A Cultural Model of Taking Risks at Work


First consider these questions:

A Cultural Model of Taking Risks at Work

There are at least three types of risks in work environment: social risks, operational risks, and outcome risks.

The first concerns trust, credibility, and social role in groups; the second, the difficulty of approach/process; the third, doing tasks and its impact on outcome.

Figure 1: A cultural model of risk-taking at work
Figure 1: A cultural model of risk-taking at work

We manage those three types of risks differently. The org’s cultural norm mostly determines how we manage social risks; org architecture and management, operational risks; org measurement model (e.g. success criteria), outcome risks.

To feel safe to take social risks, it often means some form of “socio-cultural insurance,” that, even when we risk hurting a subculture, we’re somewhat confident that the overarching org culture can safeguard our action, or vice versa.

To feel safe to take operational risks, it often means the org, by design, is transformable, or at least flexible enough, to take hit (and adapt) when we decide to do something risky (e.g. a new, untested process). We need a transformable org, not org who does transformation.

To feel safe to take outcome risks, it often means performance is not solely judged by a utilitarian system of measurement. Creativity and innovation often happen in orgs who encourage people to do not only what’s supposed to be right, but also what’s not or non-utilitarian.

So the definition varies among three types of risks at workplace, while the commonality lies in how we set the thresholds for deciding to take different risks. Those thresholds reflect both our own value system and our material circumstances.

From a management point of view, there are ways to probe those thresholds and value systems. However leaders and managers need to be equipped with proper tools to help them. Those are mostly two things: cultural models, and computing tools.

The biggest challenge in establishing cultural models is perhaps submitting leaders and management themselves to scrutiny and judgement; the biggest challenge in equipping computing tools is perhaps to fight the dangerous trend of comprehension over understanding.

Risk-Taking at Work in Different Org Cultures

The dynamics among social, operational, and outcome risks are reflected in different org cultures.

Zombie Culture

In a “zombie” org culture, all three types of risks have such high stakes that employees dare not do anything but what they’re told. No one takes risks; everyone obeys out of fear. Frederic Laloux’s Red org.

Figure 2: “Zombie
Figure 2: “Zombie” org culture

Army Culture

In an “army” org culture, the stakes of social and operational risks are high, there’s no room for mistake. However, employees feel safe to take risks that diverge outcome. It’s a bit like Frederic Laloux’s Amber org.

Figure 3: “Army
Figure 3: “Army” org culture

Cult Culture

In a “cult” org culture, employees feel safe to take huge operational risks — do whatever necessary to accomplish a fixed, designated outcome. No ones dares to challenge the defined outcome; social norm is often so strict that it becomes abusive. Somewhere between Red org and Amber org.

Figure 4: “Cult
Figure 4: “Cult” org culture

Philanthropist Culture

In a “philanthropist” org culture, employees feel safe to take social risks, as the cultural norm is often friendly and inclusive. However, outcome is often a mandate, and operation is often not open to disruption. The stakes of taking outcome and operational risks are high. A bit like Orange org.

Figure 5: “Philanthropist
Figure 5: “Philanthropist” org culture

Automaton Culture

In an “automaton” org culture, employees feel safe to take both operational and outcome risks, as the org is often flexible to reach utilitarian goals. However, the stake for taking social risks is high, as social control is often necessary to hedge against operational and outcome uncertainties. Somewhere between Amber org and Orange org.

Figure 6: “Automaton
Figure 6: “Automaton” org culture

Volunteer Culture

In a “volunteer” org culture, outcome is not necessarily expected to be certain, and the social norm is inclusive and friendly. However, taking operational risks is not encouraged, as the org often needs operational stability to minimize negative outcomes and scale positive ones. It’s not too far from a Green org.

Figure 7: “Volunteer
Figure 7: “Volunteer” org culture

Capitalist Culture

In a “capitalist” org culture, the only high stake belongs to taking outcome risks, as outcome is often a forced, utilitarian mandate. Employees are given the freedom to do whatever they need (taking operational risks), in whatever way they want (taking social risks), to reach prescribed goals. Somewhere between Orange org and Green org.

Figure 8: “Capitalist” org culture
Figure 8: “Capitalist” org culture

Shapeshifter Culture

In a “shapeshifter” org culture, employees are empowered and encouraged to take risks. Visions are shared, missions evolve organically. Problems are solved creatively. Challenges are addressed collectively. The org becomes not only employee-centric, but also transformable. A Teal org.

Figure 9: “Shapeshifter” org culture
Figure 9: “Shapeshifter” org culture

Mapping Cultures to Frederic Laloux’s Organizational Stages

If we map those eight risk-taking types of org culture to Frederic Laloux’s organizational stages, and add another dimension of ethical stake, then the big picture looks like this:

Figure 10: Eight types of risk-taking cultures mapping to Frederic Laloux’s organizational stages
Figure 10: Eight types of risk-taking cultures mapping to Frederic Laloux’s organizational stages

Further Questions

A model helps us make sense of something, while its outcome helps us ask the right questions.

As a rough model for considering the risk-taking behaviours in org, it leaves many questions unanswered:

  • Where does motivation fit into the picture?
  • How does the model produce an outcome? What kind of outcome? 
  • What comes before the model? What evidence supports or contradicts it?

Those are the questions to be elaborated in the future.




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