Risky business pays off

How to Apply ‘Dignity of Risk’ to create an Innovative workplace

The theory of Dignity of Risk isn’t a new one but when I first heard it, I was intrigued. 

Dignity of risk is the idea that self-determination and the right to take reasonable risks  is essential for dignity and self-esteem. So excessively cautious caregivers can impede a person sense of dignity by simply trying to keep them safe. I guess its what parents are familiar with when we talk about wrapping our kids in cotton wool.  

The concept came about in reference to adults who are under care. So we’re talking the elderly, people living with disability, and/or people with mental illness. Since then it has also been applied to children, including those living with disabilities. 

Dignity of Risk also has relevance to creating a flourishing workplace culture and developing innovation focused teams. So here’s the whole story of how I uncovered Dignity of Risk and why I think we can use this in our workplace culture to help new ideas and the purpose of people thrive…..  

I recently had an impromptu conversation with CEO, Mark Fitzpatrick from the Telethon Speech and Hearing Institute for Kids.

As parents and knowing the next wave of school holidays were soon upon us we started talking about the challenges of yeah you guessed it… parenthood. Now there’s a lot of places this conversation could have gone but we hit the age-old analogy of wrapping your kids cotton wool and simply wanting to protect them.  

With 2 young girls I can immediately relate to hearing myself say “put that down, don’t do that, get down” and it’s on repeat throughout most of the time I’m with them but I think we all struggle to let go of the reigns. Everything in our core tells us to avoid and prevent mistakes and risks. I remind myself that resilience is an essential strength that can only be gained through a few mishaps here and there.  

Mark then mentioned the theory of ‘Dignity of Risk’. He explained the theory in that we need to allow individuals to take reasonable risks and that by hindering them to take risks is not beneficial to them in the long term. Whilst we might stop them and help them avoid short term harmwe’re actually doing them a disservice by taking away the decision to take and action and experience the results.  

Since then it has stuck with me as I think it 100% applies to conversation we have in organisations about stimulating an innovative workplace culture.  

Innovation is reliant on empowering people to take risks. Unfortunately, often those who that take risks in an organisation feel as though they stick their neck out to do so. If that risk then fails to hit the mark then the result is often less than dignified. If mishandled the risk taker can feel vulnerable, less respected and even at risk of losing their position or role altogether.  

An innovative culture also relies on psychological safety in the workplace. For people to have the courage to voice their ideas they need to feel safe to do so. Therefore, the repercussions and reactions of new ideas and failures need to be very closely monitored and considered.  

Heinrich Rohrer a Swiss physicist who received a Nobel Prize for the design of the scanning tunnelling microscope was quoted as saying ……

“We had the freedom to make mistakes. That’s something very important. Unfortunately, this freedom gets lost….. and you do the common things. You don’t dare do something beyond what everyone else thinks.”  

A leaders point of view

From a leader’s point of view mistakes cost time and money. However, they are also essential to learning and uncovering new things. Whilst we can monitor the level of risk so that our company, as we know it remains, our reign of control cannot be so tight that it cripples any effective decision making.  

If you’re telling your team to step up you need to ensure they have room to do so which may mean you need to take a step to the side. Use your expertise to encourage and guide but don’t tell and direct. 

We all have the fundamental right to make mistakes and learn and grow from trial and error but many organisations still aren’t run this way. It’s success at all costs, except the cost of failure. Failure is unacceptable.  

How can we apply dignity of risk?

Drive & Nurture Individual Purpose  

Firstly, we need to ensure all our employees have full knowledge of the impact of their roles, choices and opportunities. This ties into how they fit within the organisation and how they impact and influence their colleagues, customers and the overarching organisational vision. We can all play a part.  


Secondly, we need to encourage the development of their communication skills to enhance transparency across the organisation, build trust and develop the leadership potential within each team member.  We can all lead.   


Thirdly, our employees need to feel safe to express ideas, empowered to make decisions and confident enough to work with diverse opinions. We can all find solutions.  

Bring Your Whole Self  

And fourthly, we need to encourage individuals to have a strong sense of personal identity and self-worth by supporting their ideas, strengths, passions and personal purpose. We can all flourish.   

I say this as I continue to struggle with that Saturday morning trip to the playground but reflection and awareness is the first step to improving anything right? Here’s to loosening the reigns …..  ;o)

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