Adult humans aren’t very good at taking risks. I say adult humans because kids are fantastic at it. At one of my kids’ baseball games recently I was watching the players who hit what should have been triples almost refuse to stop at third base. A triple wasn’t their definition of success, a home run was. Even when the coach was telling them to hold up at third, about half of them pretended not to hear and headed for home. Now granted, these are 7 or 8 year olds and so the chances of getting thrown out at home are slim but the complete comfort with the risk is still fun to watch.
It’s a pretty severe contrast to what you see when you walk into many businesses. Watch many business teams and what you see are people who try to stay out of trouble, make sure everyone, especially the boss, is completely comfortable before moving anything forward, and focus on not screwing up. When you talk with teams like this, what you usually find is that their definition of success is doing what the boss wants. It’s a recipe for mediocrity.
I’m not suggesting people should be reckless or work contrary to how their manager wants them to. What I am suggesting is that as leaders we need to create an environment where people are comfortable taking some risk, pushing ideas forward, changing the game and making mistakes. No matter how much we would like to think our wisdom as leaders is responsible for most of the learning in our organization, trial and error has us beat by a long shot and innovation doesn’t come from trying to figure out what the boss wants.
Here’s what many of the managers of those risk adverse teams tell me, “I told them to take risks and not to be afraid to make mistakes.” People only listen to what we say if it lines up with how we operate. How we treat mistakes when they happen, how often we put our own twist on the ideas of others, and how often we go into meetings with our ideas instead of letting the team find solutions on their own are what really drives how the team behaves no matter what we tell them to do.
If we want a team to learn, grow and be more capable tomorrow we have to give them the 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.
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