The relationship between risk-taking and safety is one that is often overlooked in the workplace. People are more likely to take risks when they feel safe, and the consequences for doing so are forgiving. However, this doesn’t mean creating a risk-free environment. Instead, it means supporting courageous actions and creating an environment where people feel safe enough to act courageously. By creating safety, employees are more likely to feel empowered to take calculated risks and innovate in their roles, leading to a more dynamic and successful organization.
People take risks relative to how safe they feel. The more forgiving the consequences, the more likely people are to extend themselves. This does not mean that getting people to be courageous means creating a risk-free environment. Rather, it means supporting their courageous actions with a reasonable amount of safety.
The safer people feel, the more risks they are likely to take. People extend themselves when the consequences for doing so are forgiving.
At work, setting up safety nets is essential for promoting courageous behavior. For example, I once worked with an executive who was asked to head up a new division in a totally new market. Accepting the job meant also accepting considerable risk. For one, he would have to move out of his leadership role in one of the company’s established and successful divisions. The new role meant that, at least for a little while, he’d have fewer employees, fewer resources, and potentially less stature in the company. It was possible that his colleagues would come to view him as leading the company’s pet experiment. Worse yet, his colleagues might view the new division as a “special project” and start suspecting that the move was little more than a kind way of putting the executive out to pasture.
To oﬀ set these risks, the owner of the company created a number of safety nets. First, he supported the new undertaking with a significant infusion of capital. The money would help cover the high costs of new market entry and prevent the executive from being in the impossible position of creating something out of nothing. Second, on numerous occasions the owner personally championed the eﬀ ort, making everyone aware that creating the new division was a top strategic priority. Finally, he promoted the executive—before the executive had formally moved into the role. This showed people, tangibly and symbolically, that not only was the executive not being put out to pasture, but he was now going to have even more clout and influence.
Safety nets offset the risks, making it easier for employees to be courageous and take calculated risks.
Such safety nets didn’t remove the risk of failure. Nor did they reduce the amount of work it would require to make the new division successful. Instead, the safety nets supported the executive by showing him the conﬁdence the organization had in his ability to be successful. The company had his back. The safety nets made launching a new division more attractive, and less risky, to the executive. With safety nets in place, it was easier for the executive to be courageous and accept the new role.
Don’t Look Down!
Too many managers ﬁxate on magnifying the consequences of failure instead of building safety nets that promote success. They spend far too much time reminding people about the consequences if things go wrong instead of clarifying what things will look like if they go right. They say such things as, “Whatever you do, don’t don’t screw up!” and “If you drop the ball on this, you’re toast!” Such things are akin to telling a diver not to wipe out instead of how to nail the dive.
Many people get promoted into the management ranks because of their critical-thinking skills. Particularly in industries like consulting, engineering, and technology. Such skills allow for accurate problem-solving. Critical-thinking skills also help uncover ﬂ aws and help mitigate, minimize, and control risks. The danger occurs, however, when critical thinkers place a disproportionate amount of attention on “all the things that can go wrong.”
It is diﬃcult, if not downright impossible, for a manager to be simultaneously critical and encouraging. By placing too much emphasis on criticism, the manager draws too much of the worker’s attention to the things that must be avoided. When all of the attention is being paid to what can go wrong, too little attention is given to how to make things go right. By focusing solely on the consequences of failure, such managers are, in eﬀect, widening the holes in the safety nets. When managers continuously obsess about all the bad things that must be avoided, they end up injecting workers with so much anxiety that it creates an untenable amount of performance pressure, undermining their conﬁdence and creating, ironically, an unsafe situation.
Three Ways to Build Safety Nets
If your aim is to help people to be more courageous, you’d be wise to create safety nets. And because safety (and danger) occurs on many levels, weaving tight nets requires a multifaceted approach. For some, safety comes in the form of ﬁnancial stability. Such people will risk doing courageous things to the extent that those risks don’t jeopardize their job security. For others, safety has more to do with preserving their reputation. They will take risks as long as doing so won’t make them look bad. Still others ﬁnd safety in belonging to a group. They will do courageous things as long as their place in the community isn’t threatened.
As a manager, you’ll ﬁnd that gaining a clear understanding of each worker’s definition of safety will help you to craft each person’s net. That said, there are three speciﬁc ways of building safety nets regardless of which kind of safety is involved:
- Give people permission to be courageous.
- Value forward-falling mistakes.
- Provide air cover.
Creating safety nets in the workplace is essential for promoting courageous behavior and taking calculated risks. It is important to understand that people take risks relative to how safe they feel. The more forgiving the consequences, the more likely they are to extend themselves. Managers should focus on building safety nets that promote success rather than magnifying the consequences of failure.
Create an environment where people feel safe enough to act courageously. This empowers employees to take calculated risks and innovate in their roles, leading to a more dynamic and successful organization. By promoting safety in the workplace, companies can foster a culture of innovation, growth, and success.
How do you build safety nets to support workers and promote risk-taking in your workplace?
This post is based on an excerpt from Courage Goes to Work.
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