The Winter Olympics and Risk in the Workplace

I’m an unabashed Olympics fan. Years of training, sacrifice by entire families—or in some cases, maybe entire communities—all come down to a few weeks every four years.

For some athletes, their moment of glory came when they walked in the opening ceremonies. Their wins came in representing their nation and sport. These aren’t physically bearing their nation’s expectations on their shoulders (or in Tonga’s case, not even bearing a shirt).

Other athletes enter the game with the weight of huge expectations in the forms of world records or past Olympic medals; or perhaps, this is their last chance and they finally made it to the world’s greatest sporting stage. They have simply minutes to put years of training into work, with little control over factors like wind, weather, or the amount of sleep they got the night before. It all comes down to their short-lived event.

This Olympics, I’m riveted by the snowboard and skiing events. Add in crazy winds and changes in time, and the drama is thick enough that Netflix just picked it up for a series.

The skiers or snowboarders must overcome circumstances beyond their control (and sometimes just being “hangry”) to focus and nail their event. Speed and form are both factors, and a wrong move could ruin an entire race.

But my favorite of these Alpine events are the ones where athletes get more than one “run” down the mountain. This year, snowboarding and some skiing events got three runs, an increase from two runs in Sochi four years ago.

Three runs releases pressure. Chloe Kim nailed her first halfpipe run. She knew gold was in sight. So, for her second run, she took risks and tried to nail additional tricks. She didn’t nail all of them, but she was fine because she knew she had a third run to go with the moves she knew she could land.

Are you giving your employees the gift of a third run? If they have already proven themselves and scored that 98.9, why not let them go for an aerial jump they’ve never tried? Do your employees feel like they can safely take a risk and still come back and win gold on the third run? Here are questions to ask yourself if you’re trying to make space for risk at work.

1. Do my employees see me taking risks?

You could have offered a brilliant and risky strategy to your manager that led to success, or maybe failure. Do your employees know about it? Make a point to show them that you are looking for smart risks to take in your own role, so they know it’s safe to do the same.

2. Do my employees have time to think creatively about (possibly risky) ideas and solutions?

You can encourage risk-taking with your words, but if you don’t create time in the week for your employees to discover new ideas and to try new concepts, then it’s all just talk.

3. If an employee offers a risky idea that won’t fly, how do I encourage them to take another risk?

Perhaps an employee asks if they can change a process or try entering a new market. You know that senior management won’t approve it, but you don’t want to discourage the employee. Be as open as you can about why you can’t approve that risk and offer to brainstorm with them about other ideas.

4. When my employee does fail, how do I help him or her back on their feet to try again?

It’s heartbreaking to watch a skier crash from an equipment failure. But they must get back up and try again, and they might still get the gold. The same goes for your employees.

5. Do I reward and track the risks my employees take?

Maybe you give a quarterly “Red Bull” award to the employee who takes the biggest risks or spend a few minutes at the weekly team meeting asking for updates from each team member on the risks they’re currently working on. Show that you value risks, if they are informed ones.

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