The Unfortunate Irony of Fear-Based Decisions

The Japanese nuclear disaster and Penn State demonstrate of the high costs of fear-based decisions

I was a bit surprised to hear Tokyo Electric Power Co. recently announced the nuclear disaster resulting from the March 2011 tsunami could have been avoided.  What surprised me was not that the disaster could have been avoided (crises so often can), nor that this contradicted earlier statements by the company that the facility was prepared for such a disaster (differing, later statements are fairly common).

What struck me was the unfortunate irony of this announcement:  the company knew the facility needed improvements, but fear of the political, economic and legal repercussions of making improvements prevented them from getting it done.

Instead of dealing with the costs of safety improvements before the disaster, the utility is now faced with even greater political, economic and legal problems that will last for years—the very problems it was seeking to avoid by not updating the facility.  What’s worse, the cleanup of the nuclear disaster will take decades, and the full effects on humans and the environment have yet to fully seen and understood.

This announcement reminded me of the rationale Penn State used for not reporting concerns about Jerry Sandusky—bad publicity.  The sad irony here: the thing Penn State feared most was the very result of its decisions —bad publicity, in spades.  More concerning and tragic, Penn State’s decisions perpetuated a cycle of abuse leaving at least 10 victims in Jerry Sandusky’s wake.

Organizations have a choice: deal with the problems and challenges of your organization now, or deal with them later.

Dealing now admittedly involves costs, strategy and planning.  It requires bold leadership that is willing to do what is ethical and in the long-term best interest of its stakeholders, even in face of head-in-the-sand types who ask, “Is this really necessary now?”  It requires strength in leaders to advocate for smart, safe choices today, and make the case for why now costs so much less than later.

The most important costs organizations must consider for later, however, are not those paid by the organization, but those to be paid by victims. The effect of radiation exposure to humans, ocean and atmosphere is still being fully assessed, but the impact is expected to last decades. The boys victimized by Jerry Sandusky, and their parents, and even their yet-to-be families, are all impacted by Penn State’s concern over bad publicity—and they will be for the rest of their lives.

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