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The Risk of Avoiding Risk

I recently had the honor of addressing 700 Navy attorneys (both civilian and military) on the topic of leadership in a time of change. Immediately before my talk, the Acting Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Sean J. Stackley, addressed the audience on the main context for the event – ‘Gamechangers: Transforming the Present and Future.’

“Don’t avoid risk. You’ll get nothing done. Understand risk and manage risk.”

Acting Secretary of the Navy Sean J. Stackley

It’s difficult to talk about change without bringing up the concept of risk. Why? Because of our natural human tendency, based on the way our minds function, to operate in a sameness pattern. We resist change, which generally means we avoid taking risks. The well-worn pathways of our brain’s neural networks feel as natural as our most comfortable pair of blue jeans. Why change what is comfortable?

As Secretary Stackley pointed out in his talk, if you avoid risk, you will get nothing done. So how do you weigh the risk of implementing a change and doing something different against a potentially negative outcome or even outright failure?

The situation calls to mind an HR management scenario I’ve seen passed around on social media lately that captures the essence of risks not taken, something to the effect of:

Q: “What if we invest training and resources in our employees, and they leave?”
A: “What if we don’t?”

In this case, avoiding risk has a known outcome: mediocrity, stagnant growth or even decline. Risking the investment in employees has unknown potential upside, and if implemented well, incremental and positive gains. (My take on investing in organizational development, here.)

Audience members listen to Joe Caruso address how to lead when times call for a Gamechanger.

How Leadership Teams Can Address Risk

I do not want to advocate making ‘nothing to lose’ decisions as a business strategy. I do want to suggest that leadership acknowledge that finding the proper risk balance is an essential component and function in any organization seeking to grow, thrive and achieve greater success. If the leadership team wants to accelerate growth or operate more nimbly, then they should be ready to take some risks. Whether acknowledged or not, leaders do this every day in what they choose to focus on, and by the same token, what they choose NOT to focus on.

“It is the tremble of risk which shakes the spirit, confirms courage and reinstates daring!” –Mary Anne Radmacher 

We must always find the way ahead by choosing a path. Inherent in this choice are all of the paths not taken. We can never know the outcome, but we can weigh the potential risks and rewards of taking a risk versus not taking one.

Every leadership team needs a balance of perspectives and expertise to help not just mitigate risk, but shepherd the decisions about risk in an intelligent, data-driven, and also instinctual way so that the operation continues to move forward, not stagnate. Like many business decisions, it comes down to balance. Getting things done and achieving a goal must provide the impetus to drive things forward; calculated risks are part of that progress.

Always remember the risk of avoiding risk…you will get nothing done.

Always remember the risk of avoiding risk...you will get nothing done. Click to Tweet

© Joe Caruso and Caruso Leadership, 2017. Reprints available with permission.

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