Risk
July 24, 2013

Prevention-focused people and risk aversion

Quote of the week

“People are generally not all that happy about risk.”

— Harvard Business Review

Editor’s Corner

If there’s one thing we talk about all the time in government, it’s risk. And while we often bemoan the timidity of the public sector, and talk about creating a culture of risk in government, what we really want to know is: what are its limits and how can I “manage” it?

This is not unreasonable, one might argue, since public servants work in organizations that were built to avoid and contain risk, especially political risk, with all the safeguards and checks that a hierarchical system can produce.

Yet what about the calls for innovation and reform? What’s holding it back?

Well, one thing could be the fact that it looks like there may be some truth to the suggestion that public servants as a class are especially risk averse. An article in the Harvard Business Review talks about “prevention-focused” people who are risk averse “not because (they) are neurotic, paranoid, or even lacking in self-confidence, but because (they) tend to see (their) goals as opportunities to maintain the status quo and keep things running smoothly.”

And while the article is really concerned about analyzing these individuals as investors, it makes the point that prevention-focused people are often more ethical than so-called “promotion-seekers,” not because they are more principled, but simply because they are more scared of the consequences to them and the organization if things mess up.

Keeping things running smoothly and maintaining the status quo are, of course, qualities we often see in officials – particularly the so-called “clay layer” that is caught between senior management and getting things done. For them, working in government is not about trying new things or embracing innovation that is not 100% tested; it is about keeping things calm and on an even keel – maintaining the status quo.

And that’s the pity. Prevention-focused people in risk averse organizations are not a strong recipe for innovation and increased productivity.

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