As humans, we are wired to fear uncertainty: When we think about taking risks, we start to sweat, our heartbeat increases—our innate fight or flight stress response kicks in. At work, this fear can hold us back. But without risk, there is no opportunity. There is no innovation. There is no growth.
Think of it this way: If you feel unable or afraid to take risks, your focus becomes playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
However, the ability to take intelligent risks has proven benefits. It drives innovation and creative thinking, it opens up new opportunities, allows you to develop new skills, leads to higher job satisfaction, and even builds trust with your team members.
The key is to understand that risk isn’t something to fear. It’s something to manage.
Intelligent risk-taking is not a static quality; it’s a behavior, and behaviors can be encouraged and improved upon. This three-part technique will allow you to step outside of your comfort zone and towards success:
1. Define: What’s a Risk Worth Taking?
Because our brains are innately risk-averse, we’ll tend to play it safe. We can overcome this reaction by clearly defining a smart risk, or what makes a risk worth taking. Defining the parameters ahead of time takes some of the sting out of uncertainty, which empowers you to exercise the full extent of your freedom within that limit.
How to do it: Use the SMART goal criteria as your guide:
Specific: Can you outline exactly what you intend to do? (Use action words.)
Measurable: Are there metrics and/or data targets to evaluate success?
Achievable: Can the project or goal be broken down into manageable steps?
Relevant: Have you identified the potential benefits for you, your team, and/or your organization?
Timebound: Are there limits on time (should take X weeks) and financial impact (the budget is Y)?
Don’t write off the risk if it doesn’t meet all of the criteria. Instead, obtain the information you’re missing to fill in the gaps.
2. Develop: Flex Your Risk Muscle Through Curiosity
Innovation is fueled by curiosity, and it’s important that we develop it in order to flex our risk muscle. In fact, research shows that when our curiosity is triggered, we’re more likely to seek out new information, come up with out-of-the-box ideas, and adapt to uncertain circumstances. The result? Fewer decision-making errors, more idea generation, and an overall performance boost.
How to do it: Build curiosity in small ways everyday by asking questions, doing something different (listen to classical music on your commute instead of your usual electronic, or read a biography instead of your typical sci-fi), stepping out of your comfort zone (make a point to talk to someone new at work), and finding the new in everyday things (look at a flower in detail, catch the light on the tree in your yard).
3. Do: Make a Considered Decision and Take Action
Once you’ve decided the risk is worth taking, and you’ve strengthened your risk muscles through staying curious, there’s only one thing left to do: Take action. Our fear of uncertainty often leads us to miscalculate risk; typically overestimating the potential harm and underestimating the potential benefits. To work around this cognitive block, we’ve got to carefully consider the pros and cons of all our options.
How to do it: Do a version of a pros and cons list by writing down the benefits of action and the risks of inaction. This process allows you to clearly see both sides of the situation and that there is risk in inaction. In addition, challenge yourself to take one small risk a week until you feel comfortable. Start with low-stakes risks, such as making an unexpected request, attending a networking event, or volunteering for a task that falls outside of your comfort zone.
The old adage still holds true: With risk comes great reward. Our greatest innovators have taken some of the largest leaps. With these techniques in intelligent risk-taking, we can strategically take action in the face of uncertainty.