Human beings do not like uncertainty — in fact, we’re hardwired to avoid it, with a bias to imagining worst-case scenarios in order to ‘keep us safe’. Research shows that the unknown is far more stressful to us than the certainty that something we don’t want to happen is actually happening. Historically, escalating our perception of risk was vital to maximising our chances for survival. But in modern life, this bias means our relationship to risk can be a difficult one.
Research indicates that women and men can differ in their perceptions of risk — studies show that individual testosterone levels can directly correlate with our appetite for risk, giving men more of a willingness to act impulsively, on partial information. Male risk-taking is also shown to increase when under stress, while the opposite is true for females.
However, the much-quoted ‘truism’ that women are more generally risk-averse than men may not be the whole story — and be subject to bias around what we consider risk to be. For example, most studies that point to men having a greater inclination for risk-taking tend to define risk in physical and financial terms. ‘They don’t point to risks like standing up for what’s right in the face of opposition or taking the ethical path when there’s pressure to stray — important risks that I’ve found women are particularly strong at taking,’ says the author of Taking Smart Risks, Doug Sundheim.
Whatever the truth of gender tolerance for risk, what is certain is that sticking to the safety of the known and predictable can ultimately lead us to stagnate, especially in certain situations where stepping out of a comfort zone is essential for growth. These could include remaining in a job we don’t like, moving countries for a new challenge, asking for a promotion or starting a side hustle. Here, taking a calculated risk can be a powerful way of propelling ourselves forward.
The difference between a risk and a calculated risk lies in the amount of careful consideration taken around the impact, rewards and probability of the positive outcome of your action. Calculated risk takers know that while they cannot control the ultimate outcome, they can make decisions in which the odds are weighted in their favour, or in which the possible gain is great enough to offset any possible loss (which is also acceptable, if not desirable).
In contrast, a decision taken without due diligence, thought or based on sheer optimism or panic is a far ‘riskier’ risk, lacking the strategic advantage and security of a measured understanding of the next step to be taken should the risk not pan out. So, how can you approach the unknown effectively and use it to stretch your ambitions? We look at five ways to become more comfortable with calculated risk to tap into the power of the possible in your career…
1. Decide to take more risks
It might sound simplistic, but consciously deciding to become more of a risk-taker is a powerful switch to flip in your psychology and the first step in allowing you to break through the barriers that keep you in stasis. Risk-taking is less a single decision and more a state of proactive living where you are constantly growing and developing yourself through the choices you are making. But often we can move through life, stepping away from risk without even realising we are doing it — so it’s important to bring the pattern to your consciousness so you can challenge it.
Remember… By taking risks, you give yourself permission to try things out, learn, fail and grow — as well as really starting to test your limits and your ambitions.
Try… Start by taking a small risk each day — ask for something you wouldn’t normally or request some help on something to build up your risk-taking muscles.
2. Don’t confuse discomfort with a stop sign
For many people, uncertainty translates to discomfort when faced with the chance to do something different. And it’s this discomfort that can be interpreted as a sign to stop, rather than one that says you have reached the limit of your comfort zone and invites a choice — to retreat, or to change and grow. As such, the second step is to become consciously comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. If you aren’t a little bit afraid or uncomfortable when you face something new and unexpected, then you probably haven’t left your comfort zone and are not actually taking any kind of risk.
Remember… Give yourself a little healthy discomfort every day; let your feelings around conversations, requests and visibility lead the way to understanding where and how you might need to push yourself to take a few more risks.
Try…. Reframing anxiety as excitement. Research shows that both feelings are actually physiologically identical.
3. Remember there’s a risk in everything.
While the desire to be able to control the outcome of everything is natural, it is also an unrealistic one. The desire for certainty is also part of the reason people fear taking risks — after all, if something does not ‘feel safe’ they cannot be sure that all will turn out as they want it to. However, the truth is that security is a myth and there is an equal risk in firstly, trusting that your situation will stay the same even if you don’t make a move, and secondly in depriving yourself of growth and opportunity.
Remember… Whether you stay where you are or make a move, you’re taking a risk Don’t ask yourself how to avoid risk, but what kind of risk you want to take.
Try… Don’t think about moving from ‘safety’ to ‘the unsafe unknown’; rather from one dynamic state to another. This makes it feel easier to do things that seem ‘risky’.
4. Rationalise your reality
We often base our decisions on emotion rather than logic, and can assume that our fear level correlates to the risk level we face. But concentrating on calculating risk instead can help us to rationalise our reality, helping to understand which risks are worth taking and why — and be less fearful about the process in turn. Making intelligent risk choices is key: thinking through intended outcomes as well as unintended ones, ensuring your chances of a payoff are greater than 50 percent and setting the risk within an action plan and timeframe for achieving the intended outcomes, are all actions that can help create a cost-benefit analysis of your situation based on clear-sighted strategy — rather than fear.
Remember… The level of fear you feel when presented with a situation that has an unknown outcome is no indication of the amount of risk you do (or don’t) face.
Try…Question what you believe to be true when considering whether your risk is too ‘risky’. Do you have evidence to prove your reality or are you just trying to stay in your comfort zone?
5. Determine Your Endgame
To know the extent to which something is a risk, you must know what is important to you, both personally and in your career. Risk can be a powerful way of getting clarity on what you really want out of life, what you don’t want and what’s important to you as you go through the decision-making process. Getting clear on your end game is the only way you will be able to evaluate the risks you will need to take along the way to keep moving forward. When facing a risky decision, weigh up factors, including the likelihood that the risk will help you to hit your strategic objectives, and the effect the risk will have on you and others who are involved, to get a fuller picture.
Remember… Keeping your risks and their potential outcomes in line with your values and objectives is a good way to feel more confident about taking them.
Try… When you’re presented with a risk, ask yourself whether it’s in alignment with your endgame. If it is, it is likely to be a risk well worth taking.