Among the science on how personal risk impacts behaviour change in psychology is the view that its likelihood of happening is a combination of intention, attitude and environmental factors, such as the prevailing social norms that govern whether we stand to gain or lose as a result of the things we do and say in our social groups, including (and perhaps especially) in our professional lives. As a social species, social cohesion matters very much to humans and whether it is conscious or otherwise, our minds are constantly calculating and risk assessing the possibility that our actions may impact negatively on our chances of personal success and how others may perceive us – both of which can generate the fear that we risk alienating ourselves from the group.

Taking stock of our understanding and approach to personal risk can be a powerful driver for behaviour change when it helps us to anticipate emotional responses to difficult situations and to recognise how deeply social norms can influence our thoughts and decision-making in the workplace. Individuals who can successfully identify and tap into their primary motivations and fears are arguably a step closer to avoiding negative circumstances and consequences and helping build working conditions that map more closely to their goals and values. Organisational and people leaders with a similar focus are also arguably a step closer to building sustainably more satisfying, productive and successful workplaces.

What is personal risk in the workplace

Risk, in a broad sense, refers to the potential for loss, harm or undesirable outcomes from a particular set of events or actions. Personal risk in the workplace refers to the potential for individuals to face negative consequences or harm while performing their job. Traditionally, workplace risk assessment might focus on physical and environmental hazards in an industrial setting; or perhaps financial risk if you are in a low-paid role or an industry where the risk of redundancy and lack of job security is currently high. But a common fear for people undergoing organisational change is the risk to their sense of purpose (psychological risk) and status (reputational risk), which can be more complex, even deeply emotional personal risks that can significantly impact our sense of who we are and how we see ourselves in the world. And since emotions often operate out of view, at the subconscious and instinctive level, behaviour change programmes can be compromised from the outset by stress-response based defensive behaviours, that create a default resistance to change that clouds our best intentions about why and how we choose to show up at work. To create the conditions for positive and sustainable organisational and behaviour change, an understanding of such perceptions of personal risk in the workplace and some of the key factors that influence them can be helpful.

Personal risk and behaviour change

For an idea or an innovation to spread, people need to believe it has enough relevance to displace an existing norm. In his work on the infrastructure of behaviour change, leading sociologist and behavioural contagion expert, David Centola, suggests that social (behaviour) change is about norms (and displacing them) rather than about the spread of information about the idea or innovation itself. Put simply, this means that just introducing a desired change, explaining its benefits and how to start the transition towards it is no guarantee of its widespread adoption. In the face of an innate resistance to change that can arise due to people’s fears, based on their individual perception of the personal risks they face on a day-to-day basis, the question that best describes this idea might be, “has this change become so widely accepted around me, that I will stand out from my peers and possibly even lose out personally if I refuse to follow suit?”.

Several risks stand out: the risk of credibility (how sceptical are others about the risk or effectiveness of this change?), the risk of legitimacy (will I risk embarrassment or tarnish my reputation if I do this and others don’t) and the risk of coordination (if I am the only one doing this differently, will I be cutting myself off from everyone else, from the ‘norm’?). Alongside the fears (and perceptions of personal risk that underpin them), the psychology of social norms and our deep-rooted urge for conformity matter in an organisational change context. For Centola, the tipping point is the moment when people can no longer coordinate in a socially cohesive way without changing a norm; “the point at which people’s need for socially coordinated behaviour overcomes their desire for continuity and tradition” and we can add the desire for that sense of self-preservation that can accompany the status quo.

The infrastructure of behaviour change

Fortunately, the rise of research linking better business outcomes with greater health and wellbeing and a more human approach has redirected behaviour change planning away from ‘command and control’ style leadership practices of the past. An emerging and authentic emphasis on reinforcing positive cultural habits, such as inclusive and cohesive interpersonal relationships, is increasingly the focus of organisational development efforts. This bodes well, since the study of behavioural contagion demonstrates how the relative strength of interpersonal relationships at work is a mediating factor for how successfully complex behaviours that involve risk spread across different types of organisational ‘social’ networks.

‘Firework’ networks are considered to have ‘weak ties’ when ideas and messages originate from a dominant central point and radiate out like an exploding firework display to multiple points, people and teams who are not meaningfully connected to each other. ‘Fishing net’ networks (imagine interconnecting triangle & rectangles), on the other hand, may be more diverse and peripheral but can create a large, interconnected periphery where ideas flow and relationships grow more meaningfully across the stronger, wider bridges between different clusters.

When populated by individuals and teams with effective and trusting relationships, fishing net networks have ‘strong ties’ because well-connected interlocking ‘clusters’ of people provide the many necessary points of reinforcement, for the credibility and legitimacy needed to reduce individual fears and personal risk. As a result, this quality and scale of effective friendships between people and teams is a strong indicator of an organisation’s ability to go through a transformational change.

You cannot force people to form strong social ties. But you can bring them together in unusual combinations to work on a mutually relevant task that allows this to happen naturally. Cohort base leadership development is useful here as people encounter others they wouldn’t normally see day-to-day, reducing conflict and building trust in smaller learning groups that build and reinforce stronger, more authentic and meaningful connections as they go.

For practical ideas you can introduce, to improve the social fabric of your workforce, check out the tips in my articles on Trust, Covid and its impact on the social fabric of organisations and why friendships at work matter.

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