Teaching how to feel safe with risk

This week an Ashridge team won a Training Journal award for our leadership development work with one of our clients, Heineken. https://www.ashridge.org.uk/executive-organisation-development/custom-programmes/case-studies/Heineken/  The essence of the programme is helping participants to experiment with different leadership styles and interventions in high stress situations, which they can do in the relatively “safe” environment away from the workplace.   This is done through a classroom simulation of an organisation in crisis, where actors play roles which create the stress. Participants wear heart-rate monitors, and are regularly evaluating their own approaches and physiological responses, as well as those of each other.  The idea is they develop a kind of muscle memory for the impact of different kinds of interventions and responses in situations involving significant personal risk.

In the introduction to my book, I state that the book is about the journey towards feeling safe with risk, which is the key to effective strategy.

[Extract from “Risky Strategy” to be published in 2016]

One of my stated aims from this book is to help leaders feel safe with risk. This is of course a paradox, yet I believe the reality is that leaders will not take the risks they need to take if they don’t feel safe in doing so.  This is looking under the bonnet of the leader, to understand what might be going on behind the scenes to support right risk taking.  Up to now we have been looking at the outward evidence of risk-taking decisions in organisations, with some exploration of what psychological factors might influence those decisions.  But the deeper issue is how risk makes you feel when you take it, particularly personal risk.

I believe at some level, right risk takers do have a mechanism for helping them to feel safe.  Part of this may indeed be the hormonal effect which not only prepares us with the capabilities to engage more effectively with risk, as in the case of testosterone, but also provides an anaesthetic to numb the fear.  This makes me think of adrenaline, and reminds me of the day my Achilles tendon snapped while playing indoor soccer. I can still remember the excruciating pain in my ankle the moment it happened, as if I had been struck there by the sharp edge of a brick that had been thrown at my foot.  Within only five or so seconds, the pain was already starting to reduce.  The adrenalin was kicking in.  Then I thought I had just been taken out with a tackle from behind. The first aider who took care of me accurately diagnosed it as an Achilles tendon going after a bit of research – no one had been anywhere near me.   But the numbing effect of the adrenalin meant I drove myself to the hospital, even though I was only able to use my heel and not the front of my foot to depress the clutch.

The idea of feeling safe with risk is one of the bases on which we have tried to offer Executive Education at Ashridge.

There is a conundrum. In traditional teaching environments, away from the buzz of everyday working life, how do we replicate the real risks that leaders face, in the relatively “safe” environment of the classroom?   Conceptualising risk for learning purposes appears to have an anaesthetising impact on our actual experience of it.  We may think our way through a case study involving risk in an abstract way, using suitable models to help us; but the emotion of risk is generally missing in a “safe” environment.  Virtually nothing we do or say in a classroom setting will put the company finances at risk, nor the health of our stakeholders, nor our own careers.  To some extent this is exactly why the “classroom” is designed to be a “safe” environment – it’s confidential, it’s safe. “What’s in the room stays in the room?”

Indeed, the  unique selling proposition for “away-from-the-workplace” learning is that it is  a safe environment in which to experiment, in which to take some ‘risks’ that participants wouldn’t normally take in the workplace.  These risks can be about exploring and articulating new ideas to colleagues, about having conversations that they wouldn’t normally have, about interacting with others in a way that may not feel comfortable.  So for some aspects of working with risk, the “classroom” offers an advantage, even if it may feel a little artificial or clinical.

But, paradoxically, if we are creating safety to work with risk, how can this be authentic?

We have successfully worked around this dilemma in our management development practice by using simulations that generate the emotion of risk.  These take the form either of team-based competitive decision making in a computerised market-place simulation over a series of rounds, or of working through specific artificial challenges working with professional actors, whose role it is to re-create some of the emotion of difficult, risky, situations.  Participants have also been asked to wear heart rate monitors over one or two days, as they work together to resolve simulated problems which may be creating tensions between individuals.    Participants are encouraged to experiment with roles which are different from those they would normally have, and with types of interventions which they would typically not employ. Their emotional responses are monitored and measured.

These programmes demonstrate that they can have a significant residual learning impact – i.e. this learning manifests itself after, not during, the experience of the programme.  Participants start to apply certain aspects of what they have experimented with on the programme back at work and they are encouraged, post programme, to reflect and to continue learning from these reflections.  They effectively build on the risk that they have already taken during the programme by applying the experiment in a real work environment.  There is effectively a physiological stress memory, reflected in the heart rate print-out, which gets replayed in the workplace.  This has been called the development of emotional muscle memory, in the same way that a tennis player only really learns how to hit an effective tennis shot when he does it automatically without having to think about it – i.e. when he has developed muscle memory.