Don’t Be That Person: Attitudes and Phrases to Avoid in Delicate Conversations

Considering the resources and commentary out there, it’s easy to get the impression that ERM success is built on how well your identification, assessment, analysis, and reporting processes mesh with your company’s needs and culture.

As long as these processes function well, your company will then reap the benefits of risk-informed decision-making and enjoy eternal success.

I wish I could say that’s true…

After all, processes that work for your company take a bit of trial and error, but these aren’t what makes ERM successful. In fact, an over-reliance on processes can do more harm than good as it leads to the impression ERM is just a documentation exercise for satisfying regulators and not an integral component of ensuring the company’s success.

Rather, people and relationships are what makes or breaks ERM for an organization.

And despite its vital importance, this subject continues to gets glossed over by different thought leaders and receives no mention in leading ERM standards. Below are a few articles where I’ve focused on people and relationships in the past (…this is no way exonerates me).

These articles and others discuss what you should do for ERM to have a positive, lasting impact on your organization’s success. However, today’s piece is going to be slightly different because I’m going to talk about what you should NOT be doing.

As mentioned in the first article listed above, two of the most important personas or attributes of an effective ERM professional are “communicator” and “influencer.” Without these vital personas or roles within the ERM team, ERM will not be seen as a tool for helping executives improve decision-making.

While not always difficult, strategic conversations are inherently delicate, therefore…

You have to be careful about the attitudes and words you use or else you’ll find yourself being shut out…

The chief attitude to avoid is one of entitlement where, as the risk manager, you adopt the attitude that things “always have to go through you” and that “without me, stuff can’t move forward.” You can have an inflated ego to the point that you think you’re the ultimate authority on whether a particular strategy or project to achieve goals moves forward.

This attitude, of course, comes through in the phrases we use.

Dr. James Detert, professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia and author of the book Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work, provides examples of these problematic phrases. As he explains in this article

Difficult conversations are difficult for a reason, and when you’re anxious or stressed out, it’s easy to say the wrong thing. And it doesn’t matter how prepared you are. Your best laid plans will go to waste if you offend or anger the other person [emphasis added].

In the entitlement attitude from earlier, saying “You should do X” carries a certain implication that this is the way things ought to be. Now your company’s CEO will certainly need to say this from time to time as part of his/her role, but as a risk manager, it can devastate any positive influence with executives, managers, and support staff and even come across as judgmental.

In this same vein, another phrase Detert urges us to avoid is “don’t take it personally” or “it’s not personal.”

Let’s say an executive has an idea, and they come to you for input on, but you shoot it down. While it may not be personal to you, that’s probably not the case with others. After all, when talking about a company’s future, it can be intensely personal.

Another attitude that can creep up on us as risk managers is thinking our viewpoints are obvious, leading us to use such words as “clearly,” “obviously,” or “beyond doubt.” This may seem innocent, but if you’re not careful, you can inadvertently suggest that you think people are dumb or oblivious, which of course won’t win you any friends.

The core thrust of these attitudes is being too forceful or difficult, but you can also alienate people by being the opposite extreme by ingratiating yourself (i.e., trying too hard to please others).

Put it another way, no one likes the proverbial yes man, or as Norman Marks proclaims in a recent article:

One of the things that bothers me is the desire of many practitioners to have a ‘seat at the table,’ by which they mean an official and formal position within the organization (such as reporting to the board or to the CEO) that puts them on an (apparent but not real) equal level to top executives.

Trust me.

Your title does not mean you are invited and welcomed to meetings of the management team.

Fundamentally, what Detert’s work and Norman’s recent commentary shows is the importance of good emotional intelligence, or EQ. For more background on this, check out this article (linked above) where I discuss some of these vital soft skills that so often get overlooked.

EQ is a skill we all need but is probably even more important for risk managers to develop as part of our continuous growth.

I can’t stress this enough…

As automation and other changes have their impact on risk management and business in general, good EQ will help you as an ERM professional to not just be included but engaged in charting your company’s future course.

Have you ever seen attitudes or heard phrases that you thought were alienating people?

As always, I’m interested in learning more about your experiences and perspective, so don’t be shy! Leave a comment below or join the conversation on LinkedIn.

And if you’re struggling to ensure your company is making risk-informed decisions, contact me to talk through potential roadblocks and solutions today!

Featured image courtesy of Los Muertos Crew via

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Meet Carol Williams, SDS Founder & Lead Strategist

To our readers:

This blog was launched to provide strategy and risk practitioners with a go-to resource to better guide their efforts within their companies. Thank you for bringing me and my team along to be part of your journey towards better risk management, strategic planning and execution, and overall decision-making. Happy reading!

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