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Manage fears without stifling innovation 

By Ken Tysiac 
October 26 2012

Workers’ greatest fear is making mistakes on the job, and experts say that’s OK – so as long as it is not stifling innovation.

Twenty-eight per cent of workers said making errors on the job is their greatest workplace fear, according to a survey of 420 office workers by temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping staffing service Accountemps.

Fear of making mistakes was by far the most frequently named fear. Dealing with difficult customers or clients ranked second at 18%, followed by conflicts with managers (15%), speaking in front of a group of people (13%) and conflicts with co-workers (13%).

The question of whether fear of errors is useful or stifling to a business depends on the context.

It is good for employees to make sure their work is correct, but they do not want to be too risk-averse, said Bonnie Hancock, executive director of the Enterprise Risk Management Initiative at North Carolina State University. Mistakes are different from risks that are taken to capitalise on opportunities, she added. There are some mistakes that employees should fear.

“Making a mistake in closing the books – miscalculating a reserve, for example – is not something any firm would say they have an appetite for,” Hancock said.

On the other hand, an organisation might have an appetite for taking a risk by trying a new process to streamline the monthly closing process, even though it could result in delays or possibly omissions the first time through, Hancock said.

“The key I would say is for employees and their managers to have a conversation about those trade-offs in the context of a risk appetite,” Hancock said. “There has to be an expected return for taking risks.”

Strategies for navigating workplace fears, according to Accountemps, include:

  • Prioritise your responsibilities: For greater efficiency, delegate when possible.

  • Know what is expected: When facing a challenging project or new responsibilities, consult with your manager to develop a strategy to overcome any concerns.

  • Ask a mentor: Get advice on overcoming challenges, and ask a confidant for feedback on critical projects.

An exercise called a “premortem” also is a good way to leverage the worst fears of a business for the purposes of risk management. In a premortem, executives explore “what-if” scenarios to identify potentially devastating problems in order to improve a product, project or strategy. This can help businesses avoid being caught unaware in a real-life crisis.

Ken Tysiac (ktysiac@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.

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