Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What Do You Have to Lose?

“Wildland fire operations have inherent risks that cannot be eliminated, even in the best of circumstances.” (Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 10)

So does what you have to lose way more heavily on what you have to gain when making decisions on the fireline? Are you quick with decisions or more methodical in your approach? Do you embrace risk?

I’ve heard a lot of talk recently about whether we as a wildland fire service have created a culture where leaders are somewhat reluctant to make timely decisions in an environment filled with inherent risks. Has the liability insurance buzz and focus on risk caused our culture to become overly cautious and less courageous in our decision making?

In no way am I minimizing the importance of one’s duty to properly refuse risk, mitigate risk, or acknowledge the need to expect the unexpected. I am only posing the question of whether our focus on risk mitigation has influenced our ability to make courageous and timely decisions.

Heidi Grant Halvorson provides great insight into this topic in her HBR blog article “Getting Others to Embrace Risk,” She attests that “Americans in general are becoming more timid with regard to risk and focused much more on what we have to lose than on what we might gain.” She presents two types of risk takers:

  • Prevention-focused (what we have to lose) – those focused on security, avoiding mistakes, and fulfilling responsibilities
  • Promotion-focused (what we have to gain) – those focused on getting ahead, maximizing your potential, and reaping the rewards

So how do these focuses affect decision making?

  • Prevention focus - avoiding loss leads to accuracy, careful deliberation, thoroughness, and a strong preference for “the devil you know”
  • Promotion focus – potential gain leads to speed, creativity, innovation, and embracing risk

What do you think? Should our decision makers be more prevention or promotion focused? Should we as an organization acknowledge the inherent elements of risk and focus our efforts on teaching our leaders how to properly embrace risk?

“Research shows that even the most timid, prevention-minded person among us will gladly take a risk, once you help him understand why it would be a greater risk not to.” – Heidi Grant Halvorson

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