What does workplace courage look like? While some of us may have a clear idea that comes easily to mind, no doubt many others think of it as something abstract and non-quantifiable: “It means doing the right thing.” “It’s about sticking up for your coworkers.” “I know it when I see it.”
James Detert, an organizational behavior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, has spent a lot of time thinking about this very question. So much so, in fact, he’s written a book on this very topic that was recently released, Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work. The book is the culmination of Detert’s many years of research on workplace courage and the conditions under which people successfully use their voice to speak truth to power.
Leaders who inspire courage in employees model courageous behavior themselves—no matter what.
I interviewed Detert for my book, To Be Honest: Lead with the Power of Truth, Justice and Purpose, to learn more about what he calls “competent courage,” how people can effectively bring their voice to difficult issues in their workplace, and why courage is a skill, not a personality trait.
To start, he tells me that it’s important to break down the mythology that attributes like courage are reserved only for a few special heroes. “One of the things that has troubled me is the false notion that any virtue, like courage or honesty, is required only from some of us some of the time,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any philosophy, religious system, or any system of thought that says virtuous behavior is only needed from some of us some of the time.”
This kind of thinking is seductive, says Detert, because it “lets us off the hook.” If we tell ourselves “a story, which is actually a myth, that there’s a unique set of people who were born with the ability or the right skills,” we’re saying there’s no point in even trying. This is obviously self-defeating—and convenient.
“In the realm of courage in particular, I think we make that false belief further solidified by telling stories about courageous actors or heroes in the form of the Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings. And we point to these absolute heroes and in doing so, we actually allow people to say, ‘Well, that’s clearly not me. That’s clearly something I could never aspire to become.’ And so, part of what I’ve tried to do is say, ‘We have to let go of the myth.’ But if I’m going to ask you to get rid of that myth or let it go, then I should also try to provide you some actionable steps that mitigate the risk. And that’s really what this framework is about.”
The framework refers to a set of skills that equip people to be “competently courageous,” which Detert defines as an “ability to speak in a persuasive, powerful way without offending. The ability to pull together others and/or resources in a unique, powerful way.” While any feather-ruffling, positive action someone takes is worth saluting, being competently courageous increases the likelihood of sustained change. Here are the four essential steps:
Lay the groundwork
Leaders who inspire courage in employees model courageous behavior themselves—no matter what—and create the conditions where courageous behavior is encouraged, not punished. Are managers seen as warm and trustworthy? As the kind of people who have employees’ best interests at heart? Do employees feel empowered to give negative or difficult feedback, secure in the knowledge that they won’t be punished for doing so?
Pick your battles
Taking a stand on everything and anything is a surefire way to get managers and coworkers to tune out. The ability to decide what’s really worth going to the mattresses for is essential. “If you fight every battle that you possibly could in organizations, first of all, you’d be fighting all the time. And second, you might win some battles, but almost certainly would lose the war,” says Detert. “I think part of competent courage is saying what’s most important to me, what’s truly a violation of who I am.”
Subscribe to the Ethical Systems newsletter
Persuade in the (right) moment
Fairly or not, the more your concern relates to issues simmering in the background—whether at your company, your industry, or the country at large—the more likely it is to be addressed. “The reality is there are attention cycles for issues in society as a whole,” says Detert. “There are moments within an organization when an issue has a chance of being connected to priorities and something that has momentum.”
For example, the #MeToo movement gave national attention to the issues of sexual harassment and gender inequality in the workplace, and the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd did the same for racial injustice. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t speak up if your concern isn’t currently in the news cycle. Just recognize that there may be less willingness to take it on.
Understand that once you take the courageous step of speaking up, you’re not done; in fact, you might only just be getting started. According to Detert, a lack of follow-through dooms many well-meaning change campaigns. “Most acts where you’re going to really change a culture system, a way of being, you don’t do something one time and think you’re going to get it right. And if you’re going to quit, because the very first time it didn’t go right, you’re not going to change very much,” he says. “Part of being competently courageous is saying, ‘This is going to be an iterative learning experience.’”
Courage is, in other words, a skill, a competency—it can be learned. You don’t have to think of yourself as “courageous” to act courageously—but you do have to be open to trying. “The departed Colonel Eric Kale has had a great line,” says Detert. “He said, ‘Most people think courage is what happens in those 30 seconds, but that’s a lie because you can’t be something in those 30 seconds that you haven’t been the last 10 years.’ He said the truth about courageous action is that you practice regularly. You prepare for that moment. And I would say exactly the same thing. If we look at the literature on any kind of outstanding performance, we know that it comes from deliberate practice.”
Still, workplace courage has a paradoxical aspect. In an ideal workplace, “courage” isn’t actually necessary. By default all employees will feel empowered and secure enough to speak their minds in good faith; offering objections to company policies or critiquing management isn’t perceived as brave, just another tool for ensuring accountability. Detert understands this. “When leaders say to me that they have a problem with courageous behavior and need me to help them encourage more courage, I actually push back on that and say, ‘Is that really your goal? Because if your goal is to encourage courage, you are essentially telling people that they’re right. It’s not safe here. And you don’t intend to make it safe. You just want them to stick their neck out more.’ Is that really the message you want to send?”
There’s the rub: A truly courageous workplace is one where nobody has to be courageous. But back in the real world, there’s still a vital role for courage. So, be courageous—or even better, be competently courageous.
Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.
Reprinted with permission from Forbes.