Understanding your relationship with risk and how it can unlock your potential

Navigating a career often involves making calculated decisions that could either propel you forward or set you back. While it’s natural to seek stability and avoid uncertainty, developing a degree of comfort with risk can be a powerful catalyst for career growth—opening doors to new opportunities, leadership roles, and personal development.

What’s your risk appetite?

Before diving into how risk can benefit your career, it’s necessary to understand your own risk appetite. Risk appetite essentially refers to the amount of uncertainty you’re willing to accept in pursuit of your goals. It can vary dramatically from person to person, situation to situation, and can change over time based on circumstances, experiences, and evolving aspirations.

Consider this scenario: your company announces an internal job opening for a more senior position in a new division. If the division grows as predicted, the role has the potential for greater visibility, the chance to shape the future of the division, and bring greater financial reward for you personally. But the new area is in a competitive field and there are plenty of unknowns and a steep learning curve ahead for both the company and you as an individual.

Kali is risk averse so when presented with this opportunity she hesitates.  She values stability and is naturally concerned about stepping into a role where she might not have all the answers immediately. She feels that on balance it makes more sense to remain in her current, comfortable position, where she can enjoy the feelings that come with being confident and secure in her abilities.

Nicola has a moderate appetite for risk, so finds herself intrigued by this opportunity, but equally feels like careful evaluation is warranted. She plans to seek the advice of one or more mentors before weighing up the pros and cons. If she accepts the offer, she negotiates for a transition period and additional support to ease her into the new responsibilities. She’s leaning towards taking the leap but needs some safety nets in place.

Susan is risk tolerant. She thrives on new challenges, so she sees this role as an exciting opportunity to grow and make a significant impact. Despite the uncertainties, she’s ready to jump in, confident that her adaptability and problem-solving skills will help her succeed in this dynamic environment. For her, the potential rewards outweigh the risks involved.

These different responses highlight how understanding your own risk appetite can shape your approach to career opportunities and help you make decisions that align with your personal and professional goals.

Calculated risk vs. reckless decisions

It’s important to note that jumping in with both feet (like Susan in the example above) isn’t necessarily the goal. While Susan’s enthusiasm and willingness to embrace new challenges are admirable, taking a moment to consider the potential pitfalls and plan accordingly can be just as valuable. The aim is not to take risks for the sake of it but to understand your position on the risk spectrum and know how to pivot effectively. Whether you’re like Kali, Nicola, or Susan, recognising where you stand allows you to take calculated risks that are thoughtfully considered rather than impulsively decided.

For Susan, even a slight pause to think through the implications and prepare a strategy could enhance her success in the new role. Balancing enthusiasm with prudence ensures that risks are calculated, aligning with your goals and capabilities rather than leading to reckless decisions. It’s about finding a sweet spot where you can challenge yourself and grow without compromising your stability or wellbeing.

Reflection prompts to assess your risk appetite

  1. Think about your career moves so far. Have you tended to stay in roles longer than you should because they felt safe, or have you made bold moves that involved significant changes?
  2. Consider a recent decision at work. How did you handle uncertainty or the possibility of failure? Were you comfortable deciding with limited information, or did you feel the need for more certainty?
  3. Evaluate your response to new opportunities. When presented with a chance to lead a new project or join a different team, do you feel excited or apprehensive?

The benefits of embracing more risk

Stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing risk can lead to numerous benefits in your professional life. Here are some tangible ways risk-taking can enhance your career:

  1. Accelerated career growth

Taking on challenging projects or roles that push you beyond your current capabilities can fast-track your career. These opportunities often come with increased visibility and the chance to demonstrate your skills to a broader audience. For instance, volunteering to lead a high-stakes project can showcase your leadership abilities and decision-making skills, positioning you for future promotions.

  1. Enhanced learning and skill development

Risk is often fertile ground for learning. When you take risks, you expose yourself to new experiences and knowledge that can expand your skill set. Whether it’s mastering a new technology, understanding a different market, or developing a new strategy, the learning curve associated with risk can significantly enhance your expertise.

  1. Building resilience and self-confidence

Every risk carries the possibility of failure, but facing these challenges head-on can build resilience. Over time, as you navigate through setbacks and learn from them, you develop a stronger sense of self-confidence and the ability to recover from disappointments more quickly. This resilience is invaluable in any professional setting, where change and uncertainty are constants.

