quality practice

Dancing in the dark: engagement and risk

updated on 07 Aug 2023
5 minutes

Does working in public engagement foster risk taking?

Woman on a building balcony 2

This blog post is a collaborative piece based on a workshop delivered at the ENGAGE 2019 Conference. The workshop was advertised as being most suitable for those with 5 or more years’ experience of public engagement.

As Bruce Springsteen sang in the song ‘Dancing in the dark’, ‘you can’t start a fire without a spark’, which always involves an element of risk. The aim was to encourage people to take risks to support better public engagement, by identifying support and risk management strategies that worked for others.

Together we shared stories about when we have taken risks, each participant working with someone they didn’t already know. We pulled out the enablers and supports and risk management strategies. Workshop participants were very generous in sharing stories and contributing ideas, and open to sharing their personal experience and knowledge. This was notable as revisiting scenarios involving risk-taking might bring up ambivalent or negative feelings, and stress, especially if revisiting moments of potential or actual failure. But for the sake of the workshop, and making a contribution to other public engagement professionals, we took the plunge and worked through these challenges.

The most popular category of supports identified was the personal qualities of those taking risks for public engagement, namely the internal supports for risk-taking. This internal strength has various forms and roots, such as having passion, confidence, empathy and resilience, being brave, honest and also flexible. We feel that these qualities are often strengthened over time through practice in public engagement. Stories shared during the workshop highlighted that even when the risk taken resulted in a negative outcome in the short run, participants felt that the process could reinforce certain qualities and virtues, as well as the self-belief of the risk-taker.

In re-telling our stories to ourselves, we have a tendency to make the story consistent with our narrative of ourselves, and to highlight the positive. In part, this is a survival mechanism. However this doesn’t mean that we’re not also doing genuine learning about ourselves and our practices. Although personal characteristics and drivers were important sources of strength for risk-taking, this also highlighted potentially problematic challenges, such as when responsibility for the risks of public engagement are left with the individual professional, and success depends on personal risk-taking.

The second category of supports were people friends and family, colleagues, managers, funders, and external people with relevant skills. People who were supportive (regardless of who they were, or their roles), and friends, were the key for peer support, as well as loved ones. Other people’s beliefs in our skills and qualities, as mentioned above, could also be an important source of strength and support.

Within our organisations, co-workers and colleagues could be a source of ideas and encouragement, to talk things out with.  Managers could also be an important support, and senior people could make a real difference, particularly in the early stages of career development. Where senior leaders might not be active supporters, they might be influenced to lend support. At higher levels or outside of our own area there could also be useful support.

External to the university, there were other potential sources of support and encouragement. Community partners in particular could be potential allies and advocates, and if they had previous experience of facing, managing or surviving a type of risk, they could be a great source of knowledge and ideas. Evidence from other universities could be used as leverage, to benchmark against (for example if taking a risk looking for resources). Funders can be supportive, and even flexible. And other people who have particular skills (e.g. someone with a knowledge of legal terminology) could be helpful allies in taking a risk.

Readiness and planning is another strategy to effectively help to manage risk. We discussed how to be prepared for various uncertainties and outcomes – thinking of risks upfront, understanding the idea and methods of risk management, planning for contingency, evaluating the risk of doing versus not doing. We also felt it helped to be aware of our own possibilities and limitations – e.g. the resources we could line up, the internal mechanisms we could rely on, the timescale we are operating in.  Tricks like framing a risky activity as “pilot”, thus setting the boundaries of risk-taking, were shared, as well as skills such as having the ability to notice well ahead of time when things have the potential to go wrong, and mediating a tricky situation.

Possibly the most useful risk management strategy is clear communication. Keeping in contact, and/or chasing people up for things, was another useful strategy. The importance of process was highlighted, and of managing expectations. It can be helpful to use a positive frame in communications, for example framing possibly risky critiques in terms of offering support to a person or process. Powers of persuasion are important, as is referring to appropriate evidence or research. Finding shared values, and building a team around us could also help mitigate risk. It might not be a coincidence that these are all key principles of ethical engagement[1]!

The inspiration and support for taking a risk might come from unexpected places. For one person, it was having a fortifying glance at a statue – a representation of the virtue of Moral Courage – that happens to be just above the entrance of her university. One of us passes by a poster advertising gin and tonic on the way into our building, but we felt a better source of inspiration might have to be sought!

A question that arises as we write this blog is about the relationship between public engagement and risk-taking: are risk-takers attracted to public engagement, or does working in public engagement foster risk-taking? There may be no straightforward answers to this question.

Over to you - what personal resources and techniques do you have to support you in taking risks for public engagement?


Names of contributors:

Reka Matolay (Corvinus University of Budapest)

Catherine Bates (Technological University Dublin)

Emma McKenna (Queen’s University Belfast)

Dawn Smith (Edinburgh Napier University)

Elizabeth Jackson (University of Guelph)

We would also like to thank the other workshop participants who shared their learning but chose not to add their names to the blog.