As leaders, what’s your threshold for risk-taking in the workplace? Should it be encouraged? Thwarted? Carefully monitored? After all, risks make things unpredictable. They make people uncomfortable. And, they fail … a lot. So often leaders are okay if their people are risk-averse. At least when it comes to executing with reliability and consistency. The irony is that by not encouraging their people to take risks – smart, calculated ones – leaders and managers are hurting their organizations by playing it safe. Risk-taking leads to ideas and breakthroughs that can drive new business. As a matter of fact, the only way to be successful is to fail forward on purpose. Big S’s (successes) are only possible with Small F’s (failures).

So how does a leader invoke and support a culture of risk-taking?

They need to be willing to hug the failures rather than dismiss them. They need to support and celebrate their people who are willing to take a chance on change. They need to story tell about the failures that illuminated the path to ultimate success. This all requires a strong and persistent culture change. But, here’s the good news. It’s possible! Here are five ways to help your organization become one that celebrates safe risk-taking.

  1. Expect (and praise) failure. Let people know that while you go on this new journey – while you’re taking the risk of doing something new – failure is expected. The goal is to make failures small, fast and cheap, instead of long, slow and expensive. And always celebrate those people who took a risk and failed. It’s the perfect opportunity to confirm that risk taking is okay and presents an opportunity to learn from experience.
  2. Empower “safe” risking taking. Nearly 67% of American workers can name at least one thing that would prevent them from taking any kind of risk at work*. So, leaders need to demonstrate what a smart or calculated risk looks like because most people just won’t do it on their own. And then when someone makes a smart risk, see #1!
  3. Seek out challengers. Encourage your people to step back and look at the things “we’ve always done this way.” Is the way we’ve always done it really the best way? Remind them that you’re committed to taking risks – knowing some will work and some won’t – because that’s how you’ll generate the breakthroughs to propel your culture to greater heights.
  4. Provide support. Let your people know the leadership team is there to do just that – lead, guide, support. Leaders should partner with their people to provide air cover when they challenge the status quo and take a risk to see what kind of results they can achieve. It is helpful to know someone has your back when you go out on a limb. The most important steps in risk-taking is to “chalk the field” for the areas where we will have big ears to listen and learn from our failures. One organization asked their people (see tip #3) to challenge an existing standard, habit or practice they felt was inconsistent with the new company direction and culture. Once the change target was set and air cover was provided, the failure-led innovation took off with amazing results.
  5. Create trust. Leaders need to foster an environment where vulnerability, honesty and safety are the norm. When people feel that they can be vulnerable, when they trust that their honest thoughts will be heard in the right way and feel safe that they won’t be judged or limit their careers by offering a new or different idea, they’ll speak more openly. And you just never know who has been hiding the next great idea.

Asking your people to go with you on a culture change ride can feel risky … scary even. You’re asking them to say goodbye to what they’ve known – the environment they’ve probably become very comfortable in. But, risk-taking doesn’t have to be so intimidating. It is a necessity if you want to grow or transform your business. To eliminate the fear, empower your people with the confidence that taking a chance on something new can lead to rewards, failures are valued, and smart, calculated, safe risks will overshadow any hiccups on the road to meaningful change.

*2013 study, “America’s Workforce: A Revealing Account of What U.S. Employees Really Think About Today’s Workplace”

July 1, 2015


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