"I really don’t want to disappoint my boss."
This comment, made by a leader we interviewed recently, is an example of one side of the “at risk vs. at stake” continuum. The fear (disappointing their boss) was driving a range of unhelpful behaviours such as working long hours to appear productive, showing up short and impatient with their own colleagues, and being defensive (invulnerable) when asked about mistakes or ‘dropped balls’.
The at-risk vs. at-stake continuum
Fundamentally, we’re wired to approach the world in two ways:
Fearful (at-risk) - taking protective (reactive) action so that we don’t ‘lose’ something. This loss aversion might be centred around resources (food, money, shelter) or relationships (mates, children, team members) or rank (where we fit in the social fabric).
Hopeful (at-stake) - taking positive action, through risk and uncertainty, in order to ‘gain’ something. Again, this proactive action might be centred around resources, relationships or rank, but it’s different in that it is aimed at growth and gain.
Side note: In this post we don’t go too deep into topics related to the human fear and hope system, including the physiology of distress and eustress, but suffice it to say that we’ve done the research and you can dig into it yourself with some of the resources offered at the bottom of this post.
A bit more about being “at-risk”
There are a few key characteristics of being on the ‘at-risk’ side of the continuum that are important to understand:
- It’s natural. Our fear-response is built into our biology as an important protective mechanism against unsafe and risky behaviour, which ensures the survival of our species.
- It’s largely unconscious. We feel fear (in the form of anxiety) before we ‘think’ fear. And often, we’ll take protective action based on that feeling of anxiety without being fully conscious of it. We’re great at rationalizing our behaviour after the fact, and mis-attributing that action to some other motivator than a fear or anxiety response.
- It’s helpful and harmful. As mentioned above, taking action out of fear has been an essential ingredient for humans as we’ve navigated our place in the world and avoided the lions, tigers and bears (and competing humans) through our evolution. Keeping yourself safe is an incredibly important function. Unfortunately, this fear response can also be harmful - fear of disappointing your boss can lead to a range of unhealthy and unhelpful behaviours.
When we’re “at risk”, we often exhibit the following behavioural traits:
- Reactiveness - a sense of loss of control and being “triggered” by external events
- Scarcity mindset - a perspective that there is more to lose than there is to gain
- Defensiveness - a host of defence mechanisms that create barriers to vulnerability (including ‘the 3F’s’ - fight, freeze or flee) and the subtler “RAW responses” (Resistance, Acquiescence and Withdrawal)
A bit more about being “at-stake”
The same leader mentioned at the beginning of this post, a few minutes later into our interview, said “I’d love to learn more about my communication style and how to improve it.”
Suddenly, they’d shifted from being “at-risk” to being “at-stake“.
You know that you’re operating from a place of “at-stake” when you’re:
- Curious. What do I have to gain here? What are the possibilities and opportunities?
- Deliberate. If being ‘at risk’ is often characterized by unconscious, automatic reactions, being "‘at stake” is the opposite - conscious, deliberate and responsive.
- Hopeful. The hope for gain and growth is stronger than the fear of uncertainty or loss.
- Abundant. Constraints aren’t keeping you in a scarcity mindset, they’re forcing you to get curious and creative - to design around them.
And, fundamentally, when we’re “at stake”, we are grounded and present in the moment - not attempting to escape it or control it for our own protection.
Great! Now what?
A tool like the “at risk v. at stake” continuum is useful in a variety of ways. Below are a few “use cases” to consider.
- A behaviour (yours or a team members) has suddenly changed. Have you/they shifted on the continuum? What external forces might be driving that shift?
- You’re faced with a tough decision - write out a list of what’s at risk (what do you have to lose) and what’s at-stake (what do you have to gain) and use that to reflect on what truly matters in the decision.
- You’re struggling with the motivation required to pursue an important goal - where are you on the continuum? And how might that be impacting your drive forward?
Looking for more?
Interested in learning a bit more about these concepts? Check out the following resources or get in touch to chat about operationalizing this and other great tools in your leadership or team practice.
- Co-CEO and partner at The Ally Co., Jeff Couillard, digs into the distress-eustress continuum and how it relates to addiction in this TEDx talk - The Power of Human Nature.
- The work of Dr. Gabor Mate, though also centred around addiction, provides a great level of insight into human behaviour and what can happen when we’re really at risk. His book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” should be required reading for all of us.
- And if you’re into some deeper exploration of the vital relationship between hope and fear, enjoy this article from Maria Popova over on BrainPickings.
The “at risk vs. at stake” continuum continues to evolve, but credit must be given to two influential mentors - Will Black and Jeff Wilson. Their wisdom, generosity and thought leadership in human behaviour and addictions treatment is second to none. You can learn more about the Shunda Creek Wilderness Treatment program here.