There’s a lot of talk in the learning industry right now — and understandably so — about closing the skills gap. Nearly 50 percent of U.S. employers report the talent shortage is having a medium to high impact on their business, according to the ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage Survey. And globally, more than a third of companies are having trouble filling job vacancies.
Still, I’d like to suggest another gap. It’s not as pressing as having a skilled workforce in place to meet the demands of the marketplace, but it’s influential on business nevertheless: It’s the risk perception gap.
Essentially, it’s the stretch of space — from just a sliver to perhaps a gulf — between the level of concern we experience and express over potential threats and the extent to which related evidence actually supports or contradicts those fears.
Consider the time some West Virginia lawmakers loosened raw milk regulations. Never mind the incredible amount of evidence that exists corroborating the dangers associated with drinking unpasteurized milk. Some legislators would go on to enjoy a cup of the raw milk in celebration of the law. And some would go on to develop a stomach bug.
The state health department was called into investigate whether the illnesses were milk-related. Fortunately, more people weren’t involved in this debacle, but you get the picture. There’s nothing wrong with some healthy skepticism, but fear that prompts action without supporting evidence rarely ends well.
The problem is that human beings don’t really process risk from a rational place to begin with, wrote risk-perception expert David Ropeik in a recent blog. And it’s not because we want to make all our decisions flying by feelings and the seats of our pants; we literally can’t assess risks emotionlessly.
“Our perceptions, of risk or anything else, are products of cognitive processes that operate outside our conscious control — running facts through filters of our feelings and producing judgments that disregard evidence,” Ropeik wrote.
Essentially, our brains process things emotionally first, which gives way to what he calls the risk-perception gap. This stuff is hard-wired, friends. “Our apparent irrationality is as innate as the functioning of our DNA or our cells.”
Some factors can make that gap all the wider.
For instance, human-made risks scare us more than natural ones. Risks that are imposed on us are more ominous than ones we willingly take on; I totally get that. And risks to kids? You guessed it. Our emotions are far more likely to direct our decision-making and perspective when kids are involved.
I bring all this up because the nature of doing business involves risk. Further, the decision to take steps to remain competitive in this turbulent and uncertain landscape comes with risk as well. Change always comes with risks, whether it’s a change of style, strategy, tactics or perspective.
And who are we kidding — there will be people from the C-suite to the front line who will be stopped in their tracks or halted prematurely when responding to these changes. They may even have to change some individual behaviors because of them. Ropeik suggests those are natural responses. They are inclinations that have context when leaders understand risk perception and what informs it.
When they’re aware of these forces, learning leaders can communicate change with messages that address evidence-based risks as well as benefits related to a given change but, at the same time, don’t dismiss the instinctive worries from the message’s recipients.
Risk communication won’t change the irrationality of risk perception, Ropeik writes. But knowing about the gap it contains and what causes it can help companies, and the people that run them, make fewer potentially disastrous mistakes because of it.
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.