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Plan Your Career
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How Do You Handle Career Risks?

You can’t go through life without taking some risks—including in the workplace. But how should you decide which career risks are worth taking?

Taking ill-considered risks can lead to setbacks or costly losses. On the other hand, taking too few risks can make it hard to move forward. Finding the right balance is important.

Types of risk

Most risks break down into 3 categories: physical, emotional, and financial. In the workplace:

  • Physical risks have to do with your work environment. For example, you will have more physical risk if you work with power tools than if you work in an office. But if you sit for 8 hours a day at an office job, your health could also be at risk.
  • Emotional risks involve other people. For example, you may feel an emotional risk if you ask your co-workers for help. You may worry they will think less of you. On the other hand, not asking for help could create bigger problems.
  • Financial risks involve gaining or losing money. For example, you face financial risk if you are thinking about quitting a job or investing in an education program. But if you find out as much information as possible about your options, you may be able to reduce the risk. 

You may be willing to take risks in some areas, but not in others. For example, you may feel comfortable taking a financial risk, like buying new clothes for job interviews. But you may not be comfortable with an emotional risk, like joining in social activities with co-workers.

Approaches to risk

People have different comfort levels with risk. What seems risky to you may not seem risky to someone else.

There are 3 basic styles of risk-takers:

  • Impulsive risk-takers make decisions very quickly. They often make little or no attempt to reduce the risk or consider the possible negative outcomes.
  • Extremely cautious risk-takers take a long time to make decisions. They tend to do everything possible to prevent negative outcomes. But by the time they decide on something, the opportunity may have passed.
  • Calculated risk-takers know the chances of success and the likely outcomes of failure before taking the risk.

Of the 3 styles of risk-taking, calculated risk-taking is usually the most effective.

Become an effective risk-taker

So what does calculated risk-taking look like? To approach risk in a calculated way, you should:

  • Have a clearly stated preference or goal. It’s hard to judge how much to risk if you don’t know what you’re after!
  • Research the different ways to reach your goal.
  • Gather up-to-date, accurate information about each option. You want to know the chances of success and the consequences of failure.
  • Choose the option for reaching your goal that has the best chance of success—and consequences you can live with if things don’t go your way.
  • Assess challenges, and plan how to deal with them.

For example, if your goal is to increase your earnings, you have a number of possible options:

  • Ask for a raise.
  • Work towards a promotion.
  • Look for a new job that pays more.
  • Start up a side business online.

What would be the risks with each of these options? What are the pros and cons of each? Which is most likely to achieve your goal, with the least down side? Reviewing the answers to these questions will help you take a risk that has the best chance of getting you to your goal.

What's your risk-taking style?

What kind of risk-taker are you? For each kind of risk, select your usual risk-taking approach. Which style gets the most checkmarks?

Tips for impulsive risk-takers

If you usually approach risk-taking in an impulsive way:

  • Think of past examples. What are some of the negative results you’ve encountered because you rushed into a decision too quickly? How could you have taken a more calculated approach?
  • Realize that any risk can result in a loss. Never risk more than you are willing to lose.
  • Reduce your risk by researching your options. To make informed decisions, look at the likely outcomes of each option.
  • Get as much control over the outcomes as possible. Consider how you can protect yourself against a setback if things do not go as planned.
  • Sleep on it. Recognize when you are about to make an important decision. Make the decision to postpone it to a later date so you have time to be more calculated.

There’s no such thing as a sure thing. Gathering as much information and support as possible builds a safety net and decreases the amount of uncalculated risk.

Tips for overly cautious risk-takers

It may seem strange, but not taking any risks is also a risk! If you never take a chance, you may never move forward.

If you tend to be overly cautious about taking risks:

  • Think of past examples. What are some of the negative results you’ve encountered because you took too long to make a decision? How could you have taken a more calculated approach?
  • Remember that most big decisions are made up of many smaller ones. Think of big career steps as a series of smaller steps that you can take one at a time.
  • Practise taking small risks before you tackle big ones. For example, contacting someone you don’t know for a job referral might feel like an emotional risk. To prepare, you might start by talking with friends or family members to see what advice they have to help your approach.
  • Try to take a small risk every day in one area of your life. What choice or change could you make to improve something about these 8 key areas of life:
    • Home—where you live and how you live
    • Relationships—your partner, family, friends, and community
    • Health—your level of health, physical fitness, and leisure
    • Personal—your spiritual, emotional, and personal development
    • Learning—your skills, training, and knowledge
    • Finances—the money you earn and the expenses you have
    • Work—any paid or volunteer work you do
    • Workplace—where you work and the people you work with
  • Practise things that feel risky. If job interviews make you nervous, go to as many as possible. It’s common to feel fear of the unknown, but by becoming familiar with an experience, you learn not to fear it.
  • Look at risks that fail as temporary setbacks and opportunities to learn. For example, if you were unsuccessful in a job interview, think about what you learned that can help in your next interview.

Just the right amount of risk

Every career involves decisions about risk, whether it’s taking on a more physically dangerous role, voicing an unpopular opinion in a meeting, or taking a pay cut. Whatever the situation, it is important to weigh the risks and the benefits before taking action.

But risk is important to growth. To develop as a person, you have to push yourself beyond what is comfortable, try new things, and take a few risks. Often, when facing change, you’ll be uncertain of the outcome or won’t feel you have complete control over the situation. A low comfort level may stop you from making a change that you really want to make.

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