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Maxine Attong


How to Maximize the Risk-Reward Relationship in Corporate Settings

Learn to empower your team members

Published: Monday, August 31, 2015 - 15:20

Manufacturers know the high cost of defects—the direct and indirect costs of manufacturing the recalled items, the cost to restock, the unquantifiable loss of consumers, and (at times) the need for a publicity campaign to rebuild product confidence and brand reputation. These costs provide a strong incentive for manufacturers to empower each employee on the factory floor to stop the production line when he or she sees or feels that something is wrong. Regardless of rank, line employees feel safe that there will be no reprisal, even if at the end there was no valid reason to stop the line.

The high cost of defects helps promote and support an environment in which everyone is encouraged to take responsibility for the product and given the authority to determine when quality is being compromised. This is a perfect example of a high-risk/high-reward relationship, since staff willingly engages in the high-cost risk of stopping the production line without fear, and the manufacturers benefit from reduced defects leaving the plant.

I have witnessed similar payoffs of risk-taking when working with business process improvement (BPI) teams. Each team member feels empowered to question, challenge, or debunk the existing process, to generate ideas for its redesign and to create something new. BPI teams are empowered to change policies and procedures to entrench the newly designed process.

The correlation between a sense of safety and the willingness to take appropriate risks is not limited to the quality field. In coaching and facilitated sessions, I have found that people take risks when they feel safe—just as they would on factory floor or in the BPI team. In the safety of these sessions, each person has an equal voice to discuss taboo topics, to question management’s decisions, to nurture far-fetched ideas, and to challenge the status quo without fear of repercussion. This begs the question, “What would it be like if we created safe environments that promote risk taking in organizations?

With this in mind, I collaborated with my team to create a safe space to promote a risk-taking environment on a daily basis. We co-created the rules that govern how the space operates and ensured that we had a common understanding of what the rules meant, why they were necessary, and how they would maintain the sanctity of the space. Setting up the space with team members ensures buy-in to the idea and shares the responsibility for keeping the space safe.

This is the office “Vegas.” In other words, what happens in the safe space stays in the safe space. Here, employees are free to be themselves. They can be petulant, indolent, rage at perceived wrongs, claim their ignorance, or vent their frustrations. They can build on ideas, plot career moves, or ask questions, knowing that regardless of what happens they can leave with their dignity intact. In the space, failure is redefined as a stepping stones or lesson on the road to success; as a result, team members know that if they fail, they will learn something and still have another shot at success.

The space works once confidentiality is maintained. Members will do and say things that they do not want to be reminded of, or they will have thoughts that they want to further develop and are not yet ready to share. Once there is no breach members will return to the space and keep taking risks.

This is a space of no judgment, where leaders and members hold the space for each other. They listen from a place of curiosity without attributing qualities and ask “How” and “What” questions to help each other flesh out what they are saying.

Members are asked to take personal responsibility for what they bring to the table. They are asked to speak on their own behalf, and use “I” statements when speaking. Everyone is guaranteed an ear and so each person develops a voice. There is no need to compete for space because each member gets equal opportunity to be seen and heard.

Although the team collaborates, the buck stops with the leader, whose main remit is to build trust for the space and for him- or herself. There is no nth position with trust; it waxes and wanes as the leader performs the duties. Honesty and open communication, consistent treatment of members, and consistent application of the rules build trust in the teams. When the leader makes mistakes, the team may lose some trust in that person. Although this is not a permanent situation, the leader needs to make amends and work to rebuild trust, because the more trustworthy the leader, the safer the space seems.

In the safe space I have seen team members become more confident, more willing to speak up, and more willing to take the risks that bring real benefits to the team and organization. In this space they hatch ideas and evolve these to robust projects that they tackle themselves or pass on to other teams for action. People gain skills and the knowledge they need to be promoted or to move on to the next job, either within or external to the organization. Leaders do not have to micromanage employees, nor coddle them to get results. Eventually team members hold the space for each other, freeing up the leader to pursue more strategic objectives.

