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Does Your Team Take Risks, or Play it Safe?

By Randy Hall

Adult humans aren’t very good at taking risks. I say adult humans because kids are fantastic at it. When my son played baseball as a kid, I watched players who hit triples refuse to stop at third base. A triple wasn’t their definition of success, a home run was. Even when the coach told them to hold at third, half pretended not to hear and headed for home. Now granted, these are 8 year olds, so the chances of getting thrown out at home are slim. However, the complete comfort with the risk was still fun to watch.

It’s a pretty severe contrast to what you see when you walk into many practices. Watch many teams and what you see are people who try to stay out of trouble. These teams focus on not screwing up. They make sure everyone, especially the practice owner or manager, is completely comfortable before taking action. When you talk with teams like this, what you usually find is that their definition of success is doing what the practice owner or manager wants. It’s a recipe for mediocrity.

Helping Your Team Run for Home

I’m not suggesting people should be reckless or work contrary to how their manager wants them to. Rather, I am suggesting that as leaders we need to create an environment where people are comfortable taking risks. We should encourage our team to push ideas forward, change the game, and make mistakes. Sometimes as leaders we want to think our wisdom is responsible for most of the learning in our organization. However, trial and error has us beat and innovation doesn’t come from trying to figure out what the boss wants.

Many managers of risk-adverse teams tell me, “I told them to take risks and not be afraid to make mistakes.” People only listen to what we say if it lines up with how we operate. Our reaction to mistakes when they happen is what drives team behavior, not what we tell our team to do. Telling your team to take risks isn’t enough. We have to create a culture that causes innovation and accepts mistakes.

If we want our team to learn, grow, and be capable, we must give them space to make that happen. That means the ideas and the direction can’t always be ours. Sometimes we have to let them stretch a triple if we want our team to hit home runs.