The People Side of Risk

Managing the People Side of Risk

Risk management embraces professionals as diverse as actuaries, civil engineers, bookmakers, auditors, insurance brokers, fore officers, the entire defence industry and much much more. This diversity isn’t surprising because danger is perpetual and inescapable feature of existence. What is surprising is that so little attention has been paid to the people side of risk; the intrinsic dispositions of individuals towards risk. Accidents and disasters can usually be tracked back to a person (compensation lawyers depend on it!), and every individual has their own behavioural risk bias. There are clear and obvious differences in people’s risk disposition; differences that shape their lives. These are amongst our most salient and distinctive features; significant for enjoyment and personal fulfilment as well as for survival and danger management. But how does the human element into the bigger picture? How can we manage the people side of risk?

Re-Configuring Risk

As the diversity of risk professionals suggests, the risk domain is vast; it reaches into every aspect of life. Any attempt to chart this territory is further complicated by the inherent ambiguity of the term ‘risk’. The focus has usually been on danger and the potential for disaster and, as a result, the word ‘risk’ has become infused with connotations of ‘danger’. Used colloquially, ‘danger’ and ‘risk’ are often treated as synonyms. A further twist in the ambiguity of risk arises because it also has connotations of probability; the idea that something might happen. Add to this the extraordinary variety of events, situations, circumstances where risk is a factor and the challenge in achieving any kind of coherent framework for the topic becomes apparent. The figure below establishes some key distinctions and draws opportunity and human factors into the scheme of things.

The Horizontal Axis

Logically, ‘risk’ sits in between ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’; it concerns the relationship between the two. The Chinese for Risk has two characters; Wai and Chi, sometimes translated as danger and opportunity. When Risk Managers describe themselves as controlling of preventing ‘risk’, it will only be the ‘danger’ aspect of Wai Chi that they are addressing. The opportunity aspect is either assumed or ignored, but it will be a part of the picture – often the objective in search of which the risk has been encountered.

The Vertical Axis

A second crucial distinction needs to be made between the amount of attention we pay to the measurement of the risk itself (usually in terms of probability and impact) and the attention we pay to evaluation of the human contribution (as catalysts, moderators, victims or managers).

In the main, risk management strategies have been concerned with the processes and procedures that will reduce the probability of an adverse event. In a Health and Safety context, these are back up by regulations, legislation and sanctions. This approach has been encouraged by some notable successes in fields as diverse as aircraft manufacturing and surgical operating procedures. Financial regulation has a more chequered history! Apart from sanctions, the management of Human Factor Risk tends to focus of awareness campaigns, an approach that has also enjoyed some success. So where do we go from here?

The Human Factor

The next advance in risk management requires that individual differences in disposition towards risk are taken into account allowing for the people side of risk to be managed. These differences impact on decision making through the perception of risk, reactions to risk, and willingness to take risks. Blanket approached that treat people en masse will never cover all the bases. Reducing the role of the individual to obedience is problematic, and as times, dangerous. No risk management regime will ever be able to anticipate every eventuality and when the systems break down people need to use their initiative and think for themselves. Over reliance on a regulatory, systems approach inadvertently devalues common sense, discretion and enterprise. Blind obedience is a poor proxy for personal responsibility, An intelligent balance in required between the two. From the Human Factor perspective, risk is very subjective; one person’s danger in another person’s excitement.

Some enjoy uncertainty, others are horrified by it. Some will only do things systematically, others will do things spontaneously. Some people find change alarming, while others find routine alarming. These are all basic differences of personality. We know that the challenges presented by any workplace role will be different for different individuals depending on these and other personality characteristics. Similarly, difference in risk disposition – which are also rooted in personality – will mean that a particular requirement, say for vigilance, or precision, or calmness, or consistency, alertness or caution would present very different challenges to different people and will be reflected in their performance. These individual differences are deeply rooted and will be a persistent and pervasive influence throughout adult life. Although risk dispositions vary across a spectrum defined by personality, individuals can useful be differentiated into eight Risk Types. These are closely associated with our survival instincts; on the one hand our need to make sense of our world and manage it, and on the other, the need to discover and exploit new opportunities.

In Summary

These advances in risk personality profiling have significant implications for individuals, for teams and for organisations. They provide a way of getting to grips with managing the people side of risk that is reliable and accessible. Risk Type provides a high utility framework and vocabulary that facilitates communication and strategic risk management. It also extends the risk agenda, enabling it to embrace a more positive style of risk management that takes individual differences, enterprises and opportunity into account.

Read more about the Risk Type Compass tool in the press here, or contact our Consultant Psychologist, Louisa Bülow, to learn more about how you can manage the people side of risk and build an effective risk culture within your workplace.


How to manage the people side of risk?

The Risk Type Compass personality assessment places individuals into one of eight distinctive Risk Types. By identifying natural differences in risk appetite, you can maximise potential and balance the contributions of risk-takers and more risk-averse individuals.

Media that you may find of interest:


McKinsey & Company: Managing the People Side of Risk

The Wolves of Wall Street? How Bank Executives Affect Risk Taking

The Association of Business Psychology: Personality and Risk, An Interview with Geoff Trickey

The AlphaMind Podcast: The Risk Personality Episode

The Actuary Magazine: Modelling Minds