Teams are made up of humans who will take great risks when they feel safe. When failure is seen as a learning opportunity and not a personal attribute, members feel free to fail and are therefore encouraged to take risks. When members are supported to understand why they failed and glean the lessons from the failure, their learning curve to succeeding gets much steeper. The safe space encourages team members to take risk because ultimately it encourages them to be wrong about stopping the production line without any form of reprisal.


About The Author

Maxine Attong’s picture

Maxine Attong

Maxine Attong has been leading small and large teams for the past two decades—both in organizational settings and in her private coaching and facilitation practice. She has helped organizations come to consensus, overcome the perils of ineffective leadership, redesign processes to suit changing environments, and manage the internal chaos inherent in strategy implementation. Attong is the author of Lead Your Team to Win: Achieve Optimal Performance By Providing A Safe Space For Employees (River Grove Books, 2014) and Change or Die: The Business Process Improvement Manual (Productivity Press, Pap/Cdr edition, 2012).


Empower vs Emancipate

Hi Maxine,

Taking your POV to the "next" [higher-order] level, I'd like to ask whether you might think/believe that a better term for what employers and/or members of an organizations management team ought to do for (as opposted to) their lower-ranking, fellow employees would be "emancipate" rather than "empower?"  Why might I ask that question you wonder?  Well, if we look at the dictionary defintion for each term this is what we find:

> empower - 1:  to give official authority or legal power to <empowered her attorney to act on her behalf>; 2:  enable; 3:  to promote the self-actualization or influence of

> emancipate - 1:  to free from restraint, control, or the power of another; especially :  to free from bondag; 2:  to release from paternal care and responsibility and make sui juri; 3:  to free from any controlling influence (as traditional mores or beliefs)

In the context of attempting to motivate employees to perform at their utmost in the work environment, the word "empower" might be appropriate when it comes to promoting and/or influencing an individual's self-actualization.  HOWEVER, it also connotes a transfer of "POWER" (i.e., controlling influence over another) from a higher-ranking role to a lower-ranking role.  And IF we (all human beings) are to buy-into the old, traditional notion of a hierarchically-structured, and command-and-control driven organizational structure, then such use of the word "empower" may be appropriate.

On the other hand, IF we are inclined to embrace and pursue a more apt and progressive perspective on what constitutes the "best" (i.e., most competitive and sustainable) type of work environment, then we might want to reconsider the terminology we employ relative to how members of organization's management hierarchy respond to other members of the organization.  In this regard, IF there is a recognition of the need for and value in having all employees exercise their utmost "discretionary" (as opposed to minimum acceptable) behavior while on the job, then it might be more appropriate to make use of the term "emancipate."  In this regard, employees are NOT being given (on a temporary or adhoc basis) the power to do what might be expected of them.  Rather, by emancipating them, they are being give the FREEDOM to exercise their own free will in deciding to what extent they are willing and able to make the maximum contribution they can in the pursuit and subsequent attainment of an organization's mission (i.e., purpose or reason for an organization's being/existence - and BTW that has nothing to do with shareholders), vision (i.e., how the organization views its longer-term/future-state/foreseeable destiny and the sort of individual and collective behaviors needed to turn that vision into a reality), and objectives (i.e., those performance objectives that can and will serve as indicators of progress toward that desired/targetted future-state).

In other words, organizations that are most likely to consistently perform at levels superior to their competition and sustain a leadership position within their industry/industries over an extended period of time (i.e., a hundred or more years) are the ones capable of unleashing the maximum discretionary behavior of ALL their employees.  In so doing, they are ones most likely to embrace what's known as a "leader-leader" modus operandi versus the traditional "leader-follower" modus operandi.  Under the former (as opposed to the latter), each employee - regardless of rank or position within an organization's hierarchy - is groomed/supported so as to not only be capable of leadership behavior whenever necessary, but also is encouraged to exercise that behavior whenever and wherever needed.  That said, the best leaders are those who know when and how to lead and when and how to follow.  And the best way to pursue and attain this higher-order capability is to free employees from the schackles of the old/out-dated/out-moded management paradigms.  And to my way of thinking, using the term "empower" is out-dated/out-moded.