Crossing the canyon… with multiple steps

7 12 2010

Risk, risk-profile, risk-averse, appetite for risk are all terms that get bandied about, and which tend to divide the world into those who will and those who won’t…well, risk! And I am not for a moment suggesting there isn’t an element of truth in this dichotomy; some people don’t like taking risks, period. But a more fundamental division may be around how we take on risk and, fundamentally, what taking risks means to us.

The Birkman Method includes a behavioural component called Challenge. It doesn’t, as you might imagine, measure whether or not you take on Challenges, but rather how you do so; and as such is an indicator of the attitude to risk I mentioned above.

People with a high score on Challenge are only as good as their last performance; furthermore, they are what they achieve (or attempt) and therefore to grow as a human being (which matters a lot to them) they need to be achieving new things. Success matters, but they don’t necessarily expect it the first time they attempt something.

People with a low score on Challenge know they are great at what they do. Growing as a human being is doubtless an incremental thing that comes with building success upon success. Here’s the thing: for low Challenge people, things they have never tried before are not obviously contributing to their growth – because they carry a heightened risk of failure. Failure diminishes success.

Can you see the difference: for one group, trying new things, despite the risk of failure, is where growth comes from; for the other group, trying new things increases the risk of failure and therefore is less likely to contribute to growth (developement, advancement etc). Here is what is fascinating: low Challenge people may take on huge risks; but unlike high (especially very high) Challenge people, they won’t take them on in a risky manner. They will instead do everything in their power to ensure that risk is managed (actually, that risk gets wrestled to the ground, cuffed and locked away in a maximum security cell with a double guard at all times).

Here is the practical application: throw away some of those one-size fits all management approaches.

“You must cross a canyon in a single bound.” Great idea for high Challenge people, bad idea if you are managing low Challenge. Low Challenge version is “to cross the canyon, find or build stepping stones at manageable intervals”.

“I always push people outside their comfort zone.” Good idea for high Challenge (they will thank you) but not for low (who may end up hating you). Low Challenge version is “I like to lead people a step at a time out of their comfort zone”.

Now you may be thinking that this is all very well, but progress clearly depends on High Challenge people who try new things. Funnily enough, the easiest way to recognise Low Challenge people is that they have gravitas, exude quiet self-confidence and tend to over-achieve. Or at least, that is how you will perceive them; High Challenge people will seem more driven and less consistently successful – even though thay may achieve exactly the same amount. It is how they do it that differs…




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