update: managing people with higher risk tolerance than I have

Remember the letter-writer who managed a sea kayak guide who kept conducting kayaking trips in situations where safety guidelines dictated he should have changed plans (#3 at the link)? Here’s the update.

I wrote to you last spring in search of advice on how to manage an employee who had a higher risk tolerance that I did. One thing that I took away from both your advice and the advice of the numerous people who commented was that I was missing in being able to manage “Paul” effectively was to have more of an insight in his decision-making process. In other words, I didn’t want to know just that he’d made a decision, I wanted to know what factors he was considering when he made the decision, and how he was weighting them. For example, if Paul and his clients paddle for two hours in light waves and a headwind to get to a cool beach – well, maybe that was a bad call, and Paul should have re-routed the tour. But, if Paul had sized up his clients beforehand, had a frank discussion with them on the beach about how the conditions would be on the water, offered them a substitute route option that would be more protected from weather, and and continually checked in with every member of the group while paddling to make sure that everyone was still having fun and not exhausting themselves – in that case, staying with the original trip plan is a much more defensible judgement call.

What I ended up doing was modifying a decision-making tool that our company (and others) already uses when making decisions in the context of wilderness medical treatment, called SOAP – for Subjective conditions, Objective conditions, Assessment and Plan. During guide training, I had the crew go through several intentionally ambiguous scenarios, with the idea of getting them used to going through the SOAP process in a risk management context. I also tried to make it clear from the start of training that having SOAP debriefs with me regarding trips was something that was going to happen on a regular basis, and was Perfectly Normal and Not Scary. I think I got pretty good buy-in from the crew in that regard – partly because I started handing out free beer passes to the local bar to guides who’ve come through particularly difficult trips. Part of it was we had more consistent good paddling weather this summer, and partly we had a more innately cautious group of guides, but we had no incidents this summer where I felt that a guide had totally crossed the line in terms of what was an acceptable level of risk.

And for the drama, I only ended up with Paul last summer after a higher-up in the company inexplicably overruled our site manager’s decision to NOT hire him back. (This was in spite of the fact that I had emailed the higher-up pictures taken from Paul’s own Facebook page clearly showing him doing things with company gear in his off-hours that was very clearly against policy.) It’s still an open question whether Paul will be returning next summer, though I’m betting against it…

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Jake

    I love risk management. It is the part of my job that gets me out of bed in the morning. It is why I love board games (which are usually just one simple exercise in risk management encased in simplified rules with easily distinguished consequences), and it is key to being successful at just about anything.

    I remember this when it was first posted, and I think you hit the nail on the head about needing to know the evaluation process more than knowing the final decision. If implementing this system gets you to the point where your guides are truly making a risk assessment instead of just flying by the seat of their pants, then it is well worth the time an energy everybody is putting into it.

    1. JB

      Do you have any good sources for learning about this topic for someone who knows nothing about it? I love board games, but I’m terrible at them for this reason. It’s also why I don’t play chess. I can’t map out possible results from an action if you give me a piece of paper, a writing utensil, and a long time. But I can picture in my head any possible results or consequences more than a few steps out. I can think out maybe two or three steps in the future in my head, but that’s it.

      I think if I were better at this, I’d be better at responding in the same conversation when coworkers, supervisors, or direct reports ask me what I think about doing X differently than we did in the past. As it is, I always have to get back to them, which isn’t always what they want to hear.

      1. sunny-dee

        I have not played this, but one thing I want to play is Pandemic. It’s a collaborative game — all players are on the same side, playing against chance. So, that may help you reason out strategies without actually competing (and feeling the pressure of being) against other people.

        1. JB

          Ooo, that’s a good idea. Thanks! Most of the time I do have the option to work stuff out on paper, but at least once a week I get asked a question at work that requires me to quickly think about a possible solution to a project in a situation when, whatever way I chose, it will be hard to get people to switch to something else later. So if I could improve my ability to think through more than just one or two steps, it would be very helpful for me professionally–and also make my job less stressful.

  2. LBK

    This is a great update! I like the compromise of using a modified SOAP system so you aren’t just guessing at what kind of thought process went into each trip. I really like that you set the expectation that it will be a normal question you’ll ask – good foresight to see that it might freak people out at first when you ask them about it, so by giving a very early heads up it will lessen the potential for people to feel accused or incriminated just by you asking the question.

    1. Not So NewReader

      I agree, and I like how this is routine. “Expect this, we will be doing it over and over.” I bet they have some good discussions.

  3. Adam V

    It sounds like you’re doing all the right things – but whenever I hear about higher-ups overruling people in the trenches, then I get skittish, especially when it’s not accompanied by “[higher-up] came down to talk to [site manager] to explain why he decided to overrule her”. A lot of times, I’m fine with higher-ups making different calls because they have different information, but you have to explain *why*, otherwise the overruled party is going to stop having any confidence that their decisions actually carry any weight.

    1. A Non

      Yeah, one of the big red flags in the original post was that hiring decisions got overruled without a clear reason. That’s a problem, and hopefully it doesn’t happen again.

      It sounds like the OP has made lemonade of the rest, though, and come up with a really useful strategy for everyone. Great update!

    2. Artemesia

      I worked in an entirely different context, but every time we had a higher up overrule us on hiring or similar decisions, the disaster we expected did in fact occur. Sometimes higher ups have less freedom than you would think and I could live with decisions that were unavoidable, but in each case I experienced the people on the ground made the right call.

    3. Seattle Writer Gal

      “A lot of times, I’m fine with higher-ups making different calls because they have different information, but you have to explain *why*, otherwise the overruled party is going to stop having any confidence that their decisions actually carry any weight.”

      THIS x1000!

  4. LMW

    I really like this update because it not only sounds like you found a good way to vet and evaluate your guides’ decision making skills (which are pretty critical in a role like this, when you have people’s safety in your hands), but you’re also giving them tools to help them make those decisions and actively working with them to develop that ability. That’s a win for everyone.

  5. Kat M

    This is really cool! I’ve never heard of anyone using SOAP notes outside of a medical/therapeutic setting, and I’m definitely going to think about how else this model could be applied. Thanks!

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