How Do We Manage Risks Without Theater (the Illusion of Management)?

In our daily lives, we manage all kinds of risks. We fill up our cars with gas so we get to where we’re going. In addition, I’ve learned to check the maps before I leave. That’s because the map in my head has pruned several non-local roads because I barely drove anywhere during the pandemic. I also manage the risks of my weight going up by stocking and preparing healthy-for-me food.

That’s not a theater approach to managing risks—that’s reasonable. I’m totally in control of my risks. If I run out of gas somewhere, what are the chances I will create problems for someone else? Very low. If I make mistakes with the rest of my risk management, I’m likely the only one to suffer.

Then there are the societal risks of flying.

When I go through TSA for my preferred airline—and only in Boston—my rollator sets off an alarm. Every. Single. Time. (My rollator is a 4-wheeled walker. No engine. You can see all the pieces. Nothing hidden.) That means I get patted down every single time I fly from Boston. They learn nothing more from my pat-down. I manage that risk by arriving at the airport a good 30 minutes earlier than I need to, because I want to manage the risk of being late for a flight.

Worse, this security check changes from country to country. In Israel, you can take a bottle of water on the plane. In addition, they look at my rollator (as the US does). However, they don’t touch the rollator because everything is obvious. I walk through the X-ray and proceed to my gate. No muss,  no fuss. (I was last in Israel in 2019, so it’s possible things have changed.)

These differences mean that most of the airplane security scans are risk theater, not risk management.

Then there are the risks we create for other people.

What Risks Do We Create for Others?

Here are three categories of risks we can create for others and just one example for how we manage those risks:

  • Personal risks: We inspect our cars, so our car doesn’t fall apart on the road, creating risks for other people.
  • Group-by-choice risks: When we work for a company, we choose that particular group-by-choice. You might have religious groups or other professional organizations you choose to participate with. At work, we show frequent progress, so we don’t surprise other people and create revenue risks for the organization.
  • Societal risks: We agree on where and when to stop at lights and who goes first at a four-way stop.

And, up until now, we all wore masks to stop the spread of the virus. I have a difficult time assessing that risk right now. Yes, we need to assess our risks for spreading the virus.

How Do We Assess Risks?

IMNHO, we have not talked enough about how we spread the virus to each other and who that affects. That’s a societal risk.

I assessed my personal risk and got my vaccine and boosters. I’m happy to get another booster any time the CDC says there’s one available to me.

In addition, I have an 18-month-old grandson who is not eligible for the vaccine. If he gets the virus, he might just get a bad cold. However, there are no FDA-approved tests for children that young. So we can’t tell if the children have the virus. And small children love to share germs with anyone around them. In addition, some of my beloved family members are undergoing chemo treatments. I choose to be careful for all these people. Not only do I manage my personal risks, I choose to manage my group-by-choice risks.

Because I do, the rest of society benefits from my risk management.

I will continue to wear my mask in public. I’m supposed to speak locally in another month, and I’m pretty sure I’ll leave my mask on the entire time. I do not want to be the person who brings the risk of the virus to my family. That risk is way too high for my comfort.

Everyone has to assess their own risks. However, being ignorant of your Covid status is neither risk assessment nor management. It’s an illusion that the virus won’t affect you—or the people around you.

Illusions Matter

Illusions distract us from real risks. Most of the security precautions we take when we fly are illusions that we manage the risks of a catastrophic terrorist attack. I happen to think there are better ways to do this, but I’m not in charge. Since I’m not, I accede to the practices and give myself plenty of time to get through security. No, I shouldn’t have to. But I do.

And the more we don’t think the virus only has personal risks to us, the less attention we might pay to our actions.

Feel free to remove your mask in public. I’m not going to stop you. And in return, I request that you not blame me for managing my risks and the risks to my family.

I’m under no illusion that the virus is “done.” Or that we still have real risks, even when we have had the vaccines.

Illusions are as bad as risk theater. They tell us we’ve somehow managed that risk—and we haven’t. That illusion begs us to stop managing risks. And when we stop managing risks, we might fail at the outcomes we want.

The question this week is: How do we manage risks without theater (the illusion of management)?

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