Unless you’ve been living in a cave, it’s impossible to not be impacted by all that’s going on in the world right now. From ISIS to Ebola, there’s no shortage of headlines giving us reasons to feel afraid, anxious , hunker down, and exercise extreme caution. Certainly in the climate of fear that has evolved around us, there are many people who are doing just that.
While being super-cautious and avoiding uncertainty may seem like the smartest, safest option, this can actually be the riskiest path to follow. Fear drives us to both overestimate the risk and underestimate our ability to handle it. A highly contagious emotion, it can spread like a virus – not only in our personal psyche but in the collective psyche of our team, organization and society.
So as the fear barometer heats up, we must be vigilant. We cannot allow the anxiety of others to fuel our own misgivings, and we must be more discerning when we assess where that fear is preventing us from taking those very risks that could ultimately enhance genuine security and long-term success. If you want to get ahead in a culture that fuels caution, here are 5 risks worth taking.
1. Make Imperfect Decisions
If you wait until you have all the information you want before making a decision, you risk waiting too long. Sure, it feels better to make decisions based on robust analysis. But in a market that is changing at lightning speed, delay can be increasingly expensive. Sometimes you just have to go with your best bet. Might you get it wrong? Sure. But you’ve made a call. And what’s been proven time and again is that taking action – even wrong action – is more fruitful than doing nothing. In fact, doing nothing actually correlates highly with going backward. You can sit tight and wait for slower, surer times – but they aren’t coming. So amidst uncertainty, be decisive .
2. Rock The Boat
Too often we “go along to get along,” adopting the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra. Sure, a system or product or service offering may not be broken right now, but your business may go broke if it doesn’t evolve with the times. Of course rocking the boat and challenging consensus opinion can be dangerous. You may ruffle a few well-tended feathers. You may even rock yourself right out of the boat (perhaps into a better one). But when you fail to challenge the safely-guarded and conventional wisdom of your team, you become part of the problem. As Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. said, “If everybody’s thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” Sure, it’s safer and less hassle to be agreeable, but if you want to get ahead (and be highly valued by those around you) the safe and hassle-free path won’t get you there. Not in this economy, nor anytime soon.
3. Admit You Don’t Have An Answer
No one likes a ‘know it all’ – and yet most of us feel like we should know it all. When you give up your need to have all of the answers, it creates space to ask smarter questions and delve down creative paths to more innovative solutions. By shifting your focus from what you already know into that of a curious student, you will turn on the tap to the creative part of your brain in ways that a “know it all” never could. Innovation and ingenuity will follow accordingly.
It’s hard not to feel pressured to come armed with the smartest solutions to the problems at hand, but while it’s your job to figure out how to get things done effectively, sometimes the best way to do that is to admit that you’re stuck, and enlist the help of others to figure out the best path forward. Does that make you vulnerable to criticism, or perhaps even appear as though you simply don’t have what it takes? Sure. That’s a risk. But admitting that you don’t have all the answers also makes you someone that others will feel safe around, and they will be more willing to collaborate.
4. Defy Convention
Google GOOGL -0.33% encourages its engineers to spend 20% of their time working on personal projects that may or may not benefit the company. The idea is that it helps everyone to continue thinking creatively. It would seem to be an effective strategy – running with the herd makes it harder to get ahead of it. You can’t lead from the crowd. To be outstanding, you have to be willing to stand out. Employers need people who are willing to say what they think, question old assumptions, foster ingenuity, and contribute the unique value only they can bring. When all you do is try to lay low and fit in, you negate the difference that your difference makes.
5. Use Non-Default (Less Comfortable) Behaviors
When under pressure, our tendency is to revert to default behaviors of thought and behavior. Forcing an outcome. Diving into, and getting mired in, the detail. Relinquishing responsibility. Following protocol beyond the point which makes any sense. Micro-managing. Or we do just the opposite – spending too much time on email, conveniently avoiding the pressing issues around us.
If you continually approach your challenges the same way, you’ll sometimes be ineffective. Just as a sword fighter with the most number of moves in his repertoire will be the victor, so too will the person who can draw from the greatest range of different behavioral responses when confronted with a challenge or when pursuing a goal. Taking a different approach can feel risky. It’s unfamiliar. Less predictable. But flexibility is crucial in order to adapt to the pace of change in today’s global economy.
If you are usually detail focused, try approaching a situation from a really big picture perspective. If you like to follow rules, try bending them a little. If you tend toward being task focused, try focusing more on people for a change. And if you are a master debater, great at winning verbal spars but not so hot on listening to those around you, spend a day on a “listen and learn” tour of your office. There’s no one “right way” to resolve a problem, but a willingness to approach different situations in different ways will ultimately lead to better results.
Of course, taking risks, speaking up, pushing back, holding out and advancing forward while under intense pressure all require putting yourself at risk of failure, confrontation, dissension and humiliation. Perhaps even risking your job. Which is why so many people procrastinate, rationalize, make excuses, and otherwise talk themselves right back into the middle of their comfort zone. But while a comfort zone may be cozy, it’s far from safe .
Your value to an organization will increase exponentially once you show you have the courage to think outside the cubicle, express your candid opinion (with all due respect), and lay your convictions on the line. If ever there was a time when business (and the world at large) needed boldness and bravery, it’s now. So don’t kid yourself: playing safe can be a high risk strategy. Use it only with extreme caution.
Margie Warrell is the bestselling author of Stop Playing Safe (2013) and Find Your Courage (2009). Connect via Facebook, Twitter or subscribe to her Live Bravely newsletter.