• Behaviour

Practising Courage in the Workplace

Darden’s Professor Jim Detert on how executives can develop the courage to speak truth to power


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While high-profile whistleblowing regularly hits the headlines – think #MeToo, the Panama Papers, the VW emissions scandal and currently the Trump/Ukraine debacle –having the courage to speak truth to power is also important at an unheralded everyday level. Not only should employers encourage people to speak up but executives should actively seek to develop their own personal courage.  

In extreme cases employees, who speak up to expose individual or corporate malfeasance, can save their organizations from existential crises. At a more basic level employees who have the courage to reveal poor practise or champion new ideas can bring incremental even transformation performance improvements. Furthermore, the true value of inclusion and diversity in organizations only comes when employees feel its safe to speak up and diverse voices are heard and listened to.

Research from Professor Jim Detert at Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, highlights the importance of courage in this area and how courage can be seen as a competence executives can develop – the courage it takes to stand up for your own ideas, disagree with the boss, point out systemic failings, or confront remiss in co-workers and even in clients.

“Generally, people speak up if they feel it is safe, or stay quiet if they don’t,” says Detert, "However, as we began studying workplace relationships, we realized there is a third category: those who realize it is not safe to speak out, but still do so. That is clearly a type of courage.”

When employees, executives in particular, have the courage to speak up for worthy causes or worthwhile ideas, despite perceived risks to themselves, differences can be aired, problems solved and change can happen for the better. Ideally this will happen because the organizational culture offers a sense of psychological safety. But even in the best of places confronting bosses, peers or clients can be intimidating, and it is important for people to develop a personal capacity for courage.

Based on interviews with hundreds of business leaders and managers, Detert offered a series of valuable insights in a recent Q&A session published in an article on UVA Today. This is an extract:

Q. How do you define everyday workplace courage?

A. Most simply, I define it as doing something for a worthy cause despite the perceived risk in the work domain. It’s undertaking a risky act for a cause you believe is worthwhile.

Q. What stood out to you as you went about your research on courage?

A. First, I realized that we need to let go of the notion that courage is the province of just a special few, rather than all of us. People tend to think that courage is innate, that you are either born with it or you are not. Research suggests that is not true, and it’s an unhelpful and potentially dysfunctional belief because it allows the vast majority of us to let ourselves off the hook.

That is why I refer to it as ‘everyday’ courage. I want people to understand the opportunity is there quite often. 

Relatedly, we need to accept that courage is a behavioral skill or competence that we can practice and work on. It’s like a muscle – if you want to be ready when a difficult situation arises, you need to practice smaller acts of courage regularly.

Q. What can employees do beforehand to minimize the risk of speaking out?

A. On an ongoing basis, you can make yourself as credible and respected as possible, so that when you do speak up, you will not be dismissed as disloyal or incompetent. You can also maximize your autonomy by saving part of your salary and keeping up your job skills, so that you know you have something to fall back on.

Once you decide to speak out, consider the timing carefully. Are you taking action for the right reasons? Is this battle important to the larger war – the cause you want to achieve? Are there other things going on that might distract your audience or keep them from taking action? These are important questions, though there are certainly circumstances – such as sexual harassment – in which such sensitivities can and should be set aside.

Q. What about in the moment?

A. In the moment, it’s a combination of phrasing and emotional control.

One big mistake people make is presenting the issue solely from their point of view. Instead, frame the issue favourably from the perspective of the person or people you need to convince.

Second, control your emotions and the emotions of those in the room. Recognize when others are getting frustrated and think about how you can redirect that.

Finally, after the moment passes, – and this was the biggest surprise for me – really courageous people tend to be great at follow-up. Most of us, after we go through some sort of confrontation, are so exhausted that we tend to run away from it. Really skilful people, however, follow up with those who were upset and those who agreed with them to plan out the next steps. They are good at securing action and repairing damaged relationships.

Q. How can employers create an environment where their employees feel comfortable speaking out?

A. This is an interesting question that I have talked through with a lot of different companies and managers. I pose it this way: You have two choices. You can ask how to encourage courage – making sure you thank people who stick their necks out, train your employees to face difficult situations, etc. You can also try to reduce the perceived need for courage by making sure people see and believe that they will not get in trouble for speaking out. Make sure they know that you are not looking for yes-men, but for people who challenge you constructively.

Most employers I talk with recognize that it is important to focus mostly on the latter option, while also encouraging courage when needed.

Q. How do you teach ‘everyday courage’ to your students at Darden?

A. I firmly believe that you cannot become more courageous or confident in high-stress situations by talking about it. In my class, called ‘Defining Moments’, students read short case studies in real time and then are immediately forced to stand up and role-play the situation. Often, I bring actors in to create realistic simulations or bring in the protagonists from cases I have written. I make students walk through a stressful scenario, then give them the tools, techniques and feedback they need to improve their responses.

Situations requiring courage are almost always emotionally ‘hot’. You can’t help people get better in emotionally hot situations by talking about it in emotionally ‘cool’ ways. I’m committed to helping our students get that realistic, challenging practice while they are in school so that they can rise to the occasion later.

For over half a century, Darden Executive Education has served as a critical resource for businesses around the world, conveying the relevant strategies and specific business skills needed to formulate decisions, set action plans and apply sustainable options.

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