Punish inaction, not failure

I enjoy volunteering in the local Scout Troop as a Crew Advisor to the young men. That being said, I am not so hardcore that I wear a uniform at every meeting, nor am I so lax that I like to push over rock formations in Goblin Valley just for kicks and giggles. I simply remember all the valuable life lessons I learned in Scouts and wanted to pay it forward by interacting with the local youth, encouraging them to develop responsibility and successful adult traits.

Yet one concerning theme I keep coming across in my interactions with these youth is something I call “Choice-averse” behavior. This goes well beyond the more commonly understood risk-averse nature some people tend to carry. These choice-averse natures don’t even play the game for fear of failure. It’s almost as if general expectations for youth have diminished to the point where society incentivizes inaction over pursuing any sort of serious challenge. But this issue isn’t present only among the younger generation…

I see the exact same dilemma occurring in my industry along with many others: the overwhelming temptation to rest on one’s laurels, protect the status quo, and avoid making the tough decisions to stay relevant in such a rapidly changing world. All too often I see the everyday business-person go through something like this:

Thriving on Risk Comic (Credit to the Boston Globe)

Thriving on Risk? (Credit to the Boston Globe)

As much as we might claim to be bold, innovative, or risk-takers, the simple fact of environmental pressures clearly incentivize protectionist, risk-averse behavior. The case is even more true when you have more to lose, whether it be your professional reputation or financial losses. The reason behind this phenomenon ties back to company and societal culture: we all view our lives as “too big to fail.” We all tend to deem failure in an initiative as the end result and not a step in the journey toward progression. If we punish the failure, either directly through cuts or indirectly through withdrawn support, we continue to encourage this counterproductive approach to behavior.

In general economic theory, there are three defined degrees of approaches to managing risk: risk-averse, risk-neutral, and risk-loving. When you pull back to a more holistic view, you also start to see a fourth state: we become choice-averse by not engaging in the decision process at all. Yet those in such a state often overlook the opportunity costs and unintended side effects of choosing not to choose.

Given my background in music and the violin, I am often reminded of another appropriate analogy presented by Brad Wilcox, a motivational speaker. He speaks of a student trying to learn the piano, but I will appease my bias and refer to a violin student. When a violinist first picks up the instrument, do they immediately play like Isaac Stern, Joshua Bell, or Itzhak Perlman? Of course not! Are they immediately ready to play in Carnegie Hall or the Sydney Opera House? Absolutely not! There is a process in developing that talent and performance capability, and it is a process that must continue throughout one’s life if there is a hope for success. The name of that process? Practice!

Albert Einstein practicing the Violin

Practice, Practice, Practice!

All too often in our work lives we consider our most rigorous training to be done and finished after college or other formal education, but that is simply not true. Our work experience combined with continued personal development can become some of the most enlightening periods of our lives. Why should we approach our professional and personal lives with a different approach from a student learning an instrument? Instead of sucuumbing to analysis paralysis to satisfy our risk-averse natures, let’s call it like we see it: stop avoiding the tough decisions and punish inaction, not failure!

Doing nothing accomplishes less

That’s not to say we do not take corrective actions when our efforts result in failure. Indeed, we have the unique opportunity to learn much more from our failures than from our successes. Improvements in preparation, planning, and execution can all positively impact our future endeavours as a result of learning from our failures. As we proactively focus our efforts on encouraging progress despite cultural perceptions of mistakes, we transform the process of making choices and making mistakes into a natural part of life.

So the next time you find yourself delaying an important decision, ask yourself if you are becoming more choice-averse than simply cautious, because the consequences for avoiding choice might be even more dangerous than making a flawed decision (e.g. the U.S. fiscal cliff).


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