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Risk taking: a supervisory imperative.

Risk has a bad reputation because it can be taken to connote stress. When properly defined, the author asserts, it is a crucial and inescapable element of effective management.

The word "risk" sends shock waves up and down the hierarchical network of health care institutions. A great deal of time and expense is allocated to reducing risk. Efforts include credentialing, certification, preventive maintenance, preventive medicine, safety policies, infection surveillance, environmental testing, and quality assurance--all intended to reduce risk. Risk managers and patient representatives scurry about trying to avert possible medicolegal problems.

While all this is going on, we are advised by organizational theorists and pundits that if we want to be winners we must be risk takers and should encourage risk taking by our associates. "What I need," wrote on such expert, "are people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and take risks." [1]

Let's make it clear that the risks addressed here are not those that pose threats to patients' well-being or to employee safety. The risks we will discuss relate directly to supervisory actions, career development, and organizational function.

How important is risk taking? According to Burley-Allen, knowing when and how to take risks is among the most useful skills supervisors can cultivate. [2] Experts concur. Metzger rates risk taking as one of the seven most important leadership traits. Two others on his list, decision making and willingness to accept mistakes, also involve risk. [3]

* Who risk takers are. People vary markedly in their willingness to take risks. Risk is a matter of balancing the risk of failure and the reward of success. [1] All leaders take some risks. Autocratic leaders, by making all the decisions and shunning input from others, assume complete responsibility for their actions. Delegate leaders assume responsibility for the actions of others. Top performers show the greatest tendency to take risks, while low-level performer look for security. [4] Risk takers, within limits, make the best supervisors in departments where technology and services are very fluid. [5] On the other hand, reckless risk takers--the "fast-draw" artists--take unnecessary risks, putting themselves, their bosses, their departments, and their employers in jeopardy.

Risk takers strive for achievement and being the best they can. [4] They enjoy work for its own sake and care less about security. They take risks without even seeing them as risky. [6] They show the flexibility needed to cope with change. They have high self-esteem and self-confidence. They regard mistakes as learning experiences. They are optimists.

Psychological research shows that group make riskier decisions than the individuals of the groups would have recommended separately. Apparently, sharing responsibility reduces risk in the participants' minds. As one writer put it, "What's everybody's responsibility is nobody's responsibility." [7]

* Avoidance. An observer of risk has noted, "Those who play it safe may survive in the organization, but who'll know they're there?" [3] In some organizations, the people who get ahead are those who are the most cautious. Risk avoiders are safe players who resist making decisions without first exploring every nook and cranny for bugs. They hesitate to commit themselves to new objetives and plans. [7] risk avoiders tend to be nonassertive of introverted. resist change, pass the buck, and procrastinate.

Risk avoiders are said to be more difficult to manage, but their resistance may be beneficial. Their attitude may simply represent a cautious, meticulous, and thorough approach, a strength to be put to good use. [7] They make great devil's advocates.

Comments often heard from risk avoiders: "You didn't give me the go-ahead." "That's not in my position description." "That's not what I'm paid to do." "We never did it that way." "I assumed that someome else had that responsibility." In some highly competitive organizations, a risk avoider may urge others to take risks, they try to make them look stupid.

We all have a tendency to avoid risks because failure hurts. Avoidance of risk may be based on previous negative experience or lack of trust on the part of our superiors. However, risk avoidance guarantees boredom, frustration, and stagnation. [4]

Women are said to be less willing to take risks than men. This is often attributed to the observation that women are not encouraged to feel that risk taking is acceptable. Women executives often regret not having taken more risks. [8]

* Motivation. Managers must be willing to experiment and take risks when planning and implementing new motivational strategies. Delegation presents risks both in the selection of delegates and in being accountable for their performance.

When employees are encouraged to take risks and are given the necessary support, their motivation and commitment increase. [9] The degree of difficulty of achieving goals is a significant factor. Goals should be challenging but achievable. Motivation occurs when the chance of success is high--about 75%. When that ratio is less than 50/50, the goal becomes incapacitating.

* Customer service. Serving customers well demands risk taking. Taking risks is the only way employees can provide effective and efficient client service. [10]

Employees must be empowered to make decisions when dealing with physicians and other clients. For example, if Dr. Smith requests a test that's not on the Sunday menu, may the technologist on duty decide whether or not the test can be done, or will it be necessary to contact a supervisor?

* Decision making. Even the simplest of decision-making situations provides at least two choices: to decide or not to decide. Not to decide may be riskier than making a poor decision. Because no information is perfect, elements of risk and uncertainty always pertaian in a decision-making situation. [11]

* Setting limits. Laboratorians interact with demanding and persuasive people just about every day. When they fail to set limits, they can be fairly sure that they will be taken advantage of. Lab employees must be able to say no. [2] It's easy for a pathologist, for example, to neglect her primary responsibilities by spending too much time serving on committees for which she volunteered.

* Career development. Risk taking and autonomy are essential to advancement. Even sitting pat involves risk; the job may become obsolete around you.

