No leader would readily say they wanted cowardice but until you’ve seen a workplace of confident, idea-sharing, risk-taking, conflict-engaging, openly dissenting people, it’s hard to know the difference.

Courage is something that we want for ourselves in gluttonous portions and adore in others without qualification whilst cowardice, uncertainty, defensiveness and timidity are shunned and identified as performance killers.

I have been commended on my moral courage in blowing the whistle on South Africa’s Enron, the LeisureNet scandal. On reflection, whilst I knew  that my initial actions were for a worthy cause and I was met with psychological conflict and fear, I didn’t fully appreciate the risk I was taking at the time. Like a bird unfamiliar with humans that will alight on a persons’ hand, I trusted that a helpful solution would be the outcome of my speaking out as opposed to the harmful outcomes that unraveled. Sure, over the eleven years that ensued, which included re igniting the fraud case after a judge had been bribed, I was by then fully aware of the dangers and still chose to undertake the risks involved in defying expectations for conforming. I now appreciate that my actions would therefore fit into Professor Jim Detert’s definition of workplace courage, being “…the degree to which the risk of a courageous act involves putting one’s economic well-being and professional standing at risk by angering those with more power in legally-sanctioned formal hierarchies.”

The nature and importance of courage has been debated and discussed for at least 2 500 years. The importance of courage in our understanding of virtuous human action is pervasive throughout recorded history and in our tumultuous world, where we need more moral courage and less physical courage I was intrigued out the outcomes of my google search on courage:

I was intrigued to see that there are significantly more searches for Courage (244 000 000) than there are for organisational justice.(1 140 000)  Even more interesting is that workplace courage(8 910 000) has a higher search rate than organisational justice.  The two are deeply connected but historically the focus has been on organisational justice only without identifying the fuel that drives this outcome.

I’ve engaged with many organisations where lots of sophisticated tools have been accumulated; all those fancy frameworks, formulas, findings and fact patterns in an expensive, impressive-looking toolkit. Leaders know which tools are useful for addressing which kinds of managerial problems but there’s a blindspot that ultimately the toolkit won’t be worth much if individuals don’t have the courage to use those tools when the time arises. Like the well-known principle of chemistry, active ingredients can be mixed together with little effect until a third ingredient, in this case courage, is added, to trigger action.

What are the antecedents to workplace courage and what mechanisms translate an opportunity to act into action?

Acknowledged Risk: We can sense when one person or a group is more powerful than another, yet we cannot measure power. It is as abstract as time, yet as real as a firing squad.

Despite long-standing claims that organisations are becoming more democratic, the dream of candid communication and action free from obstruction by power and hierarchy remains far from reality. Most organisations retain a hierarchical form and the associated rules and norms create strong pressures to obey those in authority.

Organisational leaders often react strongly negatively to challenges to their authority precisely because this authority forms the basis for bureaucratic forms of organising. As a result, speaking up the chain of command remains a risky behavior that could get one fired.

Being ostracised completely by a group represents a form of social death and is considered one of the risks humans most seek to avoid.  To go against the views of colleagues and friends at work by speaking out, disagreeing with the status quo or otherwise pursuing a worthy cause that courts social disapproval can involve sufficient risk to make it an act of workplace courage.

Worthiness of the Action: Courage involves acting for the greater good in the face of fear and anxiety. The sense of a “felt responsibility” drives nearly any type of courageous act, mostly placing the value of fairness before loyalty.

Free Will and Choice: Courage drives conscious deliberation without coercion, having a choice and being willing to act in spite of risk and fear. Significantly, courage is invested in the action taken and not in judging the outcomes of action.

Awareness of Fear: To be aware of the danger and being present to recognised fear and anxiety and yet going on all the same, or all the more is indeed, courage.

Self-image: The multiple points of self-reflection, self-evaluation and self-regulation that we all face along the way to action are like ‘little mental acts’ of moral courage throughout the decision-making path.

Asking yourself ‘is my not feeling a desire to act aligned with the type of person I wish to be?’ can help reduce frictions between aspects of your self and your social identity. This question heightens the complex, paradoxical tension that courage represents between an individual and the organisation – the struggle between responsibility to an external power and one’s own conscience.

Collective identity can lead to Collective courage: The passengers of Flight 93 who organised a counterattack against their hijackers on September 11, 2001 were able to create a collective identity based on three distinct narratives in order to respond to the threat: personal narratives; narratives to explain duress; and narratives of collective action. These same narratives may be utilised to empower teams to take wise and ethically courageous action under pressure.

Situational or contextual factors: the existence of supportive norms and role models create a sense of mission and purpose engendering a sense of personal obligation to act courageously. Courage is contagious, the spirit of an observed act can increase the level of bravery in those around that individual, awakening a sense of possibility or inspiration to act.

Personality traits : Openness to experience, conscientiousness, core self-evaluation, hope, resilience, positivity, behavioural integrity, empathy, mindfulness and social connectedness.

Emotional Primers: Anger or indignation at injustice, recalling prior experiences with value violations or identity threats, anticipatory shame and regret, perspective taking, heightened concern for others and focus on one’s own past crucible moments.

So what are the benefits of workplace courage?  The majority of acts deemed by many to be courageous are likely to be precisely the types of behaviours that leaders espouse wanting because they are important to learning, innovation, individual and organisational justice, dignity, and well-being.

Courage is often called an ‘executive virtue’ with organisational benefits such as solving problems, fostering innovation and creativity, creating positive social change, increasing citizenship behaviours, creating competitive edge and higher ethical standards.

At SpeakOut SpeakUp we believe that everyone can learn skills and strategies to become more adept at addressing challenging social situations at work; using our best thinking, values and social support. We call this training for Courageous Conversations.

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