Threat, Challenge and Risk- Practicing Uncertainty

23 Jun

I write this article in collaboration with the internationally renowned sports psychologist, Professor Marc Jones. The work of Marc and his team on framing stressful situations as challenges as oppose to threats extends far beyond the boundaries of sport. Here we integrate our research and thoughts to introduce the application of threat\ challenge to risk.

Heuristic- the references to lab work and CV are the work of Marc and his team.

Organisations vulnerability can be measured by its approach to risk. If the organisation is governed by rigid procedures and processes then breaks to routine methods caused by unforeseen events are far more likely to result in catastrophes and the breaking of an entire organisational system. The reason the system breaks is because the people and culture are not capable of improvising under stress and so incapable of adapting to rapid change. This is the opposite of resilience and is basically a dysfunctional response to risk.

No matter how much an organisation attempts to identify and minimise risks it can’t avoid the uncertainty of the future. Unfortunately the complexity and aesthetics of risk models, manifested in daily procedures and processes, create a false sense of security- the future is in the bag and adherence to routine minimises risk. This approach can work for long periods of time, but the moment something unexpected happens people are instinctively scratching around for a manual which does not exist, instead improvisation is required.

The ability and confidence to improvise under testing conditions is a pillar of reliance, and resilience can be generated by exposing people and organisations to non-routine tests. Conversely, constant adherence to routine generates too much certainty into how the future will play out- you’ll always have that job, you’ll always keep your best customer, that market is secure, and that warning system always work; and this blunts error detection (see Crandrall et al 2006, Klein, 2011, Taleb 2012, Rugg et al, 2013 for examples). Not exposing people and organisations to tests means that when these future expectancies eventually get violated (and they will) they become framed as threats, and framing situations as threats is not conducive to improvising- people simply don’t have the confidence and range of trials to draw from required to improvise.

How does an organisation transform its approach to risk as a means of building resilience? Firstly, uncertainty needs to be embraced, an acceptance that routines and procedures will eventually hit their limits, and improvisation, and the innovation which springs from it, will be needed. Risk doesn’t just need to be written in a file or modelled, it needs to be practiced. Practice can take the form of resilience training where people are exposed to extreme events (in scenarios for example) which require thinking beyond the formal, routine is obliterated and its fragility exposed. This training in itself can produce innovation and insight, as Nassim Taleb advises in Anti Fragile- if you want to innovate, first get yourself into trouble. However, it’s important to remember you’ll never master or fully anticipate risk; it is something which waits in the future not the empirical past (Taleb, 2013).

The psychological element is vital; moving outside of routine requires risks to be framed not as threats but as challenges. Identifying risk as a challenge (as opposed to a threat) provides the resilience to deal with the risk. In our research we see individuals responding to stressful events, such as something unexpected and potentially harmful, in a challenge state when they are confident, feel in control and have an approach focus, wherein they are focused on what can be achieved not what might go wrong.

Interestingly we can measure whether individuals are challenged, or threatened, by an event through measuring their cardiovascular (CV) responses to the stressor. Collecting physiological data of this nature gives us an insight into to the nature of the ‘fight or flight’ response the person is experiencing. When exposed to a stressor an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels indicates a ‘challenge response’. The blood flows to the muscles and brain more efficiently, providing the energy, to be able to deal with the stressor. When a person is threatened there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels. The blood is less able to get to the muscles and brain more efficiently, reducing ability to deal with the stressor.

In our research CV reactivity to the psychological stress has consistently predicted performance in a range of cognitive and motor task with those exhibiting cardiovascular responses indicating a challenge state and performing better (e.g., Turner, Jones, Sheffield, & Cross, 2012; Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Slater, Barker, & Bell, 2013). In short how we approach unexpected, potentially harmful, events can determine our resilience. Being resilient, and displaying a challenge response to stress, does depend on our psychological characteristics and our past experience as mentioned. However our research also outlines how leaders in organisations can help develop resilience in their teams.

In our laboratory studies we have been able to manipulate people’s responses to psychological stress by altering the instructions we give them before a task (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Barker & Coffee, under review). Prior to a stressful task if we emphasise feelings of confidence, control and an approach focus, participants respond physically with a challenge state. As a leader in business, emphasising the qualities your team has (confidence), drawing attention to what they can control (control) and keeping a focus on what can be achieved, not what may go wrong (approach focus) can help develop resilience in use the face of unexpected, potentially damaging events.

The framing of shocks and unexpected events as challenges potentially goes beyond leadership in the context of organisational behaviour in two ways. Firstly, the ability to absorb unanticipated risks by adopting a mind-set which allows problem solving as oppose to re-consulting the procedures can drive innovation. Tidd et al (2014) observes that innovation happens in tough times (recession) and is most likely carried out by those who see adversity as a challenge as well as a necessity- post traumatic strengthening (Taleb, 2012). Within an organisation, ideally, risk should actually strengthen the organisation (ibid), producing novel and innovative ways of working.

Secondly, people and teams focused on overcoming challenges-let’s call it problem solving- may actually reduce the cognitive load on leaders during tough times. In addition to potential innovation, this could potentially free up the time of leaders to focus on strategy, morale (both internally and shareholders) and communication. In closing, let’s say that uncertainty can be practised and then unexpected events may actually be welcomed.

Crandall, B. Klein, G. Hoffman, R. (2006) Working Minds: A Practitioner’s Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. Bradford Books

Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.
Rugg, G. D’Agnese, J. (2013) Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us. Harper One

Tidd, Joseph, Hopkins, Michael and Nightingale, Paul (2014) Positive and negative dynamics of open innovation. In: Open innovation research, management and practice. Imperial College Press, London, pp. 417-442

Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., Barker, J. B., & Coffee, P. (under review). Manipulating cardiovascular indices of challenge and threat using resource appraisals

Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., Slater, M. J., Barker, J. B., & Bell, J. B. (2013). Who Thrives Under Pressure? Predicting the Performance of Elite Academy Cricketers Using the Cardiovascular Indicators of Challenge and Threat States. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35, 387-397.

Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., & Cross, S. L. (2012). Cardiovascular indices of challenge and threat states predict performance under stress in cognitive and motor tasks. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 86, 48-57.

One Response to “Threat, Challenge and Risk- Practicing Uncertainty”


  1. Sport and Business | Professor Marc Jones - October 7, 2014

    […] blog I originally wrote with a colleague Dr Steve Suckling and which he published as part of his blog in June. Below is an abridged version of the blog in which we integrate Steve’s work on […]

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