Making Risk Taking Make Sense

Women are frequently urged to stretch, reach higher and take risks to accelerate career advancement. But how do you identify a smart risk worth taking and avoid those that are, well, just plain risky?
Researchers from Kent State University have found that workplace risk takers in the US are typically perceived more positively than those who play it safe, even when they try something and fail. That’s largely because those observing or evaluating the behavior tend to attribute positive characteristics to intentional risk taking. Their analysis reveals that “. . . this is primarily because risk-taking — regardless of outcome — considerably increases perceptions of agency and decreases perceptions of indecisiveness, and these attributions predict positive workplace outcomes,” the study authors conclude.
Of course, intentional and purposeful are critical characteristics to pair with risk-taking. Blind leaps can label someone as foolish.
Making the leap
When Senior Director of Marketing at PepsiCo, Erica Zimmerman, considers whether to take a risk in her career, she thinks about how she’ll feel if she doesn’t take her shot. “Even though I’m pretty risk averse and have to push myself to step out of my comfort zone, I understand that there is a price to pay for not risking too,” she shared as the featured speaker during a WFF Exchange Network event, Risk Taking: Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone. “I always ask myself, ‘Am I going to be able to live with not trying, not attempting this next challenge and not taking a risk?’” she says.
Her gut is steering her in the right direction. The Kent State study engaged people in reading vignettes about risk-taking and risk-avoiding employees in a fictional workplace. Next, they asked the participants how likely the risk-taking and risk-avoiding employees in the stories were to be downsized, promoted or sent to a high-potential talent leadership camp, and how much money they would earn and how a bonus might be distributed among the two employees.
“Across all scenarios and all measures of workplace outcomes, successful risk-takers were rated as much more likely to have positive workplace outcomes and much less likely to have negative workplace outcomes than risk avoiders,” they write.
Surprisingly, even those who took a risk and failed were most often still perceived more positively than risk avoiders. “Perhaps most interestingly, failed risk-takers are generally advantaged relative to risk-avoiders in regard to promotion and leadership,” they found. “Through its intimate connection with entrepreneurialism, risk-taking signals a plucky agency and confidence.” The researchers attribute this result in part due to organizations encouraging their workers to overcome risk-aversion and take risks, and connecting significant rewards to such behaviors to drive positive outcomes, such as innovation, for the organization.
Weighing the cost/benefit
Zimmerman does her own careful calculation when she encounters an opportunity to stretch or stay put both professionally and personally.
“The reason I’m in the career and job I’m in today is because I took a risk,” she said. She started her career right out of college as an event planner and eventually moved into a position with an advertising agency, living and working in New York City. “I was enjoying my work, making some money and felt in a groove as a young professional,” she said. But then she noticed major opportunities opening up for people who had completed graduate studies.
“I left a job I was doing well at and enjoying to go back to school for an MBA, which meant living in Manhattan with no job, but it completely changed the trajectory of my career,” Zimmerman said.
Further on in her career at PepsiCo, she made a bold move out of marketing and into a position with the insights team. “I worried if I’d be able to keep up with people who had been doing this kind of work for years, whether I’d be able to get back to brand marketing if that’s where I wanted to be, and if it would slow my career in any way. In reality, the opportunity helped me become a more consumer-centric marketer, enabled me to learn from other experts and helped me forge important new relationships.”
Helpful questions
Too often, we ask ourselves counter-productive questions when considering a new opportunity. Instead of imagining all the ways things could go wrong, consider taking a more realistic perspective with these targeted questions that Zimmerman often relies on.
Will taking this risk or making this stretch enable me to learn something new and build new skills?
Will making this move set me up for another move I want to make in the future?
Am I feeling stymied and stuck with the status quo and not driving the results I want?
How big is the upside if I succeed in this new endeavor?
Do I have a support system and safety net in place that will help me through if things don’t work out?
Is this a strategic move for me that will enable me to build on my unique gifts, skills and characteristics in an authentic way?
“I’m typically not even displeased with the outcome even if it’s not the one I expected or wanted because you always learn something,” Zimmerman concludes. “Even just having greater confidence and pride in the fact that you took a bold and proactive step. And other people notice that too.”
WFF’s monthly Exchange Networks connect members with inspiring peers and role models and include live moderated Q&A with an industry leader on Zoom followed by focused networking in small breakout groups hosted via Mixtoz. REGISTER now for the August 16 Exchange Network, Cultivating a Growth Mindset.

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