Fostering fearlessness and risk-taking in the workplace

October 25, 2016

One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” What if you had space to live out this quote? Most leaders spend a great deal of time and energy making decisions that are “not wrong” – and often on the path of being “not wrong,” they choose to play it safe. But what if you could cut yourself some slack, take a few risks, experience being wrong, and get the real time feedback you need to do it right? Edison’s quote – from the mind of a brilliant inventor – reminds us to persist until we find the right solution, and that using a trial and error methodology can help us get there.

Applying Edison’s approach to leadership and management development, CRE’s Leadership Lab offers leaders the opportunity to experiment with leadership styles and approaches through role play, in a safe and risk-free environment. It gives participants a chance to practice useful and necessary leadership competencies – like having a difficult conversation, persuading staff to stretch outside of their comfort zone, or effectively coaching people to achieve their (and your own!) desired results so that they can learn and grow more quickly. As participants start to experiment, they find that they are able to tackle the situation in different ways – ways they might have not tried before because of the risks associated outside of the safe space. The methodology of practice, feedback, practice, and more feedback, results in a plan that participants are eager to pursue back in the office. These plans can take the shape of concrete action steps, a script to conduct a conversation, or even a tool or system that will help resolve the challenge.

Outside of a formal lab, there are steps anyone can take to become more fearless and ready to take on risks in the workplace:

  1. Explore your challenge: Think about what is important to you in resolving the situation and to your own areas of discomfort. Then reflect on the ideal outcome you would like to achieve with regard to the challenge. Finally, think about the person/s you will be engaging towards resolution and how they may have responded to past attempts to navigate your situation.
  2. Create a safe and risk free environment to role play: Identify a trusted person in your life, at work, or elsewhere, with whom you’d be comfortable role playing ways to address these challenges. Better yet, find a person who would also benefit from this exercise so you can help one another! Share the parameters of your challenge with your role playing partner.
  3. Experiment: The first time participants engage in this type of experimentation usually feels awkward, but will reward you with increased bravery to confront your challenges. Some examples to help you experiment might be to lean in more/less, use more/less confrontational language, and ask open ended questions as opposed to leading questions, among others.
  4. Listen for feedback: Role play the scenario and seek feedback from your partner on how they felt and what you can do or say differently. Then role play again, and seek feedback again! It’s important to engage in the role play–feedback–role play– feedback cycle at least twice so that feedback is immediately actionable.
  5. Commit to action: Formulate a plan, a set of steps, a script for a conversation, or any other action steps to move your situation towards resolution, and then set a timeline to make it all happen!
    Post lab evaluations from Leadership Lab participants tell us that learning by simulating and stumbling – combined with support and real time feedback – results in increased confidence in a participant’s ability to manage leadership challenges.

When we are able to be brave, take a few risks, and make a few mistakes, we gain the ability to confront our challenges with greater confidence. It is by having Edison’s freedom and space to try and fail that we are eventually able to succeed.

To learn more about CRE’s leadership offerings, check our website or email Pavitra Menon at

By Director of Leadership and Professional Development, Pavitra Menon.

En Español »