Practical steps to get comfortable with risk

If you’ve identified that you tend to shy away from risk, it’s time to take actionable steps to become more comfortable with it. Here are some practical strategies to incorporate risk-taking into your daily professional life:

  1. Start with some small ‘everyday’ risks

Begin by taking smaller risks that stretch your comfort zone but aren’t overwhelming. For example, speaking up in a meeting where you’d typically stay silent, or proposing a new idea to your team. These small steps can gradually build your confidence to tackle bigger challenges.

  1. Reframe failure

Change your perspective on failure. Instead of seeing it as a negative outcome, view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Reflect on past experiences where a setback led to valuable lessons or new directions. This shift in mindset can reduce the fear associated with taking risks.

  1. Seek support and feedback

Surround yourself with mentors and peers who encourage you to take risks and provide constructive feedback. Their insights can help you navigate the uncertainties and celebrate the courage it took to step outside your comfort zone.

  1. Evaluate your current risks

Consider the risks you’re already taking, perhaps without even realising that you are. For example, every time you make a decision with limited information or navigate office politics, you’re engaging in risk-taking behaviour. Recognising these everyday risks can help you appreciate your existing risk tolerance and build upon it.

This table provides a range of risk-taking actions, from small everyday decisions like speaking up in meetings to more significant career moves like changing career paths or even moving to a new territory.

Types of risk Description Benefit
Speak up in meetings Share your ideas or opinions during meetings, especially if you typically stay silent. Builds confidence and visibility among peers and leaders.
Volunteer for new projects Offer to take on a project outside your usual responsibilities. Expands your skill set and exposes you to new areas.
Ask for feedback Request constructive feedback on your work from colleagues or supervisors. Provides insights for growth and improvement.
Network with senior leaders Initiate conversations or meetings with higher-level executives. Builds relationships and opens doors for opportunities.
Negotiate for more Advocate for a raise, promotion, or additional resources for your role. Enhances negotiation skills and asserts your value.
Take a leadership role Lead a team or committee, even in an informal capacity. Develops leadership skills and increases influence.
Pursue further education Enrol in courses or certifications to advance your knowledge. Keeps your skills relevant and competitive.
Change career paths Consider a role in a different department or even a new industry. Broadens experience and can reinvigorate your career.
Seek international assignments Explore opportunities to work abroad or with diverse, global teams. Enhances cultural competence and adaptability.
Mentor or coach others Offer to mentor a colleague or coach a team. Builds interpersonal skills and reinforces your expertise.
Adopt a new technology Implement a new tool or software in your work routine. Keeps you at the forefront of technological advancements.
Take a sabbatical Take an extended break to pursue personal growth or travel. Provides a fresh perspective and can boost creativity.
Launch a side project Start a personal project or side business. Develops entrepreneurial skills and new interests.
Speak at conferences Present your knowledge and insights at industry events. Increases your professional reputation and network.
Invest in new ventures Consider investing time or resources in a start-up or new business idea. Provides financial growth opportunities and new experiences.
Challenge the status quo Question existing processes or norms and suggest improvements. Drives innovation and demonstrates critical thinking.

Understanding the drawbacks: The risk in risk-taking

While embracing risk can lead to significant rewards, it’s important to acknowledge that not all risks will pay off. However, even risks that don’t lead to success can offer valuable lessons and benefits.

  1. Learning from setbacks

When risks don’t yield the desired outcome, they can still provide insights and experiences that contribute to your professional growth. Analyse what went wrong, what you could have done differently, and how you can apply these lessons in the future. This reflective practice is crucial for continuous improvement.

  1. Building a resilient mindset

Facing setbacks teaches you how to handle adversity and bounce back stronger. This resilience is a critical trait in the corporate world, where the ability to adapt and persevere through challenges is highly valued.

  1. Gaining new perspectives

Not every risk will transform your career, but each experience adds to your perspective and understanding of the business landscape. Over time, these insights can inform your decision-making and strategic thinking, making you a more effective leader.

Inspiration for getting started

As you navigate your career and explore your own risk appetite, remember the words of Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” This question encapsulates the essence of embracing risk. It invites you to envision the possibilities that lie beyond your fears and to take bold steps towards achieving your dreams.

Risk-taking isn’t about recklessness; it’s about the courage to step into the unknown, learn from every experience, and continually grow. Each risk you take is a stepping stone on the path to your personal and professional success. So, ask yourself, what would you do if you weren’t afraid? Then, take that leap with confidence and curiosity, remembering that it’s on the journey, with all its twists and turns, that true growth happens.


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