From Debbie Downer to Team Player: 4 Ways to Change Your Organization’s Perception of ERM

Nobody likes a “Debbie Downer,” except of course the hilarious, unforgettable character from Saturday Night Live. She’s the one who always has something negative to say, even in the best situation. Unfortunately, organizations often think of ERM as the corporate Debbie Downer.

You know you’ve received this dubious label when you’re not invited to planning meetings, committee meetings, or even water-cooler conversations. If you are invited, it’s at the last minute, with no time to prepare. During the meeting, you’re not given the opportunity to ask questions. You’re more of an outsider than a team member.

Even worse, it seems like executives and managers are avoiding your calls. Your emails are getting “lost” or buried under higher priorities. It’s become painfully obvious that everyone is working around you instead of with you. 

Danger Ahead

This is dangerous territory! As you know, ERM’s goal is to help executives make risk-informed decisions. If you’re not properly engaged in meetings, then you can’t add value to those discussions. If you can’t add value…well, they may start wondering why they have an ERM department.

Here are a few practical tips to help you alter your organization’s perception of ERM and reclaim your rightful seat at the table. 

1. Understand the Disconnect

A natural contention, or disconnect, exists between executives and risk managers. Before you can overcome it, you need to understand where it comes from and appreciate the position of the executives.

We all know that executives have a job to do. They have to be responsive to changing market conditions so they can keep the organization relevant and seize beneficial opportunities. Usually, that entails bringing fresh ideas to the table.

On the other hand, ERM’s job is to provide contrary viewpoints, to identify potential obstacles to meeting objectives, and even point out negative implications if those objectives are met. We’re supposed to be on the lookout for cracks, flaws, and risks.

From the executives’ standpoint, they come up with great ideas, and we knock them down. No wonder they see risk managers as nay-sayers!

2. Watch Your Motives

Even if an executive doesn’t see value in ERM, he might give you a chance if you can display pure motives to benefit the organization. So, before you try to change the perception of ERM, you may need to change your motives.

Remember that ERM should be a neutral party. Although you are tasked with identifying organizational risks, it should never be with the intention of halting progress, promoting your own agenda, or favoring one business unit over another. Your focus should always be on risks and opportunities, regardless of the subject matter or people involved.

3. Communicate Your Intent

No matter how skilled your executives are, they cannot read your mind. It’s your responsibility to be proactive in sharing ERM’s goals, motives, and intent. You may want to display these prominently on your internal portal or send out company emails. However, be sure to tell people directly every chance you get.

In general, you should let executives know that:

  • You’re a team player
  • You want what’s best for the organization, just like they do
  • Your job is to provide them with information to help them make the best decisions
  • You support them, whatever decision they make
  • You’re able to help understand down-stream impacts and to flesh out high-level requirements.

What you say is not as important as what they think you say, so don’t leave room for confusion or inference. Make sure that your message is clear, concise, and complete.

perception of ERM

4. Find Your Champion 

We’ve all had parents regale us with stories about how well-behaved their children are. We don’t usually believe them, though, because we know they’re naturally biased.

For the same reason, don’t rely on your immediate superiors to change the organization’s perception of ERM. They can tout your accomplishments all day long, but everyone will probably perceive their comments as biased or self-serving.

Instead, what you need is an ERM champion. Think of this person as an informal sponsor or spokesperson for your ERM services. If he’s in a meeting that you weren’t invited to, he can recommend that you be included going forward. If another unit is looking to make improvements, he can recommend your services. If someone mentions your name, he can say what a pleasure it was working with you. The point is that this person must believe in what you’re doing and be willing to promote your services within the organization.

When searching for your champion, look for an executive who is highly respected by others and actively engaged in the organization. Ideally, this is someone who has gone through your risk process and benefited greatly from the experience.

Once you have a risk champion in place, set up recurring meetings with him to discuss any conversations he’s had regarding ERM and to share with him new risks and risk processes.

Accept It

While the steps above are all actions you can take to alter the organization’s perception of ERM, ultimately you cannot change how someone perceives you. If the executives are still afraid you’re going to kill their ideas, and you’re still not getting invited to meetings, let it rest for a while[1]. If you push too hard, you run the risk of alienating yourself.

Instead, find your ERM champion, communicate your intentions, and give excellent service to those areas you do work with. Over time, your work product will speak for itself.

For more information, check out these related posts:

Being Included vs. Being Engaged

5 Critical Steps to Cultivating a Positive Risk Culture

Avoiding the Dreaded “Bureaucracy” in your ERM Efforts

What is your experience with changing your organization’s perception of ERM? 

Were you viewed as the dreaded “Debbie Downer,” or did you play an active role in helping executives make risk-informed decisions?

Changing the organization’s perception of ERM from a corporate “Debbie Downer” to a team player is no easy task, but it is crucial—not just to the success of ERM but to the organization as a whole.

To discuss your experience or share tips and techniques with us and our readers, please leave a comment or join the conversation on LinkedIn. Thanks, and good luck!

About the author

Ashley Jones joined ERM Insights by Carol in June 2017. She graduated from Florida State University in 2003 with a B.A. in Risk Management and Insurance and obtained the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation in May 2012. Ashley has fourteen years of experience in the fields of insurance and risk management, most notably as a Senior Risk Analyst within the ERM department of a $7+ billion property and casualty insurance company. When she’s not working on project or risk management, Ashley is busy writing, blogging, teaching, and speaking on a wide variety of topics.

[1] This idea is immortalized in the first stanza of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

“God, grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Featured image courtesy of

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Helping companies achieve their vision and strategy, and succeeding in today's turbulent world, is something I'm honored to be a part of. Whether you're an occasional blog visitor or a long-term client, thank you for letting us be a part of your journey.

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