I don’t think of myself as much of a risk taker. I’m generally fairly cautious – no high risk investments, Vegas holidays or adventure sports for me. But recently I’ve noticed just how risky some of my behaviour can be. I guarantee some of yours is too.
To illustrate, let me tell you about my garden. When we moved into our house 20 years ago, the small garden was very basic – a scrappy lawn with some flower beds round the edges. Despite being a novice gardener, I wanted something grander. I wanted a stately home garden in a matchbox. Flowerbeds of abundant colour, edged by neat box hedging around some cobblestones with a pedestal centre piece. So that’s what we created (well sort of).
Truth be told, we’re fair-weather gardeners and not very good at it, so the abundant colour was a bit hit and miss. But we did grow and clip and shape four neat box hedges around the flowerbeds, so the garden always had that formal structure that I loved. Or it did, until we had a problem. A couple of months ago I noticed that something was wrong with one section of hedge. I did what I always do. I googled. I looked into the two main problems with box – box blight and box caterpillar – and kept the tabs open to show I meant business. I did some high quality fretting. Every time I went into the garden, I shook my head and said “We really must do something about that”. I took the situation as seriously as it was possible to take it without actually doing anything.
Meanwhile the world moved on
While I fretted and then got on with other stuff, an army of highly camouflaged, very hungry caterpillars devoured our hedges. Almost two decades of growth, thousands of pounds worth of hedge, gone. By the time we gave up and decided to dig it all out, there was barely a leaf left on it. My risky behaviour was to be aware of a problem, to let it take up mental energy but not to act.
I see parallels with other areas of my life, with the issues my clients bring me and in the world around me. As an allegory for our collective response to climate change it’s almost perfect*. The ratio of fretting to meaningful action on the environment is way too high, for psychological reasons I’ve discussed here before.
But this kind of behaviour turns up in the business world too. I’m an associate member of the Institute for Turnaround and do some work with businesses in distress. Many companies coast towards insolvency, unwilling or unable to face up to the realities in their business. I suspect more businesses fail because of this kind of passive risk taking than because of massive misjudged gambles.
We don’t even need to look at the extremes of business failure or catastrophic environmental breakdown to see this inadvertent risk taking at work.
(*perfect aside from the fact that saving the hedges would have involved killing a lot of caterpillars. A wildlife friendly garden can be a right pain).
These are some common workplace situations that happen in businesses every day – and the day after that and the next one…
- The leadership team who never get around to that strategic review they know they need, only to find there’s a major shift happening in their industry and they’re falling behind.
- The family business owner who swears that one day he’ll hand over the reins to the next generation but never really gives them any responsibility. When he’s forced by ill-health to retire, they’re not equipped to take over.
- The man who plods along in a job with no career prospects, promising himself that next week he’ll start looking for something better. Only next week never arrives and he finds that his skills are getting out of date, he’s not getting the experience he needs to progress or he’s stopped being viewed as a bright young thing.
- The woman with a client relationship that’s turned a bit tricky. She knows it needs attention but it’s awkward and she doesn’t know where to start so she puts off making that call. Meanwhile, the client starts talking to alternative suppliers.
These are just a few. I’m sure you can think of more. And that’s before we get to our personal lives – the niggly health problem you never have time to get checked, the pension situation it’s too scary to look at, that weird damp patch in the bathroom that seems to be growing…
Why do we do it?
Ironically, I think I may be particularly susceptible to this kind of risk taking because I’m fairly cautious and diligent. I like to be reasonably sure that I’m doing the right thing before I do something. I’ve worked with enough over-cautious perfectionists (accountants, usually) to know I’m not alone in that. I’m also a world-class procrastinator. But let’s be honest we all do it to some extent, don’t we?
What we’re doing is prioritising what’s immediately in front of us over future issues, even when we know deep down that the future matters more. I think the fundamental flaw in our thinking is to assume (unconsciously) that things will stay fairly stable. That it will be same problem with the same solution whether we tackle it today or next week or next year. We fail to make that leap of imagination to see that there may be a tipping point from which is difficult – or even impossible – to recover. Your hedge has been eaten; your business is going to the wall; your planet is uninhabitable.
Take what you will from this blog. Think about the areas of your life and work where you’re aware of an issue but taking no action. If you’re a leader, remember that a huge part of your role is to decide what to focus on, what to prioritise and how quickly you need to act. If you’d like some support in disentangling that, do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org