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View from HR: Inspiring risk-taking is a valuable leadership skill

If it is true that companies innovate and grow by taking the right risks while experiencing smart failures, inspiring risk-taking is an underutilized leadership skill.

Most organizations work to minimize, identify, label, measure and even punish risk. When we are talking bacterial transmission in a hospital, risk aversion is a good measure. Even then, the innovations required to further reduce disease transmission will require some risk-taking.

Risk is nothing more than taking action without a known response. When a problem is painful, the chance of an even more painful result routinely prevents employees from taking that risk. No risk, no new pain. No risk, no uncertainty. No risk, no progress.

A friend asked me why good employees with serious questions, ideas or concerns would fail to raise them with company leaders. My friend is a good person. He wants open conversations. But each employee is doing a “risk/reward” calculation in their head and deciding if the pain is worth the gain.

What word choice, body signal or brief exchange in the past told employees it would be best to keep serious concerns to themselves? What happens to risk-takers at his company, especially those who occasionally fail? The conditions necessary to create the right kind of risk-taking are hard to describe and harder to accomplish.

We know something very powerful happens when trusting peers talk together about risk. We see it in our Peer Learning Groups every week. People who know and trust each other encourage smart risk-taking by describing their own past risks, successes and failures.

Peer exchanges eliminate management filters and pressures. Peer exchanges are less judgmental. Peer exchanges usually involve a strong dose of humility. How might these successes help leaders to encourage risk-taking throughout and across an organization?

At our workplace, we identify people who have taken a risk, small or large, and ask them to describe their experience at a staff meeting. Some examples deal with getting beyond the inertia of past practices. Some involve an innovation. All illustrate why an employee saw the pain as worth the gain.

Other organizations go further and showcase failures. They might hold a “failure funeral” to describe what happened and what they learned, while adding a humorous photo to describe how they felt.

We serve a company in the workplace safety business. You might think of job safety as a matter of protective gear and machine guards. Their research indicates that a culture of blame, lack of appreciation/respect and devaluing individual contributions hurt safety even when the mechanical solutions are in place. When people refuse to risk raising their hand, they take even greater risks with their own health.

Leaders and managers too often look for a formula to create a desired workplace result. If more innovation is desired, host an innovation seminar. A seminar is a great idea only if you have a workforce ready to join you in some risk and failure!

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.

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