Risk Aversion and Job Security

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Most federal civilians have really good job protections: while they are subject to furlough and sequestration, taking actual punitive actions against a general schedule civilian employee is pretty uncommon.  In particular, things like the Employee Rights & Appeals process, and Merit Systems Protection Board exist to protect employees, and they do this so well that when I was a military officer with civilian subordinates, I was candidly advised not to bother – demoting or firing civilians was just too hard.  (Unless their performance was really bad.)

Now, if you had really strong job security – as most federal civilians do – you could afford to take a few risks, couldn’t you?  So long as you aren’t committing an actual crime – what’s the worst that’s gonna happen to you? If your project doesn’t work or you make a mistake, you’re gonna come to work tomorrow and keep collecting the same pay.

So why are federal civilians so unbelievably risk averse? 

Sometimes in life, you gotta take some risks to make progress.  No, wait, strike that… Anytime you want to make progress, you gotta take some risks: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”  “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”  “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”  Thomas Watson said, “If you would succeed, double your failure rate.”

There are mistakes that will get a civilian fired.  In the Defense/Intelligence space, the easiest way is probably to do something that jeopardizes one’s security clearance.  And there are plenty of other ways, but those generally involve significant malfeasance of some kind.  Most choices involve only the risk of failure of your project, the risk of your boss yelling at you or counseling you.  We should be willing to face those risks.  (As someone ruefully pointed out to me, the other thing that happens is those people get promoted.)

The only way I can understand the pervasive risk aversion that I see in federal civilians is that people who are naturally risk averse are the ones who gravitate towards the security of federal employment.  There is a tragic irony.

(One exception to this is former military personnel.  A person cannot consciously put on a military uniform without accepting the risk of being sent to war, being shot at, being captured, and being killed.  The Defense Department probably benefits significantly from being the natural place for retired or separated military personnel to work in their post-military careers.  The down side is that former military personnel often lack the competitive drive that come from experience in the private sector.)

Life is too short not to take some risks now and then.    Be bold.   Take some risks – you’ll feel better about yourself and have more fun.

And for further inspiration, here’s a collection of inspiring quotes about taking risk:

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Life the life you’ve imagined.” -Throreau

“The time to take counsel of your fears is before you make an important battle decision. That’s the time to listen to every fear you can imagine! When you have collected all the facts and fears and made your decision, turn off all your fears and go ahead!” — General George S. Patton, Jr.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller

“Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting.” — Karl Wallenda

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I . . . I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” — Robert Frost

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” — Robert F. Kennedy

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” — T.S. Eliot

5 thoughts on “Risk Aversion and Job Security

  1. john s

    reminds me of the quote from “Inglorious Bastards”
    Col. Hans Landa: Are you mad? What have you done? I made a deal with your general for that man’s life!
    Lt. Aldo Raine: Yeah, they made that deal, but they don’t give a f** about him. They need you.
    Col. Hans Landa: You’ll be shot for this!
    Lt. Aldo Raine: Nah, I don’t think so. More like chewed out. I’ve been chewed out before.

  2. twshiloh

    Brilliant post but believe me, this isn’t limited to federal government. State and local governments are just as filled with ‘CYA careerists’. The aversion to innovation, experimentation or just anything different never ceases to amaze.

  3. Steve

    Just discovered this blog & this post.

    When I was still a fed, that was always my approach and it baffled me. True I had my own personal bias – a number of my family retired as GS 15 and SES – which made my approach always – focus on doing awesome work & take risks.

    As I created various projects from Young Gov Leaders to GovLoop to new projects in day job, inherently there was always a couple people who looked at me weird but 10X more people said “that’s awesome”. My theory is most people aren’t willing to take this ratio (9 people love you, 1 person hate you – 90% love) – and would rather have this (10 people indifferent to you – 0% love)

    Amazing (you should cross-post on my site govloop.com too – online community of fed/state/local public servants) – also we have a speaker contest for our upcoming training event – you should apply – http://www.nextgengovt.com/archives/2299


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