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  • Marnie Suss

how leaders can manage real and perceived risks

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

I've got three short stories about two very different viruses and one very old steam pipe. Each is a tale of how all is fair in the world of real or perceived risks.

Ebola Virus Disease

In April 2014, I relocated to New York City, and by October, I was part of the team responding to the city's first and only case of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). During the first week of the response, I worked at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene alongside infectious disease experts while coordinating with my home agency.

This experience was my first exposure to a public health emergency, and it proved to be an invaluable lesson in the way people perceive and interpret risk. Despite the scientific understanding of the EVD virus, everyone seemed to have a different interpretation of the risk it posed. Elected officials speculated that the virus could be transmitted through the air, while others believed it could spread through surfaces in the subway. Although some individuals had a general understanding of the virus, they could not articulate why the risk of transmission was low.

The risk to the general public was minimal because the virus was not airborne and can only spread through bodily fluids. An infected person must exhibit symptoms to be contagious, and the 21-day incubation period is the known standard for safe quarantine.

Despite these facts, many people continued to make decisions based on fear rather than facts.

5th Avenue Steam pipe Explosion

In 2018, an 86-year-old steam pipe exploded in the middle of 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Fortunately, the explosion happened just before 7am, and the streets were not yet crowded with people and vehicles. Although the incident resulted in a few minor injuries, the primary concern quickly shifted to the amount of asbestos that was released into the air and deposited on surfaces and building air filtration systems within a three or four-block radius.

Asbestos is a hazardous material and is a known carcinogen. As the first responders transitioned the site to other city departments to begin the cleanup and repair work, the risk associated with the incident became increasingly complex. Some agencies provided masks for their employees, while others did not. Some believed that the use of masks was necessary, while others believed that it was not. At the time of, the actual risk posed to the people working in the restricted area remained unclear.

We knew asbestos was present in the area, but an open question remained: how much of it was there, and was it harmful to those working in the area?

Covid-19 Pandemic

In the early days of the Covid-19 response, I led New York City’s continuity of government and operations response. I witnessed firsthand the urgency with which people had to process the risks associated with the virus as we worked to transition city employees to remote work wherever possible.

I never forget one particular call where an agency executive vehemently pushed back against the idea of remote work, yelling, ‘we can't work remotely, we've never done that before! We can't do this in three days for an exercise! This is ridiculous!’

This pushback illustrates one of the inherent challenges people face in adapting to a new risk environment.

So what can each of these stories teach crisis and business leaders?

1. Counter fiction with facts.

We also recognized communicating accurate and reliable information to the public would be a significant challenge. We were up against a preexisting public perception of the virus that was shaped by depictions in popular media (thank you, Outbreak) as well as a proliferation of misinformation.

With a shared understanding, we were able to combat the misinformation and dispel the myths circulating in the media and public. This experience underscored the importance of fact-based messaging.

At some point, most business leaders will encounter a false narrative about their business, product, or service. It's important to discern what your audience or customer perceives to be true and begin to reshape the narrative.

2. Facts don’t matter if people don’t feel safe.

The steam pipe explosion taught me that facts alone do not always alleviate safety concerns. In the aftermath of the incident, our team acted quickly to respond and manage data, but it soon became clear questions surrounding the safety and wellbeing of staff across various agencies persisted. I am grateful that our employees spoke up so we could make the necessary changes.

Whether dealing with employees or customers, it is critical to listen and respond to any concerns that arise regarding safety, regardless of whether the risk is real or perceived. This includes the safety of your customer’s data and personal information. Trust in your product or service may be diminished if your customer perceives your product to be insecure or unsafe.

Ultimately, prioritizing safety is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do, and is essential for the success of a business or organization.

3. Information does not equal understanding.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, I observed many colleagues and friends struggle to interpret information. While access to information is undoubtedly essential, it is even more critical to understand it. Without understanding, we cannot make informed decisions.

In the early days of the pandemic, we faced resistance and pushback due to a lack of understanding of the virus's potential impacts. As individuals processed the information and gained a better understanding of the risks, we could move forward more quickly.

Leaders cannot assume that merely providing information will create understanding, especially for significant or radical changes such as a global crisis or innovative new technology. We must invest the time and effort to interpret and communicate how the information alters the risk environment to enhance understanding and facilitate decision-making.



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