Encouraging Employees to Take Risks: The Path to Creating Trailblazers

EmployeeIt’s no secret that most people love children. Their innocence, their ability to empathise and their unconditional love for anyone and everyone, are what makes them so unique to adults. But it is their ability to do things unbridled, without a damn, is one that adults simultaneously are in awe of and jealous of. Us adults look at the innocence of a child to do something unrestrained by fear, as something almost unattainable.

But we were kids once too. We did things that were unrestrained, things that were driven by our curiosity and knack to know and explore. So, what happened?

We grew up.

Yes, the thing that killed our natural curiosity is adulthood. As you grow, you become more aware of the judgemental eyes all around and the consequent self-restrain you exercise to “fit in”. This level of restraint translates to every facet, affecting our personal and professional decisions. We embrace the habit of playing it safe and become less likely to take major risks, for fear of the repercussions it could potentially lead to.

The sad part is that this level of restraint kills the curiosity spark within you. That’s not to say that your curiosity completely diminishes as you grow up. It just becomes restrained and more cautious. You would probably refrain from talking to new people expressively as an adult, something you would have gladly done as a kid. This leads to an attitude of closing oneself from new experiences and exploring new vistas.

Encouraging EmployeesThe ability to negate risk-taking behaviour doesn’t bode well, especially in a professional setting. As history stands witness, some of the greatest achievements of our time came from one person’s ability to take a risk and start something that changes their industry forever. Take the movie Toy Story (1995) for example. John Lasseter, the director, envisioned the first computer animated feature film at a time when CGI and computer animation was largely in its inception stage. While no one believed in the possibility of computer-rendered animation (hand drawn animation was more regarded in that time period as evidenced by movies like Aladdin, Lion King etc), Lasseter and his team proved everyone wrong by not only coming up with Pixar’s best movie to date but changing the animation and special effects industry forever.

Great things can happen for a company (or even an industry) when an employee takes a risky initiative. High risk is a precursor to high reward, after all. The problem is, how to get employees to take risks?

That’s where managers come in!

A manager plays an important role in an employee’s performance at work. A manager isn’t just a boss, he/she also has to play the role of advisor, guide, confidant and sometimes even an enforcer. Their actions directly impact employee engagement. They are also an employee’s point of contact and the middleman between employees and the suits. But these traits aren’t enough to get employees to take risks.

So, what’s a manager to do? That’s the question of the hour.

First, lets look at the reasons which hold employees back and refrain them from taking risks.

There are two primary reason for this:

Personal Reasons

Encouraging EmployeesEvery individual has commitments and responsibilities, outside of work, which makes them refrain from taking risks. These can be financial reasons like debt, home loans, education loans etc, which can be debilitating to an individual and discourage risk taking. After all, such employee would be more concerned about keeping their job safe and thus wilfully play it safe. Then there are health reasons like asthma, diabetes, high/low blood pressure, depression etc which can cause someone to take a step back and work with minimum stress.

Additionally, other issues that makes a person take fewer risks includes relationships (bad relationships lead to stress and worry which diminishes the ability to focus on the job), hardships (things like poor housing, long commutes) etc.

Work Reasons

People spent a significant part of their life at their workplace. Almost two-thirds of our waking hours is spent at work. Consequently, issues like an unsupportive work environment, hostility from colleagues and peers, intimidation, bullying, poor employee engagement, lack of appreciation etc are some of the major work-related reasons why employees hold back at work.

What You (Manager) Can Do About This?

Managers can do a lot to endorse a risk-taking attitude in their employees. A manager is a mentor in a lot of ways and a mentor’s behaviour can make-or-break the mentor-mentee relationship.

* Define Risk Taking

Up until this point, we have spoken about the merits of risk-taking but it should be made clear that risk-taking is a double-edged sword. It is a term whose definition varies from company to company and process to process. Your job as a manager is to make it aptly clear to your employees what constitutes as acceptable risk-taking within the organisation. For a start-up, the restrictions could be financial-based and employees can be allowed to take risks that cost little to no money. For a large corporation, the restrictions vary from department to department and depends on the modus operandi. Clarifying acceptable and unacceptable risks helps employees formulate plans and filter out the truly terrible ones. If you were an accounting firm, it would probably not make sense if an employee came up with an idea for a food-delivery platform. The risks involved, both monetary and resource, would far outweigh the pros.

