In her book, You Unstuck, leadership expert and executive coach Libby Gill writes about how people can master new rules for taking risks. THRIVE recently talked with Gill about how business executives can apply her advice so they can turn off the “fear voices” and take the risks necessary to successfully transform into a fully digital business.
Q: It can be hard for business leaders to be risk takers, especially when they have to answer to so many people: shareholders, customers, employees, even partners and competitors. Is there a right mix of risk-taking and proceed-with-caution that leaders should strive for?
A: Even when business is good, if leaders are not thinking about how it can be even better, they’ve already lost their competitive edge to companies that are thinking about the future in terms of both processes and people. While it’s critical to consider the downside of any significant risk, business leaders can’t let fear of failure stop them from taking reasonable risks.
Do your due diligence to determine the upside as well as the downside of any risk you’re considering. Start by asking yourselves:
- Will this risk make us more profitable?
- Will it help us be more agile?
- Will it improve customer service?
- Will it make our employees’ work experience more positive?
Once you’ve considered the variables and determined that the potential upside substantially outweighs the downside, it’s time to start taking action.
As humans, we are hardwired to avoid danger or even perceived danger as part of our innate survival instinct.
Q: What advice do you have for business executives who may be reticent about taking necessary risks?
A: Executives need to understand that, as humans, we are hardwired to avoid danger or even perceived danger as part of our innate survival instinct. The brain’s fear center, called the amygdala, is activated whenever we stray from the proven path. Our finely tuned “negativity bias” keeps us on the lookout for anything new or different, which our brain interprets as inherently risky.
But perceived danger is not the same as actual danger. When we recognize the signs of fight or flight — from racing heart to sweaty palms to butterflies — as a part of our physiological early warning system and arm ourselves with hard data from our due diligence, we are in a far better place to make an informed decision rather than give in to unfounded fears.
Q: What are some of the best ways business leaders can help their employees engage in activities that encourage them to rethink risks and turn off the “fear voices” so they are more creative and productive?
A: In a study at Emory University in Atlanta, subjects were hooked up to an MRI machine to scan their brain activity and were told they would be given an electric shock, not deadly but definitely unpleasant. But before they even received the shock, the fear centers of their brains lit up, showing that it was the fear of pain rather than the pain itself they were reacting to. Additionally, the researchers found that when the fear centers were activated, the risk-taking and exploration centers of the brain were turned off. Instead of succumbing to those fear voices, try these tips:
- Spend the time finding out what’s on people’s minds and what changes they feel are important. Once your coworkers know, like and trust you, change gets a lot easier.
- Remember change is not a project, it’s a mind-set. While it’s okay to acknowledge people’s doubts and insecurities, it’s your job as a change leader to role-model that change as an opportunity for growth.
- Be patient. Real change takes time and effort, which can take a toll on those who are constantly beating the drum for new ideas. But hang in there, stay positive, solicit the support of like-minded people — and let everyone else catch up!
Remember change is not a project, it’s a mind-set.
Q: Change is hard, and digital transformation is all about change. What tips do you have for business executives as they lead their companies through digital transformation?
A: When faced with change, whether it’s new people, systems or technology, employees often feel out of control. Everything they’re used to is being taken away — at least, that’s what it feels like — and they’re given a new set of expectations that requires them to shift their mind-sets and wade into a whole new reality.
When leaders communicate — clearly and often — what the anticipated benefits of change will be, rather than just dictate the actions required to make those changes, employees are armed with information about where all this change is meant to take them. By creating a visceral picture of a positive future, backed up with context and plenty of meaningful communication, employees are far more willing to jump on board and become change agents themselves.
Libby Gill is an executive coach, leadership expert, and international speaker. She is the former head of communications and PR for Sony, Universal, and Turner Broadcasting. Author of award-winning You Unstuck: Mastering the New Rules of Risk-taking in Work and Life. Her latest book is The Hope-Driven Leader: Harness the Power of Positivity at Work. You can learn more about Libby’s work at www.LibbyGill.com.