Leadership Playbook Excerpt
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Take smart risks with your employees to unlock their full potential. If they successfully reach a difficult goal, they’ll feel more masterful and you will have a more valuable employee.

Overview

Give them a goal that’s aggressive but attainable, and grant them the autonomy necessary to attain the goal however they see fit. This motivates people to become better at their job while increasing their attachment to the success of the team.

Why You Should Encourage Employees to Take Smart Risks

Taking smart risks with employees motivates them to develop new skills beyond those required by their current job. Choosing the right person and the right tasks with which you take a risk will give you an employee you can trust with delegated responsibilities. This alleviates your own workload as a company leader and helps build up a future leader.

How to Take Smart Risks with Employees

Identify a task or objective that you feel is very important to the business. Ideally, this task should be something that falls outside the day-to-day work of the employee you’re working with. You should be stretching their skills and knowledge just a bit beyond their proven track record.

Once you identify the proper task, discuss the opportunity with your employee. Outline the goal or objective of the work, any constraints they must work within, and the expected outcomes for the business upon their successful completion of the task. Only delegate the task to the employee if they will commit to taking it on after understanding the expected outcomes and risks associated with the work.

Also keep in mind that not all smart risks originate from you. The employee may identify opportunities to take smart risks on their own. You can identify these instances when an employee expresses disappointment or criticism of processes, business problems, or situations with customers or stakeholders. In those instances, ask the employee if they think there is something that can be done to improve the undesirable effects they see. If they see opportunities for improvement, ask them to take charge on improving the situation.

Throughout the employee’s risk-taking work, check in regularly (perhaps daily or multiple times a day!). Regular check-ins demonstrate the work’s importance to you, gives the employee opportunities to raise red flags early, and gives you the opportunity to support the employee in completing novel or extraordinary work.

Expected Results

Employees who are given the autonomy to take smart risks will feel a greater sense of ownership and confidence in their work. Also, they will feel empowered to make positive improvements in the workplace. Taking smart risks on an employee means entrusting them with something important to you or important to the business. Therefore, taking smart risks also increases employees’ sense of purpose.

The following video interview segment further describes the benefits of taking smart risks and its impact on employee growth, diversity, and inclusion.

Example

Alice, a product manager at a toy company, is speaking with Bob, a materials engineer, about his niche engineering interests. She realizes what Bob is really passionate about could become a best-in-class product offering for the company, but manufacturing would be an expensive endeavor.

Bob: I found that with my new formula, we can make what I call Sticky Slime. It’s 200% stickier and 50% slimier than other toy slime products. I make small batches for neighborhood kids every summer. They get a real kick out of tossing it at things outside and seeing what it sticks to.

Alice: Hey, have you ever considered turning that into a product? If it’s as good as you say it is, it’d probably become the best-selling toy slime in no time.

Bob: Well, that’d be amazing, but it’s frankly pretty expensive to make. Even at scale, I’m not sure we’d get the material costs low enough to make it something people would buy. Large-scale production might get the cost down 40%, but we’d need to cut cost by about 80% to be competitive with other toy slime products.

Alice: Oh, that sounds like a challenge… Do you think with enough time you’d be able to tweak the ingredients or process to get that sort of cost reduction?

Bob: I’m sure it’s possible, but I don’t have the answer today.

Alice: What would it take to find an answer? How long might you need to focus on it to determine feasibility?

Bob: At least a couple of weeks, maybe a month.

Alice: Tell you what… How about we schedule you for two weeks on reducing costs for mass-producing your Super Slime? At that point, we can check in and see if it looks like we’re on the right track. If things look promising, great. If not, we can decide if there are further avenues you can take to reduce cost, if we need to bring in another materials expert to help, or if we should look for new suppliers to key ingredients. I’m okay stomaching a two-week schedule slip for your other projects since this sounds like a potentially game-changed product. However, if we have nothing to show for your work at that point, we’ll have to give a strong justification to management to let you continue. And if you fail, it may mean no more special projects for a while, because it’s a sizeable time investment and we have other product commitments we need to meet this quarter. If you’re confident you can reduce material costs, I’d suggest we go for it. If you’re not too sure, maybe we should think on it for a while or hold off on taking such a risk for a more economically viable idea.

Alice: So what do you say? Are you up for giving it a shot?

Bob: Yes, let’s do it. I think I can make some good progress with a couple of weeks.

Alice: Awesome! I’ll put a few check-in times on our calendars just so we can make sure we both feel good about the direction we’re taking. Sound good?

Bob: Great, yes. I’m excited to finally run with my very own product idea. Thank you!

Research