In 2008 my former colleague Michael Gilbert published a thoughtful piece titled Playing it Safe is a Trap that included a list of ways we habitually try to avoid risk and seek safety:
1. Seeking safety in "best practices."
The phrase "best practices" is respectable, but its function is to allow [us] to hide amidst the herd. It's a fancy way of seeking safety in numbers.
2. Seeking safety in the wrong metrics.
We obsess about tactical benchmarks, hoping that we're doing as well as our peers. But in the end, it means we focus on doing things right, rather than doing the right thing.
3. Seeking safety in self-promotion.
Our stakeholders have limited attention and we want every single bit of it directed at our news, our stories, our calls to action. We fear that if we open the door to anything else we'll lose them.
4. Seeking safety in cautious language.
Irony, humor, drama, passion, specificity, intimacy, idiosyncrasy--these are some of the characteristics that hold people's attention. And yet these are also the characteristics of which we seem to be most afraid. We seem so afraid of offending a few people that we're willing to let everyone else be mildly bored.
5. Seeking safety in control.
We seek to control things that needn't be controlled, in our desire to avoid the uncertainties that come with the kind of communication practices that truly light a fire in people. Indeed, we are simply afraid to light that fire because at some point it will no longer be in our control.
Michael was writing about online marketing efforts by nonprofits, but as with much of his work it can be applied to a much broader context, and nearly a decade later I still find his comments relevant in my practice as a coach and teacher.
When we adopt others' models and "best practices" we may feel safer standing on a more solid foundation, but we fail to see that we've also installed a ceiling overhead and lowered our potential upside. In this process we inevitably lose something distinct and differentiating about ourselves and our approach to the work, and that makes us less effective. We have to cherish our uniqueness and let our freak flags fly.
It can feel risky to stand out, but as noted by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones (two of my favorite authors on leadership), successful leaders conform to the surrounding culture just enough. These leaders know that if they fail to conform sufficiently, the culture will eventually resist their influence and ultimately reject them, and they know that if they conform too much, they'll become absorbed by the culture and will fail to have an impact.
And risk brings its own rewards. As psychiatrist Phil Stutz has written, "The risk you take has a feedback effect on the unconscious. The unconscious will give you ideas and it wants you to act on them. The more courage you have when you act, the more ideas it will give you."
The greatest danger, over time, is actually posed by excessive risk-aversion and clinging to safety. Leadership and strategy consultant Doug Sundheim has studied risk extensively, and he notes that we often fail to perceive this long-term threat:
We're naturally more averse to the costs of taking risks than to those of not taking risks because of the time frames in which we experience each cost. We experience the costs of taking risks immediately. Discomfort and uncertainty show up as soon as we engage in the risk... Conversely, we experience the costs of avoiding risks further in the future. Low growth, lack of accomplishment and limited fulfillment take time to manifest... In short, we have more trouble imagining what a lack of accomplishment will feel like in five years than what discomfort will feel like in five hours.
More clearly identifying the long-term costs of avoiding risk is an important first step; to keep moving forward we have to be willing to get out of our comfort zones and tolerate what can be an unnerving loss of control. This ultimately entails managing our emotions and building resilience. I'm reminded of a comment attributed to Mario Andretti, who won 109 auto races in his stellar career: "If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."
Photo by Dave Schappell. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.