Preparing for the future forces many decisions to be made, some requiring considerable time, expense, and sacrifice. Figure I is a representative list of supervisory activities that involve substantial risk. Some risk is involved in almost everything we do.

* Personal risk taking. Dale Carnegie wrote, "Take a chance. The man who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The 'sure thing' boat never gets far from shore." [4]

Establish a support system through networking. Include at least one mentor. Risk taking is difficult unless you have someone to turn to. [8] Don't take too many risks for others; learn from others' mistakes. Weigh potential problems and losses against potential gains. [4] Relax, enjoy, and learn from your risks. [4] If your boss won't let you take risks, you may have to move on. [8]

* Encouraging risk. Service leaders use many different strategies to get their employees to take risk and to empower them to do so. [10] Include "willingness to take risks" among job qualifications in position descriptions. Emphasize innovation and resourcefulness when orienting new employees. Teach the skills necessary for intelligent risk taking. [9]

Show employees how to avoid foolish risks. Similarly, refuse to tolerate repeats of the same errors. Give your staff all the information they need. People are more willing to take risks when they know as much as possible about what is involved. In addition, let them know what actions are reversible and which are not. A decision believed to be irreversible takes twice as long to make as one that can be changed. [9]

Allow your staff members the leeway to be wrong and to realize that intelligent mistakes are part of the price one must pay for personal and departmental growth and progress. Use yourself as an example. Talk openly about errors you have made. [4] Some managers unreasonably expect subordinates to achieve every goal or delegated responsibility regardless of mitigating circumstances. This practice results in employees' selecting goals that are devoid of challenge. Such employees become reluctant delegates.

Do what you can to insure quick successes at the beginning. Early success encourages risk taking. Reluctant risk takers need to taste success. Place minimal restrictions on delegated authority. Don't be overcautious or overprotective. [8] Get upset when you hear subordinates tell laboratory customers, "I can't do anything about that" or "I'll have to check with my supervisor."

* Moral support. Kirby recommends, asking reluctant staff members to write down five risks they have taken in their lives and picking out which turned out successfully versus those that could be labeled failures. Usually most are seen as successes. [9]

When people goof, have them criticize their own work before you do. This exercise will encourage them to look at their actions from various angles while sharpening their risk-taking skills for the next time. Intentionally or unintentionally punishing employees for making mistakes inhibits risk taking. [9]

Converting risk avoiders is not easy and takes time and patience. Gradually raise your level of expectations. Increasingly emphasize goal achievement. [7]

* Barriers. Avoidance of risk may be based on previous negative experience or lack of trust of a supervisor. Assigned risky tasks may be perceived as a threat. [7] Blame keeps people from taking risks. Lack of confidence or assertiveness is a powerful deterrent. Beliefs and assumptions can get in the way of risk taking -- the belief that good work will always be rewarded, for example, and the assumption that a specific proposal will receive a negative response. [2]

* Voice of judgment. If you have trouble taking risks, you are probably afraid of something that exists only in your subconscious mind. You have turned to the voice of judgment we all have within. [6] Don't listen to it!

* Minimizing (bad) risk. Delineate the problem before jumping to solutions. Pay attention to intuitive warnings. Analyze risks. Investigate each alternative carefully. In comparing the relative risk of your choices, determine and compare their probability and seriousness. [12]

Don't make the same mistake twice. Involve others, especially your superiors, in the decision. Be ready with backup strategies.

It pays to take a periodic look at our own risk-taking temperament and of the attitude of those who report to us. Doing so may reveal the need to make some changes.

William O. Umiker, a member of MLO's Editorial Advisory Board, is professor of pathology at Hershey Medical Center, Pennsylvania State University Hershey, Pa.

[1] Heirs, B., and Farrell, P. "The Professional Decision Maker." New York, Dodd, Mead, 1986.

[2] Burley-Allen, M. "Managing Assertively: How to Improve Your People Skills." New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1983.

[3] Metzger, N. "Handbook of Health Care Human Resources Management." Rockville, Md., Aspen, 1981.

[4] LeBoeuf, M. "The Greatest Management Principle in the World." New York, Berkley Books, 1985.

[5] Bittel, L. "What Every Supervisor Should Know," 5th ed. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1985.

[6] Ray, M., and Myers, R. "Creativity in Business." Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1986.

[7] Giegold, W.C. "Practical Management Skills for Engineers and Scientists. "Belmont, Calif., Lifetime Learning, 1982.

[8] Hegarty, C. "How to Manage Your Boss." Mill Valley, Calif., Whatever Publishing Co., 1982.

[9] Kirby T. "The Can-Do Manager." New York, AMACOM, 1989.

[10] Davidow, W.H., and Uttal, B.K. "Total Customer Service: The Ultimate Weapon." New York, Harper and Row, 1989.

[11] McConnell, C.R. "The Effective Health Care Supervisor." Rockville, Md., Aspen, 1988.

[12] Plunkett, L.C., and Hale, G.A. "The Proactive Manager: The Complete Book of Problem Solving and Decision Making." New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1982.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Umiker, William O.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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