Perception is Everything

Feb 19, 2021


What can a group of thrill-seeking ski bums teach us about uncertainty? Identify your team’s risk attitude and the importance of perception.

I was skiing with a group of friends. It was not the coveted bluebird day characterized by bright blue sky, brilliant sun, and sharp shadows. On the contrary, the clouds were thick, and light was flat making it increasingly difficult to see inconsistencies in the white landscape especially as the day drew to a close. That didn’t stop the group from challenging me to take a jump. “C’mon, it’s not that high!” “It’s our last run, now or never!” On that wintery afternoon, our group’s attitude toward risk became the perfect case study. 

We define risk as a factor of the probability of the risk occurring with the consequence of the risk occurring (Risk = Probability x Impact). Even though risk seems to be quantifiable or something we can simply calculate, each individual, group or team, and organization has a Risk Attitude. This attitude is informed by experience of past risks, perception of the current risk, the anticipation of reward, and general mindset. Consider these three attitudes. Anyone come to mind?

  1. Risk-Adverse: Someone who prefers to avoid risk remembers a similar experience with an unfortunate outcome, is more sensitive to the cost of the risk, determines the reward isn’t worth it, or has a general expectation of bad things happening.
  2. Risk-Tolerant: Someone who is indifferent to risk may not remember the outcome of a similar experience, isn’t concerned about the actual risk/reward equation, doesn’t really care about the outcome, or expects that, in general, things will work out.
  3. Risk-Seeking: Someone who enjoys taking risks doesn’t mind exploring new possibilities regardless of past experience, isn’t deterred by the chance of losing, is extremely motivated by the possible reward, or generally anticipates a positive outcome.

On that chilly mountain, I found myself somewhere between Risk-Tolerant and Risk-Seeking. Yet, unbeknownst to me or the group, we saw the same jump differently. In the dimly lit terrain, I saw a good-sized, but doable jump and the group saw 2- to 8-foot ledge (assuming I would jump off the lower side). I could tell by their coaxing the jump had a good landing and was doable. I fully committed and picked up as much speed as possible. Once airborne, however, I couldn’t help but to fixate on the landing that I now realized was more than 15 feet away! 

Navigating risk as a team requires understanding of each individual’s risk attitude, trust in the opinions of others, and tolerance for miscommunication or bad assumptions. Leaders encourage teams to endure surprise and make definitive decisions in the face of uncertainty. They know who tends to be risk-adverse, risk-tolerant, and risk-seeking. They weigh contributions from those with an extreme stance for or against risk differently than contributions from those with a more neutral stance. 

In the end, I over rotated and landed face-first in powdered snow, letting out a scream that startled even me. Now concerned I was severely injured, the group stopped laughing. Some skied closer in silence and some called out, “Are you OK?” All I could say was, “It’s cold!” This restarted the laughter, which continued all the way to the lodge. Perception is everything!

by Michelle Sugerman • Leading Synergies, LLC • © All Rights Reserved

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