A Risky Business: Thoughts on Handling Risks in the Workplace

A View of Risks in the Workplace

How many risks do  you take in a day?  How many of those risks really affect your work in a significant way?  Now, let’s put that into the context of a working environment.  Dependant on which sector you work in, risks in the workplace will have their own connotation.
We generally break environments down into  two elements,  risk-averse and accepted risk.  Take investments, high risks are taken on new technology or speculative mining of a substance. Then consider healthcare, new drugs are tested and examined beyond belief in order to keep us safe.
The nature of a risk is dependent on the severity of the outcome at that time.  It is also considered from a point of view both internal and external.  Internal for cost, management time and organisational safety.  External, for example, will consider reputational costs.

Managing Daily Risks

One part of being a manager is to assess risks in the workplace on a daily basis; we may just not see it that way.  The people we recruit, the budget decisions we make and the system we choose to enable more effective performance.  Alongside risks are mistakes; management literature is littered with examples for us to consider.  Academics make their living out of  mistakes after the event, offering insights into decision making, affect and wider considerations.
On a smaller scale, we constantly learn from the mistakes we make.  Ever replied to an email  slating someone only to find they were in the email recipient list?  After that humiliation, we tend to check before we hit send!  The role of a manager is to oversee, assess risk and make a decision. This happens every single day. Is it no wonder then that mistakes are made?

Impact and Likelihood

The trouble is that even in the most forward-thinking organisations mistakes are seen as bad. Indeed, often they are, catastrophic even. So it’s better to avoid them if possible.
Let’s define risk as something that could go wrong. So if we can stop a risk happening then we can prevent mistakes, right?
It’s never quite that simple, but it’s a good start.
You need to develop a risk management strategy. As always there’s no best way, but here are some things to consider:
The first thing is to think about risk. A lot. Don’t be scared of it, but think about it. Not just at the beginning of a piece of work, but throughout. It can be anything. As we’ve already said there are high stakes workplace risks, and far less dramatic things like tasks getting delivered late or resources not been available.

Left hand typing on a laptop while right hand is writing on a notebook

Create a risk register.

Create a risk register for yourself, a spreadsheet or SharePoint list is fine. The register needs to show on a scale of 1 to 5 the impact of the risk happening and the likelihood of it happening. These scores are subjective, of course, but with practice, you’ll become more consistent. Multiply the scores together to give you a ‘risk score’. Now write down any actions that you could take to prevent the risk happening. Similarly, actions that you could take should the risk become reality.

The Status of Risk

Reassess the impact and likelihood scores and calculate a mitigated risk score. It’s fairly obvious that you need to act on high likelihood, high impact or both. If the impact or likelihood is low you might decide to do nothing. Give each risk the status of open or closed. Close it either when the point at which the risk could happen has passed, or when you have taken the mitigating action. An open risk is only one where you have not taken or don’t know what mitigating action to take. Try to avoid this.
With experience, you will become more skilled at identifying risks and at figuring out mitigating actions. You will also get better at anticipating the kinds of risks associated with specific types of tasks. Don’t be tempted to have a list of ‘stock risks’ that you wheel out on every project. Think afresh about risks every time.

Assessing Workplace Risks – Stop and Pause

Consider an everyday situation where your team are concerned. You have a deadline, quite normal. At this point, many managers dive headlong into the division of work. We then begin to tactically deploy tasks, each taking on the work-stream we have agreed. The plan looks strong and the team have confidence.

Red stop sign

You have a deadline, quite normal.

Risk assessments, in its holistic sense, can come from experience, a view of the past, those ‘oh no’ moments. However, it doesn’t have to be just from experience. Stop and pause for a moment. If you have a set agenda to work through, assessing risks is a fundamental part. Moreover, they need not take as long as you think. Even a basic question of ‘What is the risk of missing the deadline?’ is a great start. Beyond this, there is a certain depth we do need to consider.

Workplace Risks as Emergent Themes

As stated above, a risk register is recommended. This is not a retrospective tool but one that should be built with a future view. Even the most practised of managers engages with these for very good reasons. For new managers, it aids with clarity of thought and good planning. It also has the ability to focus our mind on wider considerations.
These could be emerging themes, changes in the organisation, movement of staff. Do you have a single point of failure in one person? That one person who can solely perform a task? What if they move on? Consider a certain skill in the team that only one person in your team obtains. Mitigation of that risk could come from a wider search in the organisation for that skill. While the likelihood of them moving on is possibly low, this is still a risk and requires consideration.

Final Thoughts

None of this is intended to make you scared of risks or to assume your projects will go wrong. Quite frankly, however, sometimes they will go wrong. Therefore, anything you anticipate upfront can be planned for.
Get into a habit of thinking back over recent pieces of work and identify where problems arose. If you can’t think of any, go back and think again, because they will have.
Now recognise that, if you had anticipated those problems in advance, then you may have been able to avoid them. So could you have anticipated them? Be really honest with yourself. If you genuinely couldn’t have then OK, sometimes bad stuff happens. Otherwise, think about why you didn’t anticipate it and how you might next time.
It also helps to record the decisions you took for each risk. This can be part of your risks register or a separate decisions log that you keep on every project. Then, from time to time – perhaps schedule a quarterly task for yourself – review those decisions. We all want to learn from past experience, but often we don’t! This is a practical way to do that.
Managing risk in the workplace isn’t a high profile, firefighting or heroic way of working. But it will help you to be a hero, just in a different way – through successful delivery.
This article was co-written by Stuart Hagyard and Will Clement. 

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