While organizations don’t typically associate courage with the workplace, having courageous staff can improve culture, productivity, and competitiveness. An expert offers advice for organizations and employees on how to foster a courageous workplace.
Having courage in the workplace may not seem like the most needed skill, but it is an asset and should be cultivated, according to University of Virginia professor Jim Detert.
“The benefits at the organizational level: [Staff are] just flat-out solving problems more quickly,” said Detert, the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration. “They’re pursuing opportunities before they’re lost or a competitor takes them. There is also high employee engagement and commitment. That ranges from people making fewer mistakes, people working harder, people being more creative, to people engaging in organizational citizenship—their willingness to help, their willingness to go above and beyond.”
Detert’s new book, Choosing Courage, looks at employees who spoke up and changed their organizations or—in the case of a medical student who challenged a seasoned physician—people’s lives for the better.
In workplaces, employees often fear that speaking out against the proposed agenda or status quo will keep them from receiving a raise or being promoted. Detert said desire to belong socially also reduces the likelihood people will speak up. However, having employees communicate necessary information that contradicts norms—despite their fears—is not only an act of courage but can also prevent things from going wrong.
Detert recommends employers use two tactics to cultivate courage: help employees see that speaking up isn’t as scary as they think and make it so employees feel compelled to speak up.
On the first suggestion, Detert said people must feel psychologically safe to speak out. Organizations achieve this by demonstrating that people can speak up without being punished, showing it’s OK for people to make mistakes, and celebrating people when they stick their necks out in responsible ways.
“All the steps around creating psychological safety change the equation because they make people feel less afraid,” Detert said.
Associations and other mission-driven organizations are primed to help their staff be courageous because a mission often makes people feel compelled to not stay silent. “People are willing to overcome their fears because the mission is so compelling,” Detert said. “There are things you can do to make the mission intrinsically worth taking the risk.”
Employers can also help foster courage in employees by making sure they have positive incentives for taking risk and speaking up. “If organizations were really serious, they would think more carefully about when people stick their neck out [and consider how to] recognize them, thank them, and change their status in a positive direction,” Detert said.
While employers can support courageous culture, Detert also had a tip on how employees can improve their likelihood of being courageous.
“I suggest people build a courage ladder,” he said. “They should ask themselves not what’s the scariest, hardest thing they can imagine doing at work—which would be at the top rung of the ladder—but what is moderately difficult. Then, what’s only a little bit difficult or frightening, and start down there.”
When practicing lower-rung skills, apply critical thought to the process. “You can actually learn specific skills and practice them in ways that, while still difficult, are not likely to be so overwhelming that you can’t infer how did it go, why did it not go well, and what do I need to keep working on,” Detert said.
Creating a courageous workplace won’t happen overnight, especially if an organization’s culture is in a bad place when it begins the process. In that case, it could take years. “That doesn’t mean you couldn’t start to see improvements on employee surveys or some quick wins,” Detert said. “But to really change the narrative, that takes quite some time—culturally and structurally—to really gel.”
How do you encourage courageous behavior in the workplace? Share in the comments.