improving over time.

At first blush, many decision-makers will feel threatened by the proposed enhancements because they think that it will diminish their power and authority. But this is a limited view.

The truth is risk management provides the necessary transparancy to ensure that power is applied in legitimate ways for the good of the organization. As a risk management leader, you need to help senior decision-makers in your organization toappreciate the full picture. That is, risk management is the foundation upon which good governance, ethics, and accountability are built.

You need to get political to convince senior decision-makers that if they fail to adopt systematic risk management practices and are unwilling to open their decisions to scrutiny, there will be political fallout. Employees, the board, and other stakeholders will eventually question their legitimacy and authority, if they don’t already.

Also, your executive team must lead by example if systematic risk management is going to become part of the organization’s culture.

I suggest you adopt a strategy that has your senior executives start by applying risk management in a non-threatening situation. For instance, they could apply it to a past decision to see how it could enhance their repertoire of decision support tools and skills.

Once your senior leaders have experienced the power and confidence that comes from opening up the decision-making process to the risk discipline, they will be hooked.

TIP#2: Cultivate a ‘risk’ conscience.

We expect our decision-makers to apply their judgment in a way that carefully weighs the evidence and balances the organization’s risk appetite and risk tolerance. This balancing act involves using intuition. And whenever we rely on our intuition, bias and politics can creep in.

The challenge for risk management leaders is to ensure that decision-makers apply intuitions appropriately. Start cultivating a risk conscience by developing a list of questions that you and others in the organization can use to test the judgments made in the decision-process.

Examples of intuition-testing questions can be found in journalist Dan Gardner’s book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. [For more on this book, see this month’s Bonus Resource.]

He reviewed the work of cognitive psychologists to understand why we are triggered to perceive some things as fearful and not others and how sometimes we can get those things wrong. Gardner discovered that a big part of the problem is our unconscious mind was developed in the stone age but we live in the information age. As a result, the unconscious mind, i.e., the source of intuition, can get things very wrong.

We tend to blindly follow our gut instead of examining our intuitions and asking ourselves:

  • Do we really have evidence to support this perception?
  • Does this belief actually make sense?
  • Is this a rational position?

Gardner asserts that people need to learn to stop and apply the habit of thinking about intuitions. His advice is a summary of the risk management discipline: use reason, examine the evidence, calculate and consider.

Encourage your executives to use their gut instincts and judgment while also avoiding common risk perception traps by testing their intuitions.

TIP#3: Beware the beneficiaries of power.

Will the implementation of systematic risk management shift the power structure in the organization? Or is there the perception that it might? If so, you will likely find yourself up against political resistance.

I suggest you might want to learn from Niccolò Machiavelli who wrote in 1513 “there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new system of things: for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old system as his enemies, and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new system.”

Take the time to identify who the beneficiaries of the current system of decision-making are. Get to know them and find out if they are likely to be allies or enemies on the quest to systematize risk management in your organization.

If you suspect they will be ‘enemies’, try to minimize their opportunities for putting up political barriers. For example,avoid having them in a position of approving your program. If you can’t sideline or go around your ‘enemies’ then be watchful for any signs of sabotage and nip it in the bud. If you don’t,political resistance could poison your organization’s fledgling risk culture.


The Risk Wise bottom line…

Political resistance is deadly because it undermines the development of a risk management culture. Help your senior executives to see that they have nothing to fear. With systematic risk management they will make wise judgments and increase their legitimacy and authority as decision-makers.

Tell me how you’ve overcome political resistance to risk management. I appreciate receiving emails with your tips and success stories at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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