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Playing safe can be risky business for your career

By Margie Warrell, Special to CNN
updated 8:32 AM EST, Wed November 9, 2011
Display courage in the workplace, rather than conforming to
Display courage in the workplace, rather than conforming to "group think" ideas.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • When fear goes viral in a team or organization, innovation suffers
  • Be more courageous at work by challenging "group think"
  • Be flexbile and avoid conformity to see more success in the workplace

Editor's note: Margie Warrell is the author of "Find Your Courage: 12 Acts for Becoming Fearless in Work and in Life." To learn more, visit www.margiewarrell.com.

(CNN) -- Between all the turmoil in Washington and Wall Street, combined with high unemployment and low housing prices, it's pretty easy to come to the conclusion that the best strategy for keeping your job right now is to keep your head to the ground, avoid risk and play safe.

Certainly in the culture of fear that has evolved around us, it seems plenty of other people are doing just that.

But don't be fooled.

Playing safe can be risky business. It can also be costly to your career and your company's bottom line. When fear goes viral in a team or organization, innovation suffers and performance flatlines. If ever there was a time for being courageous at work, it's now.

Five keys to being more courageous at work

Challenge "Group think"

Too often we "go along to get along," adopting the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra.

Sure, a system or product or service offering may not be broken right now, but it may send your business broke if it doesn't evolve with the times. Of course challenging consensus opinion can be dangerous. You may ruffle feathers, rock the boat or, worse still, knock yourself right out of it. But when you fail to challenge the thinking of your team or group, you become part of the problem.

Sure, it's easy to stick with "what's working." But if you want to get ahead (or just keep your job), the easy path won't get you there. Not in this economy. Ask yourself: Where do I need to speak up and challenge consensus thinking?

Learn, unlearn and relearn

Change is happening fast and you need to be learning fast if you want to stay ahead of the game. But you can't learn faster unless you are also willing to "unlearn" some of what you already you know, or what you "think" you know.

Most of us are pretty hesitant to acknowledge that we just "don't know." It makes us feel vulnerable. But by shifting your focus from trying to apply what you already know into that of a curious student, you will turn on the tap to the creative part of your brain in ways that a "know it all" never could. Innovation and ingenuity will follow accordingly.

Continuous learning isn't a means to an end, but is an end itself that is fundamental to our ability as individuals, and collectively in our organization, to remain relevant. Ask yourself: Where do I need to give up all my answers and ask some new and better questions?

Be flexible

When under pressure, our tendency is to revert to default behaviors. We force an outcome. Get mired in the detail. Beat a hasty retreat. Start whining. Or perhaps just head out for lunch.

But if you are approaching your challenges in the same way, at some point, your approach will become ineffective.

Just as the sword fighter with the most moves in his repertoire will be the victor, so too will the person who can draw from the greatest range of different behavioral responses when confronted with a challenge (or in pursuing a goal).

Taking a different approach can be uncomfortable. At first anyway. But flexibility is crucial to adapt to the pace of change in today's global economy. If you are usually detail focused, try approaching the situation from a really big picture perspective. If you love to follow rules, try bending them a little.

If you tend toward being task focused, try a people focus for a change. And if you are great at conveying your opinion, but not so hot on taking in that of those around you, spend a day on a "listen and learn" tour of your office. Ask yourself: How might a different response to my current challenges prove more constructive?

Leverage adversity

Sure, you have a lot of challenges to deal with. Who doesn't?

Suppliers are not always reliable, managers are not always reasonable, colleagues are not always trustworthy and the market is far from predictable. Add to that pressure from being asked to do more with less, and it's easy to succumb to being overwhelmed and anxious. However, when you focus on what cutback or catastrophe might befall you around the next corner, you will only create more of that anxiety and, in the process, miss the opportunity that might be sitting right in front of you.

So ask yourself: What's the opportunity here for me right now and what do I need to do to seize it?

Resist conformity

When all you do is try to lay low and fit in, you negate the difference your difference makes. To be outstanding (and valued more highly than your peers), you have to be willing to stand out.

Not for the sake of standing out, but because right now, employers need people who are willing to say what they think, question old assumptions, foster ingenuity and contribute the unique value only they can bring.

So ask yourself: Where am I trying to fit in and how can I express myself more courageously?

Of course taking risks, speaking up, pushing back, holding out and pressing on all require putting yourself at risk of failure, confrontation, dissension and humiliation.

Perhaps even your job. Which is why so many people procrastinate, rationalize, make excuses and talk themselves right back into the middle of their safe and cozy comfort zone. But while a comfort zone may be cozy, it's far from safe. As the phrase goes, "Fortune favors the bold." The value your organization will place on you will increase exponentially when you show you have the courage to think outside the cubicle, speak your truth and put your conviction on the line. If ever there was a time when business needed boldness, it's now.

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