Originally published 12/9/10
Let me start this post with a disclaimer -- this was one of the tactics used by political neutrals that I was probably the worst at. I've always been a gambler, knowing that some of my bets would probably not pay off. In some organizational cultures, that would probably be okay, but it sure provides a lot of cannon fodder for your political opponents. When you live in an organization that is very risk averse, its a prescription for self-destruction. So here I can only say -- do what I say, but not what I've done.
If you're climbing the corporate ladder, you're not going to move up without some big accomplishments to point to -- at least not very far. While early in a career, the promise of greatness is enough to create opportunities, by mid-career, people expect to see an impressive track record. You won't have one, however, if you don't take some risks.
Risks themselves range anywhere from the foolish -- the low probability of success but high reward -- to the nearly sure thing. I'm going to suggest that if you want to survive and thrive, you look as much as possible for sure things, and studiously avoid any risk with a low or even moderate probability of success.
Risk profiles -- the capacity, or even enjoyment of risk taking -- vary from person to person, and represent a personal bias toward risk-taking behaviors:
At one end of the spectrum are the conservatives -- managers who try to avoid risk taking to the maximum degree possible. They might only be provoked into accepting one risky project or goal per year, or even less if they can get away with it. Their biggest problem is without a higher degree of risk taking, they aren't likely to build an impressive track record.
At the other extreme are gamblers -- managers who love to agree to high targets, and put a lot of balls in the air at all at once. Generally, they're betting that more of the risks will result in successes than in failures, and that they'll be rewarded. Their biggest problem comes when too many things go south all at once. That's when they'll end up losing their status or their job.
The easiest way to have your cake and eat it too, is to be personally conservative with a harem full of risk takers working for you that you can sacrifice when things go wrong -- but that's a power player tactic known as scapegoating. If you're going to remain a neutral, how do you position yourself along the risk spectrum in order to succeed?
The answer will depend somewhat on the corporate environment where you find yourself, but all other things being equal, I recommend you stay at the conservative end of the risk-taking range you see among your peers. Why? Because relative gamblers rarely have much longevity. Eventually too many risks blow up on them simultaneously, and they flame out. Gamblers are also perfect victims for power players who use scapegoating.
But you can be too conservative as well, appearing to be so afraid to try anything that you just muddle along. People in this profile often last, but rarely progress in their careers.
So, in summary, know you're own risk taking profile -- it will identify the bias you will need to fight against. Observe the spectrum of risk taking among peers, and pick a position that is on the conservative end for your organization. Finally, try to find the surest risks you can take.