Watching for What’s Safe: How People (and Squirrels) Calculate Risk

Bird sitting on a branch in tight focus with blurred green leaves in the background.

We’ve all heard the squawk a bird makes when they sense a threat. That loud harsh noise is meant to tell other birds, “Danger danger, Will Robinson”. My husband recently shared a great little vignette on squirrels and birds.

It turns out squirrels don’t have to have their own signal for danger — they count on the birds to tell them. They also wait for the birds’ all-clear sign. Squirrels are doing in nature what happens at work, too. What thinker Amy Edmonson has researched as “psychological safety”. 

We humans look around to see what’s safe to do, too. A friend was telling me a story of how one technical lead had formulated a new way to build something. The tech lead had been thinking about it for a while, then wrote it down, and had been sharing it with other people. 

Then, another technical lead (a more senior one) returned from a 3-month sabbatical. The senior tech leader stated how he had a “new” idea, which was remarkably similar to the one the more junior person had already been leading, developing, and sharing. 

In short order, the more senior leader took over as “the visionary” who got heard. Meanwhile, the other person who had been tilling the soil and doing the work got stepped on and pushed aside.

While all the leadership knew what was going on — a power move by the more senior leader to show his dominance — no one said anything. To them, it was simply a matter of “the work was getting done”. To leadership, the ideas were close enough to one another that the status contest wasn’t viewed as important. 

But here’s the thing that everyone else in the organization saw: Status and hierarchy rule over fresh ideas. Leadership signaled that, even if you’re the creator of a new idea, you will have that idea clearly stolen from you, and you will personally be overridden and trampled not because your idea sucked but because you are the lower person on the totem pole. 

The team will internalize this experience as ‘It’s not worth the effort to try and do something new because it won’t pay off’. Once the organizational leadership signals this is okay, the willingness of everyday people to take risks will decrease. As trust decreases, risk decreases, and innovation suffers. 

If power and status games are allowed to happen, a culture of innovation never thrives.

Down the line (maybe even a year or two later), the executive team won’t trace the reduced innovation rate back to the moment where they allowed status to win.

But those who are watching for what is safe to do will be able to tell you exactly what they saw. 

Just like the squirrels listen for the birds, we humans watch for what works. We learn what is encouraged, rewarded, supported and what is allowed. 


Orange background with stacked words in white text saying "Next Do Act Now" with grey arrow behind the text.

Now, if someone was watching you, what would they see? 

Monday: Name one thing you’d want people to know simply by watching you. Maybe it’s that you value learning or curiosity or good questions. Maybe it’s how you stand up to bullies and say it’s not okay to steal ideas and take credit for them. 

Month: Write down for yourself how many times you exhibited the trait you value. And, how many times you encountered it, too. 

Metric: Ask 10 of your colleagues how to rate you on this one thing from a scale of 1-4 (1 being not at all, 4 being all the time). 

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