God Help Your Risk Takers…

Recent studies show that references to God in prompts to survey subjects lead them to take on more risky behaviors. This can have interesting implications for your strategy.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve seen multiple references to the need for leaders to underwrite risks and back their people.  I’ve cast this as the need for leaders to say “I’ve got your back.”

Here’s a post that goes into that concept in some depth.

Now, researchers at Stanford University have published studies that show people seeking more risk when they are reminded of God before making a choice between lower risk behaviors and higher risk behaviors.

Here’s a link to an article that outlines the findings.

The researchers posed various choices between higher risk and lower risk behaviors, and varied whether there were subtle references to God in the prompt.  For instance, an ad for skydiving might say, “Find skydiving near you!” or it might read, “God knows what you are missing. Find skydiving near you!”

The studies also differentiated between high risk behaviors in a moral sense and high risk behaviors in a non-moral sense.  Prior studies have shown that religious people tend to take fewer “moral” risks than non-religious people.

The summary of the study is this:

“…people are willing to take [more] risks because they view God as providing security against potential negative outcomes.”

Some implications for the strategist and leader:

The gist of this study is that when people believe they have some backing, even by supernatural forces, they are willing to do “more” than they otherwise would.

They view the security as valuable.

A few implication come to mind:

1.  People will take more risks if they know somebody is underwriting it, even (and especially?) God – You and I need to be good at letting people know when we have their backs.  Simple phrases like, “I know this is a risk, but it’s one that I’m taking, not you” can go a long way to putting people’s minds on business strategy instead of survival strategy.

2.  The source of risk backing has to be credible to the person taking the risk – It’s not enough for you and me as strategists and leaders to know that we have the backs of the people taking risks for us…we have to show, credibly, that we have sponsored others through tough risks and failure.  Religions form around stories;  so does your risk taking (or risk-averse) culture.

3. People have to be reminded – It’s important for people to know constantly that risk taking is backed by someone or something. In the study referenced above, people made marginally different choices by merely being prompted with the word “God.”  In your organization, simple prompts make that much difference.  When people are contemplating risks in your organization, do the prompts come with “I’ve got your back,” or do they come with “You’d better not mess it up…”?

All of this matters for you and me as leaders and as strategists.

Strategies involve taking risk.  Otherwise, they aren’t really a strategy.

They also involve people taking risks on behalf of the company and themselves.

Unless, and until, we get good at being clear on the risks we expect other people to take, and have credibility on the point, our people will take fewer risks.

Compound that with the converse situation that tends to get more play at the water cooler in risk averse cultures–namely, constant references to the negative things that happen to risk takers–and the leverage of a few simple words and actions becomes clear.

God help your risk takers…

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