Risk acceptance requires hard work

Rereading the title of this post, my first reaction is that this is stating the blindingly obvious. The problem is, in reality this is far from that obvious. More than once I’ve been confronted with situations in which risk acceptance by a manager turned out to become risk ignorance. And risk ignorance is just another way of saying that someone no longer feels responsible for dealing with the risk.

This may come as a shock: any identified risk in your area of responsibility falls under your responsibility, whatever your preferred risk treatment will be. Sadly, that is quite often not the case.

Accepting a risk is not the end of management responsibility

Some managers believe that accepting risks, whether related to issues raised in an internal audit report or identified based on appropriate risk management, is the end of it. By accepting risks, they often feel they can make the demon of having to solve a problem go away. They feel they can sleep soundly … at least for a while.

Of course, nothing is further from the truth. As I stated above, all identified risks needs to be properly managed. Risk acceptance is a risk management option, but choosing to accept a risk does not imply that risk has gone away or no longer matters to you.

On the contrary, it puts the burden of making sure the organization is adequately prepared to deal with that risk plainly with the responsible manager. After all, as a manager, if you have been informed of an issue and you have accepted the risks related to the issue, you need to be ready to deal with that risk if and when it occurs. That’s called contingency planning, and it may actually involve quite a lot more work that you believe it does. Let’s examine why this is so very important.

Accepting the risk is not ignoring its potential consequences

Let’s illustrate the issue with a concrete example most of us can associate with:

Imagine you are driving a car faster than you are allowed to drive it. Your risk of having an accident will increase. You accept that risk by making the decision to drive faster as well as by the actual act of driving faster. Hence, you have accepted that risk.

Now, does that attitude of risk acceptance allow you to ignore any required contingencies you would normally take, such as having a fire extinguisher in the car and making sure your airbags are functioning correctly? Let’s be clear … it does not.

Whether we are talking about driving a car or managing an organisation, the same principles apply. The fact that you consciously decide to accept an exposure does not free you from the burden of managing the organisation, the entity or the process you are responsible for. To make it crystal clear, risk acceptance assumes that the responsible manager is fully aware of the potential yet very concrete consequences a risk occurrence may have as well as what needs to be done to deal with that contingency. You cannot avoid that responsibility. At all.

In essence, each manager is responsible for exercising the due diligent behavior with respect to the responsibilities that have been delegated to him or her. Correct behavior is then not ignoring a risk you have “accepted”, but preparing your organisation for the eventual possibility that the risk may occur. Rather than working on reducing the likelihood of occurrence of a risk, you focus on reducing the impact if it were to occur.

Let’s revisit our speeding example. Your car is, or should be, equipped with minimum safety measures, such as a fire extinguisher or airbags. If the risk of an accident were to occur, you will be bruised, but hopefully safer than you would have been without those measures. You will still face a loss, in this case the car or the convenience of driving your own car for a while, but the loss will ideally not be of a completely disruptive nature.

Lack of due diligent behavior requires removal

In the same vein, all managers should regularly review the risks they have accepted and assess whether or not there are measures in place to deal with the potential impact of a mishap. If these measures do not exist, I firmly state that the manager has not shown due diligent behavior. In that case, the board should take all appropriate actions to remove this manager from his or her position.