Let's talk about risk, baby .....

Rumour has it that the most successful individuals have an appetite for risk. They are more easily able to balance out the pros and cons of a given situation, apply sound judgment and take control of their reactions when things feel difficult. Successful individuals embrace risk as part of the process. In fact, the ability to take reasonable risk is pretty much a core component for anyone with leadership ambitions or goals. 

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_pressmaster'>pressmaster / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

We take risks all the time - some personal some professional.  We take risks when we start a new role, when we change careers or when we get a promotion. Career progression and leadership in general, requires some degree of risk appetite.  

But men and women tackle risk differently and while there is a bunch of research that indicates that women perform well with calculated risk, helping organisations to make better decisions and manage risk better;

....... there is also evidence that for some women, risk aversion gets in the way of career success.

Why? Here are a few of the facts.

1. Women have been socialised to do the right thing.  When this goes unchecked, it gets in the way of taking calculated risks with ease. You've heard me say it before but women have been taught time and time again about the importance of "getting it right", "doing things properly" and "not rocking the boat".  As Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is famously quoted;

If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world.

We're good at doing the job rigorously and thoroughly - and getting it done!  Handy for a work horse, but not great for innovation, solving complex business problems or leadership through tricky waters.

Well work, career and leadership isn't grade school. And this constant "colouring inside the lines" behaviour gets in the way of breaking new ground, innovation and solving complex business problems. We need to learn the rules so we can learn to break them - appropriately, when required.

2. According to research women feel and remember negative emotions far more intensely - this includes fear.  The upside is that it keeps us safe.  The downside is that the intensity of the feelings we experience when getting outside of our comfort zone can sometimes be overwhelming. With a finely tuned amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex constantly scanning for things that might go wrong, plus a stronger emotional response and subsequent laying down of memory when things do go wrong wrong - it's no wonder we can sometimes lean towards risk aversion when under pressure.

3. Good old testosterone - is a great dampener for risk aversion and men have about 10 times (10x) more testosterone than women. In several studies from Cambridge University, researchers looked at male traders in a London hedge fund. They measured testosterone levels at the beginning and end of trading days with the traders.  Interestingly they found that on the days when the guys made riskier trades, their testosterone levels were higher in the morning before the trades. Perhaps even more interestingly, the increased testosterone did not necessarily guarantee a better decision.

So what can we do about it?

One thing is for certain, we can't go out and take testosterone supplements.  Don't laugh, it's been tried!  Not only might there be unwanted side effects, but in fact it does quite the reverse. In a research experiment conducted by University College London, women who were given testosterone were less able to collaborate and wrong more often.

So if you are feeling a little risk averse, here are a couple of tactical and practical approaches you can try straight away.

  • Start colouring outside the lines -  in small ways. After all practice does make perfect and if we want to learn to take risks well, then let's practice taking risks!

Start small and start personal.

While routines might be great for increased productivity, learn to mix it up a little.   Start with the small stuff such as changing your daily commute, going out to meet with different people on a school night, asking for a discount on a cup of coffee.  Practice getting out of your comfort zone, taking calculated risks and do things differently, frequently.  Failure practice and the rejection game are two great activities to help you flex your risk muscle. You might even have fun in the process.

If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

  • Reframe: See threats or obstacles as challenges for you to overcome and succeed at. 
    The most successful career women I've ever met have one thing in common. When someone throws something at them that they can't do (yet) they say:
"Hell yes! And how are you going to help me to achieve this?"   

Example 1: Someone asks you to take an assignment you know nothing about. Yes it's a risk, because you could look bad if you do a poor job.  Instead of demurring and hand-balling it to someone else, or taking the assignment then ignoring it and hoping it will go away, simply accept the challenge and look at it as an opportunity to grow or develop another area of your experience and expertise. Most importantly, in fact critically, ask for support or assistance so that both you and your boss can look good and the organisation does well as a result of your efforts.

Example 2: An internal role opens up that's ideally your next career move, but there are others who have more seniority and longevity in the department than you. The risks are that you might alienate your colleagues (fair enough) or you might look like you are too big for your boots. Instead of backing away - grab this opportunity with both hands and give it your best shot. Be sure to talk with your manager or HR department about the opportunity including the risks as outlined above.  In fact, be sure to ask for development opportunities to ensure your success for just in case. Even if you don't land the role, it demonstrates to your leadership team that you are keen, hungry and looking for advancement - plus you got to learn some extra skills in the development process.

Example 3: You've had a baby (congratulations) and are heading back to work and a promotion is offered to you. (Yes it is possible to land a promotion while on maternity leave. And while we've all heard horror stories of women being made redundant while on leave, lately I've been hearing a range of good news stories as well. Let's save this for another blog.)  

Instead of not accepting a promotion because it appears that there might be tricky travel assignments involved - talk to your boss about creative ways to solve this possible problem. Find out:

  • How much travel is actually involved or have you imagined the travel component based on how someone else tackled the role? 
  • Is the ultimate goal of the project for you to travel?  Or is the goal of the project for you to achieve a particular outcome or deliver on a piece of work? 
  • Most importantly - is there another way?  You were offered the promotion, they must think you can juggle it. Find out why and then ask for support in order to meet, or exceed, that expectation.

During the GFC here in Australia we saw several major corporates slash travel budgets which not only generated new ways of solving old problems but also generated million upon millions in savings. See the obstacle (risk) as an opportunity and it could become a win win all round.  Once again, grab the risk in two hands and do something about it rather than shying away.

Take risk firmly in both hands and turn critical moments into opportunities

So while the female risk brain might just be more sensitive, we may even be recovering perfectionists and we certainly don't have as much testosterone as our male colleagues - we can learn to not let these differences become obstacles and instead learn to see these things as opportunities for growth or change - in fact, powers for good.

Remember, when women do make decisions we frequently make good ones which is one of the key underpinning rationales behind the gender diversity movement.

So as you head on into your work day - instead of stepping away from risk, challenge and obstacle -  step up, speak out and take charge of your work, your career and your life. Stop swimming in the kiddie wading pool, and put on some fins and get in the big pool this summer!!  Go find an obstacle to overcome today.

Vive la révolution!

#ambitionrevolution #lookoutCsuitehereshecomes #impostersyndromebegone

If you liked this article - please share! Let's create a network of empowered leaderly women who are leading the charge.

  • Step Up, Speak Out, Take Charge - due out mid 2016! 
  • I work one on one with smart 'n savvy women to keep them agile, ambitious and focused on making a difference.
  • I work with organisations who are working on empowering women into leadership roles.
  • Email ablesing@amandablesing.com or call 0425780336 for a confidential one on one meeting to find out more.


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