Courage comes in many forms. During the Covid crisis our first thought is about the countless front-line workers, the bereaved families, and the battling patients who have shown immense bravery through this time.
More generally courage is a critical attribute we all need to progress through life—to face hardship, develop honest relationships, stand up for our personal values. In the workplace, due to the fear of embarrassment, being unpopular, or facing reprisals when we stand out or speak truth to power, courage can be severely tested. Yet it is only when employees have the courage to speak up and leaders the courage to listen up that organizations can develop cultures of openness, where difficult conversations and challenging situations can be addressed and where diverse thinking and innovative ideas can thrive.
The replacement of traditional hierarchical structures in organizations by more democratic ones is widely acknowledged to foster learning, creativity, and employee engagement—critical factors for success and sustainability in a fast-changing disrupted business world. Achieving this state, where leadership is distributed through the organization, is very much dependent on the creation of an open, fear-free, environment where people feel able and have the courage to speak up, stand out, and counter groupthink.
In his new book, Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work, Jim Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, shows how, contrary to common belief, courage is not a virtue restricted to the brave few, but a human characteristic possessed to some degree by everyone, that can be developed with practice over time—particularly as it applies in the workplace.
As an executive educator, Detert says he has ended courses telling students that had he more time he could give them more tools for their leadership toolkit. “But here’s the thing,” he added, “in the end I don’t think the range of one’s toolkit is the primary differentiator between better or worse leadership. What I think matters is the courage to use those tools when needed.”
In this book he provides a series of insights, based on several decades of research and teaching experience, into how to develop greater personal courage, the symbolic effect on those around us of displaying courageous behaviour, and how leaders can “encourage courage” across their organizations.
In the second part of the book, Detert offers these five tactics for taking courageous action at work:
Creating the right conditions. To be able to take effective courageous action when needed it is important to build a credible reputation. Set the scene by being humble, kind, generous, and a consistent high performer.
Choosing battles. Bearing in mind the outcome you hope to achieve, it is important to control when to act and when to hold back to achieve long-term success. And you should aim to time actions to coincide with critical events or moments.
Managing the message. It is important to see the issue you wish to speak up about from other people’s perspective and to tailor your message accordingly, using data and offering solutions that are likely to resonate with them.
Managing emotions. Keeping cool, controlling anger, resisting fear—these are all key to success when taking a courageous action. With our emotions under control, we can focus on the responses our action receives and plan how best to react.
Taking action after the act. Following up to clarify, address doubts, build support and establish next steps is essential. Achieving a desired outcome is likely to involve learning from setbacks and being persistent.
Developing courage matters at work, both for individual executives—in building confidence and authenticity as a leader—and for the organization because organizations where everyone can find the courage to stand up for their values, call out problems and share ideas and opinions, however zany, are healthy organizations.
‘Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work,’ by Jim Detert. Published by Harvard Business Review Press, May 2021, ISBN 978-1-64782-008-4