By treating people as human we stand a chance of reducing their level of outrage, which is likely to reduce their sense of the risk.

I have recently had cause to delve back into the world of risk communication, where I was reminded of a couple of fundamental pieces of work that continue to feel relevant, even as the world seems to be filling up with outraged people.

The Factors That Contribute to a Perception of Risk

The first idea is that there is only a low correlation between the actual level of physical risk in a situation and the amount of concern it generates. Dr Peter Sandman and Dr Vince Covello have done a lot of work in this area over the years. They offer a list of factors that contribute to our perception of risk. You can find one such list here, where you will need to scroll down a little to find it.

A key point for me is that as the proponent of a project or a change it is easy for me to ‘know’ the risk is low. But this bears no relationship to how risky it feels to others. If I feel like an innocent bystander subject to something I don’t want, it is hard for me to see this thing as anything other than risky, with lots of negative consequences. At which point I create the Facebook page.

Regardless of the actual risks posed, if a proposal ticks some of these boxes the project feels risky, which amounts to the same thing as far as stakeholder outrage goes. Which of the factors might your projects be tapping into?

This idea is neatly expressed in Dr Peter Sandman’s famous equation: Perception of risk = hazard x outrage.

In other words my sense of the danger something presents is driven by how upset I am about it, rather than the other way around. While it always seems clear to me that my outrage reflects a rational assessment of the actual risks involved, Sandman shows us that the extent to which I think something is risky is largely driven by my level of emotional engagement. If I’m upset I think it’s dangerous. If I’m not upset, I think it’s safe.

Managing Risk Perception

These ideas from the risk comms world give us a strong clue about how to respond to an outraged community and it isn’t to present all the facts about why the project isn’t dangerous. Instead we must treat the outrage, rather than downplay the risk. This means listening, admitting negative impacts where there will be negative impacts, walking in their shoes and seeking to understand their perspective. Being vulnerable. Even apologising if that’s relevant.

By treating people as human we stand a chance of reducing their level of outrage, which is likely to reduce their sense of the risk.

Sound risky? Perhaps that’s our emotional response talking.