Risk and the workplace: five ways to function free of fear

By understanding our own risk tolerance and taking steps to refocus, we can massively improve our ability and confidence. Martin Moore tells us how.

On a recent long haul flight, I was scrolling through movie options to find something to help me sleep. I ended up choosing a documentary. Unfortunately, as the movie progressed, it felt more likely that I’d never sleep again. The movie was Free Solo, which chronicles Alex Honnold’s 2017 attempt to climb the El Capitan peak in Yosemite National Park with no ropes, harnesses or protective equipment.

My palms were clammy for more than an hour as I watched Honnold scale the 915-metre vertical granite rock face, where the tiniest slip would result in certain death. I couldn’t get my head around Honnold’s unnatural tolerance for risk. Deaths in the free climbing community are common, yet still these climbers search for greater challenges and riskier climbs. To me, it appears a macabre death wish. To them, it is simply pushing their limits.

“When I do solo [climbing], I manage the risk through careful preparation. I don’t solo anything unless I’m sure I can do it,” says Honnold. Okay, I get that; but despite the meticulous preparation for their climbs, most of these people end up on the wrong side of the risk ledger at some point.

On the opposite end of this spectrum, many of us are so risk averse that we will suffer all sorts of indignities (remaining happily miserable), so as to keep our jobs or avoid being alone. Fear of the unknown, itself a form of risk aversion, can subconsciously drive the anxiety that blocks our progress.

We all have different risk tolerances. While some people are happy to invest their life’s savings in high yield/high risk investments, others won’t venture from the safety of cash in the bank. Risk is all around us and it is our continual and unconscious evaluation of risk in everyday situations that guides our behaviour. Should I walk across a street where there is no marked crossing? Should I ask Penny out on a date? Should I make a substantial wager based on a tip I was given for a horse race? Our personal risk tolerance guides our approach to the risks we face in our professional lives, which in turn informs our decisions. If we’re not conscious of this, we can end up with some pretty poor outcomes.

Risks need to be weighed up in virtually everything we do. So how do we strike the right balance between the outlandish risk tolerance of Alex Honnold, and the conservative risk aversion that, for many of us, results in lost opportunities?

Since we don’t want to get it wrong and make mistakes, we often fear the risks – both seen and unseen – and try to avoid them altogether. This is probably the worst thing we can do. To break through our fear of risk we must train our minds, particularly those of us with lower risk tolerances. The more information we can acquire, understand and integrate, the more likely we are to competently mitigate the risks we face.

Here are five ways:

1. Understand the nature of risk

In order to overcome our fear of risk, first we must understand its fundamental nature. Risk is everywhere, and the more comfortable we are with it, the more likely we will be able to manage it successfully.

Risk is a combination of two things: the likelihood of something occurring, and the impact if it does. For example, the risk of a bridge collapsing is extremely low, but the impact if it does can be catastrophic. Still, that doesn’t stop us from driving over the bridge, as the overall risk of collapse is minuscule.

The link between risk and reward is one of the most fundamental relationships we know. The greater the risk, the greater the reward; but the greater the reward, the greater the potential downside. As risk increases, the range of possible outcomes widens. Understanding this fundamental law will remove some of the fear. You may not like it, but understanding and acceptance of risk will help you to calmly focus on the right things.

2. Look for the value

One of the most useful ways to help us move past our fear is to focus on the value we can achieve if we decide to move forward. While it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of the risks we face in any given situation, focusing on the size of the prize helps put the risks into context. If we focus our ingenuity on how to create an outcome that delivers significant value, we begin to see risks as challenges to be overcome, rather than unknowns to be feared.

3. Sit comfortably in ambiguity

You can never know everything. The ability to thrive in an ambiguous environment, which by definition involves risks that you cannot comprehensively assess, takes self-discipline and control. Leaders have a responsibility to manage ambiguity and turn it into certainty for their people. If you think like a leader, you will begin to look for ways to move forward decisively, despite the unknowns.

As you shift your attention to delivering better outcomes for your people and organisation, it will be easier to put any risks into context and become more comfortable with these risks.

4. Make better decisions

Being confident in your decision making capability, regardless of the risks you manage, does wonders for your ability to function free of fear. This involves mastery of some key disciplines. Begin by understanding that in decision making, speed is much more important than accuracy. Making a decision that is 80% right today is infinitely better than a decision that is 85% right four weeks from now.

Learning to harness the capability of the people around you is another critical element of decision making. Tapping into the wide range of experiences people bring to the table can give better perspective on any problem, decision or risk.

5. Focus on excellence not perfection

Perfectionism is a scourge. It will freeze you and focus you on fear of the unknown – the gap between 80% and 100%. When you are seeking a perfect outcome, you will fall prey to the illusion that you can mitigate all risk. Not only is this impossible but it will also increase your fear of failure and your aversion to even the most manageable risk. Keep moving, be agile, adjust as you go.

Often, the shape of the risk changes as you move forward. Taking action allows you to discover more about the risk and the simple act of forward progress can eliminate significant uncertainty.

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The fear of risk can hold us back from doing what we need to do in order to manage our work environment. Understanding ourselves and our inherent level of risk tolerance will provide the context for pushing through this fear. These techniques will help you to refocus your attention productively and take control of the risks around you, removing the fear that can so easily creep in.

Oh, and one final piece of advice: don’t try to free solo climb El Capitan!

Martin Moore is founder, Your CEO Mentor

Further reading

Photo by Parker Amstutz on Unsplash