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The Language of Fear, Optimism, and Loss Prevention

Posted on 6/25/15 4:05 PM

Hope is mostly hard-wired into human nature. Even self-proclaimed pessimists can’t avoid its seductive voice. In the short-term or in evaluation of “near time” events we can call upon pragmatic rational to measure risk, but our 

observations of the future remain mired in optimism. True, there are those who see a sunburn in every sunny day, but for the majority the “bad” sleeps in the past and the “good” waits in the future.


Optimistic bias, as it is called, presents real challenges to loss prevention efforts. Loss Prevention tends to speak in a language of fear using a vocabulary that describes the shadowy possibilities of loss, error, theft, and attacks. The words warn of the terrible possibilities, of nefarious intentions, of drastic errors, which must be prevented. These prophecies are often true, their possibilities likely, but often their probability is ignored because hope speaks grander than despair and to believe in these outcomes we have to set aside our nature.

That is no easy trick. Prevention is not as great a part of our psyche as hopeful optimism. The evidence of that is all around us. People understand that they can avoid the worst health issues through a healthy diet and exercise, but obesity still runs rampant, 25 million Americans still smoke, and there are far more gym memberships than exercisers in the gym. The culprit is optimism. The belief that one more burger won’t hurt and that there is plenty of time to make changes… later.

The same is true of loss prevention. Shrink is a once a year event. It exists in the future, not in the today, although like our health, that future day is no mystery—it is the sum of actions from all the days preceding it. Still, there is a resistance to the things required for prevention. We don’t like the discussion because it speaks in tones of fear rather than hope. It asks use to do something before anything has occurred. It promotes actions of “trust but verify.”

Companies that have suffered terrible losses or that were blindsided by internal theft fare better in the listening than those that haven’t. The experience made the possibilities appear more probable. But over time, even they can see these events as anomalies. Forgetting that the reason they never again occurred is owed to the practices of prevention they instituted and that removal of the practices invites a return of the probabilities.

We cannot change human nature, but we can adjust our language to ensure our message is heard and our suggestions implemented. The secret is to provide less warnings and more evidence for concern. The strength of the argument lies in the data and it uses the facts, the averages, and the results to focus prevention by demonstrating reality. It also shifts the discussion from dread-filled proclamations to critical questions.

Here are a few examples:

The Old Shrink Warning: If we don’t make changes we could have another bad result.

The New Shrink Question: Based on last year’s figures, we are still losing thirty-eight thousand a week to shrink; do we want to implement methods to reduce that number?

The Old Internal Theft Warning: We need a program/more people to discover which employees are stealing from us.

The New Internal Theft Question: Studies estimate one in ten employees steal and a recent report demonstrated big retailers apprehended one in thirty eight of their employees for theft. Our we confident that our efforts adequately detect this nationwide problem?

The Old Audit Warning: Our stores are failing their audits; we need to get tougher on performance.

The New Audit Question: The audit scores demonstrate nearly X% of our stores have weekly cash shortages. Have we determined exactly how much in profit erosion that costs each year?

These are just possible examples of how to reframe our approach so that it opens rather than closes the discussion. It removes the warnings through a direct reflection on actual conditions or results. In other words, it creates a process of prevention that trades the dark, crystal ball for a company’s personal reality.

Successful recommendations must have value today, not in the future. We can’t demonstrate a return on investment through things that “never happened” because it’s human nature to mostly believe those things “were never going to happen.” It’s not an easy task to warn others, optimism runs deep, and people often have better things to do then worry about things that haven’t happened—something Cyril Evans understood when the crew of the Titanic were too busy to listen to his iceberg warnings.

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