by Steve Adubato, PhD

At a recent leadership seminar, the CEO of a metropolitan area hospital talked about the need for his people to "think and act outside the box." While his hospital had made great strides in terms of patient satisfaction and increased revenues, the CEO still wasn't satisfied. He wanted his people to "take more risks" and not be restricted by the organizational chart when it came to their day-to-day activities.

When asked about this, the CEO responded, "We have to start breaking down the silos. The only way for us to achieve our strategic objectives is for people to start taking real risks. We can't afford to have people saying things like, 'That's not my job.'"

This ambitious hospital CEO is not alone. Organizational leaders of all stripes say they want their people to "think and act outside the box." While everyone talks about risk taking, employees who actually have to take the risks are often reluctant to do so. Why is that? If real leadership sometimes requires the taking of smart and calculated risks, why are there so many barriers and obstacles to making this happen? Consider the following:

--Employees aren't really convinced that senior organizational leaders want them to take risks. They hear the rhetoric, but aren't sure that their bosses will still stand behind them if the risk goes bad and things don't turn out right. (Particularly when it involves money.) The rhetoric around risk taking is easy. The reality of its implementation is a lot more complex.

--All the horror stories about someone who took a risk and got his head handed to him. Organizational culture is shaped largely by these stories. No matter what a CEO says about the need to take risks, it is this narrative of horror stories that shapes people's attitudes.

--Not enough success stories of people who took risks. If people can't readily identify others around them who have thought and acted outside the box and who were recognized for it, it can be really tough to get people to "buy in." Organizations need to recognize and celebrate risk taking through newsletters, organizational meetings and every day office water cooler banter.

--Even if upper management really wants people to take risks, sometimes middle managers are resistant to it. If an employee does something creative that falls outside his job description, and his direct supervisor gives him hell, then it doesn't matter what the CEO says. The employee doesn't interact with the CEO on a day-to-day basis. He deals with a direct supervisor. Upper management needs to be aware of these organizational mixed messages and then penalize those who hinder the empowerment of employees who are willing to take risks.

--FEAR. Fear of failure. Fear of succeeding. Fear that as a risk taker you will be perceived as "kissing up" to upper management. ("What are you trying to do, make the rest of us look bad?") In unhealthy organizations, being a team player sometimes means promoting and perpetuating the status quo. Where this is the case, risk taking will undoubtedly be the exception.

--Employees aren't clear on the organization's top priorities and strategic objectives. People need to know that the benefit derived from the risk they take will be directly connected to the goals that are most important to the organization. If those goals are unclear, employees will be reluctant to take risks because they aren't sure how the risk is connected to the bigger picture.