* Create a Nourishing and Safe Environment

A work environment that fosters sustainability and encouragement goes a long way in making employees more likely to take risks. An unsupportive and hostile environment creates negativity and contempt in an employee’s mind and makes it difficult for them to share ideas and take initiative. Studies show that listening to employees has a direct impact on their happiness level at work. This, in turn, improves levels of employee engagement and productivity. Do you think that solutions like Gmail and Google Maps could have been developed by the employees at Google without an adequate support environment? Google nurtures an environment of innovation and creativity in its offices which has proven to lead to great things for the company. Or take Amazon.com for example. Their practice of having a virtual idea box gave birth to the idea of Amazon Prime. One of their employees, a software engineer by the name Charlie Ward, suggested the idea of free shipping which later took on the form of Amazon Prime.

* Lead By Example

You want to make your employees be risk takers?

Great! Don’t simply preach it but practice it.

Actions speaks louder than words and that applies at your workplace as well. Take a risky initiative or project and see it to completion. Even if it’s a failure, you will show your employees that you took a risk and gave it everything you have, even if it didn’t pan out.

Address your failure to your employees but be proud of trying something different. Inspiring people to take action starts from doing something inspiring and not just quoting it. Ask any employee about the traits that distinguish a good manager from a great one and they’ll often point to those who follow the principle of “show don’t tell”.

* Reward Both Success & Failure

employeeAcknowledging the risk taken by and appreciating it is very encouraging to the employee. After all, an appreciated employee is a motivated employee. Implement a rewarding program where an employee, who took a risk, would receive a reward based on the degree of risk involved and success of the same. However, those whose risk didn’t pan out would still receive some form of reward to encourage them to try again. A practice like this, ties into the idea of a nurturing environment, where appreciation for creativity is valued and shown.

Word of Caution: What Not to Do

Fostering an attitude of risk-taking comes with its own set of cautions. For every right thing you do to encourage employee engagement and ideation, there’s a whole bunch of things you do that has the opposite effect. Certain practices can inadvertently kill an employee’s entrepreneurial ideas. Some of these include:

a) Don’t be a Micromanager

You know that voice in your head which tells you to analyse every itty-bitty piece of work that your employees do and correct them. Well, it’s time to shut it down. Nothing is more demoralising than a manager who is hanging over an employee’s head like a dangling sword. It makes employees acutely aware of the intense scrutiny their ideas would go through and the humiliation that would ensue in case of failure. There are bigger problems of micromanaging as not only does it lower employee morale but can also cause a dent to employee retention and lead to high turnover.

employeesb) Resist the urge to say no

Picture this for a moment: Your employee comes to you with a risky proposition that is unfeasible. You hear him/her out and then the moment of truth arrives where you have to tell them your thoughts on the matter.

What do you do?

The natural urge is to say no outright. Your employee came up with a problematic idea and there’s no point in dragging out the conversation. A resounding no seems like the right way to go.employeesHere’s the problem with this approach. The second you say no, you risk your employee assuming that he/she is not good enough and their input is moot. Sure, you could argue that a stern no is better than beating around the bush but are you comfortable knowing the risk it entails?

Instead take a different approach. Explain the problems with their approach. If you can think of alternates to their idea’s action plan, share them with your employee. Keep in mind that an idea is only the first step, and they will be imperfect, sloppy and require fine-tuning. Embrace that idea and adopt the philosophy of ‘there’s no such thing as a bad idea’.

Letting them know why they need to work on their idea again or scrap it altogether is more constructive than just saying no. It creates a sense of value and appreciation as it urges them to keep trying instead of simply giving up after one bad idea.

Just to expand on this idea a little more, not every executed idea will have a positive ending, that’s just how it goes. If your employee took initiative, followed every step of the plan and yet didn’t get the outcome they hoped for, let them know its okay. They are already sad about the negative outcome, there’s no reason to make them feel worse about their work. Sure, point out their mistakes and suggest changes that could have led to a different outcome but don’t yell or scream at them.

Think back to when you were a kid and your teacher yelled at you for something you did, in front of your friends and classmates. It’s exactly like that, except it’s a lot difficult to bounce back and forget about it as an adult than when you were a kid. An employee who goes through an experience like that won’t just hop to work the next day, having forgotten about

all the screaming and yelling from the day before. Such an employee will probably take time to warm up to you again and it will be a while before they come up with ideas, let alone share them with you.

Wrapping Up

There are certain traits that define good leadership and the ability to coax employees to ideate and implement, is certainly somewhere on top of that list. How you wish to go about it is your call but remember Newton’s Third Law:

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Your positive actions and leadership will lead to motivated and engaged employees. This in turn will make them want to push their limits and come up with ideas. Even if most of the ideas are bad, there will always be a diamond in the rough. And who knows, maybe one of them will come up with an idea that will change your company for the better, forever.

So, the question is, how long before you let your employees be risk-takers?

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