Embracing Risks

Without a safety net

Life is full of risk. Managing risk isn’t about elimination. Managing risk is choosing what risks to embrace and which risks to mitigate. In no arena is this more important than in the personal relationships which underpin our work. Focusing on taking more risk in these relationships is the path forward to higher individual and team performance.

Psychology Safety to Take Risks

Through the work of Amy Edmonson we have come to understand the importance of psychological safety in teams and organisations. Edmondson defines psychological safety as

‘a shared belief the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking’.

The critical point and the benefit to individuals and the team of psychological safety is the willingness to embrace risk. Risk is associated with return. The safety to take risks in that team will enhance performance. Embracing risks in interpersonal relationships also provide an environment that mitigates performance risk through respectful and supportive feedback. Edmonson’s work has consistently shown that teams with psychological safety manage risk and quality better. Interpersonal risk enables lower performance risk.

The embrace of risk in psychology safety can be lost in some discussion of the concept. People commonly confuse the term with risk elimination, avoiding conflict, making people feel comfortable and even political correctness. It is essential that we understand that psychological safety is the opposite.

Many team dynamic models highlight the critical role of conflict and feedback in team performance. From Tuckman’s stages of group development to Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team, conflict and feedback are key elements of alignment, performance and adaptation in teams. Every situation of conflict and feedback involves interpersonal risk. Performance demands more interpersonal risk, not less.

Embracing Personal and Interpersonal Risk

Alan Watts reminds us that all relationships are founded on an act of faith. That faith is called trust, a belief to some extent in the reliability, integrity or performance of another.

The moment that you enter into any kind of human undertaking in relationship, what an act of faith. See, you’ve given yourself up. But this is the most powerful thing that can be done: surrender.

Alan Watts

With that trust comes some act of surrender and its consequent risks. We give up part of our knowledge, will, work, life and concerns to another for their care and management. We cannot eliminate this trust or its related elements of risk. The more we seek to exclude trust and resist this surrender the greater the overhead burdens we place on our relationships.

In organisations, we drown in this overhead, because we are unwilling to take interpersonal risk. Unwilling to take interpersonal risks, we have pursued mitigation of our doubts through poor substitutes for interpersonal trust like trustless transactional relationships, contracts, surveillance, supervision, measurement or compliance processes. Because trust is reciprocal, our unwillingness to trust sees others unwilling to trust us. One reason blockchain has no transformed organisations or even contracts is the path to better performance of relationships is enabling higher trust, not trustless ledger machinery.

Melissa Beck recently wrote a wonderful post, In Praise of Risk. She highlights that these personal and interpersonal risks are a key part of moving forward with our lives. To paraphrase her conclusion we need to carry on and, perhaps stupidly, ridiculously, take more risks.

By taking these personal and interpersonal risks, we will find new relationships – new ways of living, working and performing. The lessons and adaptations we make after embracing the risk is how we will improve ongoing. The next level of individual and team performance is in embracing risk.

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