Monday, November 09, 2009

Risk taking

So I heard passed on a complaint from some employers: That the current workforce is too risk-averse, that they only want to do what is "safe". Or I guess in the usual "business-ese", that their employees don't "think outside the box." This is, I suppose, seen to be a failure of educators. (That would include me.)

I'm inclined to call bullshit.

There's no question that US public education has an unspoken agenda to produce docile, unquestioning workers who will sit in cubicles all day doing mind-numbing tasks and avoid asking difficult questions at all costs. That's actually part of the history of what the public education system was for. But it's worth asking why this was ever a goal, and the answer is because that's what employers wanted.

I'm also inclined to think that people have been encouraged to take fewer risks because risk taking because they have so little overall security. Most people today worry about being laid off at every downturn of the economy. There is no long-term job security any more. And in a particularly screwed up twist, no one gets health care at an affordable cost without a really good job. Plus we have an otherwise generally eroding social safety net. So no one feels safe, and I think a lot of that lack of security can be laid at the feet of corporations that decided short term profits could be had by regularly laying off employees and trying to squeeze more out of the ones left. And now they're complaining that their employees aren't willing to take risks? Why would anyone take risks in such a precarious situation?

Plus I doubt they really want risk-takers. Risk takers might try some crazy scheme that no one ever thought of before, and that scheme may fail. Actually the crazy schemes probably fail more often than not. (How many start-up technology companies did not go on to become Google, Microsoft, or Apple?) I suspect what they mean is that they want employees to take risks doing things that turn out successful. But that's not risk-taking! I don't know. Maybe an employee that does try some wild new idea that fails spectacularly really does get a "Congratulations! You failed!" celebration a la Meet the Robinsons. Maybe innovations (including failures) are actually encouraged by some (or all) employers. But that just doesn't ring true. I think it's the businesses that are risk-avoiders, and the employees are picking up on that and following along.

And employees are easy to blame. What employee would disagree with his or her employer's assessment of the situation? That sounds like awfully risky behavior.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...
My friend over in commerce land told me about this book. I think the squib from the intro ratifies your general point, but the authors' explanation for the existence of the book suggests a possible contradiction possibly looming on the horizon.