How to be more courageous at work

There is a myth that acting courageous is foolish, but confronting for example a colleague who made a sexist remark can be great for the individual, team and organisation, says Jim Detert

There is no rare, magical gene for courage. People who are courageous range across gender, ethnicity, nationality, religious commitment, income level, and many other dimensions. In fact, there are no obvious differentiators between those who take opportunities for courageous action and those who don’t. 

So, we must let go of the myth that it is easier for others and start holding ourselves to the same standard of action as those we admire or consider our heroes. The good news is that we can all learn to become more courageous in our life and career. 

Much of my research focuses on courage in the workplace and here are a few insights, which also feature in my book.

Fear does not mean you cannot or should not act courageously

Fear simply means the stage is set for courageous action. We need to accept that courage is about taking action despite our fears. So, what are people afraid of when they contemplate courageous action at work?

For most people, what comes to mind first are economic or career risks. We are afraid that if we push the envelope too far, we could get fired, black-listed, held back, or impacted financially. Social risks also loom large, the ultimate one being “social death.”

Standing out from the crowd also creates risk. No one wants to feel stupid or incompetent, yet that is exactly what is at stake when we take on high visibility projects or assignments that are beyond our current expertise. The same is true when we ask for help, admit mistakes, or show vulnerability. There are lots of fears we can have but acknowledging fear does not mean a courageous act is impossible. It means the stage is set.

Truth to power acts are not the only behaviours commonly seen as courageous

Beyond the types of workplace behaviour that involve confronting or challenging those with more power, my colleague Evan Bruno and I identified an additional 24 behaviours seen as significantly courageous when we developed the Workplace Courage Acts Index. These include handling difficult, uncomfortable situations with peers, subordinates, customers, and various external partners. They also include those bold moves that people sometimes make, ranging from taking a major new work assignment to deviating from established practice in innovative ways.

Would it be easy to confront a peer who said something racist or sexist? Would it be easy to ban a profitable customer because they acted abusively toward your staff? Of course not, but the presence of courageous behaviours in these and other situations is of great benefit to individual, group, and organisational wellbeing. 

The moment matters, but so does what you do before and after

We all know that how you behave in the moment makes a big difference to whether a courageous act goes well. But in my study of thousands of situations, I found that a lot of what determines how courageous actions turn out is what happens before or after the moment that everybody talks about.

I have also learned how important following up is, especially when someone seems hurt, angry, or confused by something you have done. You can ignore others’ feelings, but there is a reasonable chance that they will end up creating a problem for you down the line. And if you care about those relationships, following up is simply the right thing to do. So even though it can feel like yet another courageous act, it is usually worth it to resolve any potential lingering negative feelings.

Focus on the courageous acts you are willing to do right now

If you ask people about something courageous that they could do at work, they are likely to tell you about something major that would involve risking their job or important relationships. That is unfortunate for two reasons. 

First, when people only call to mind the riskiest thing they can think of, they are not very likely to do it. Second, if they do give it a try before they have practiced in easier situations, there is a good chance it will not go well. This only confirms the belief that acting courageously is foolish and makes it less likely that they will stick their neck out again.

It is much more productive to start with smaller, more manageable steps that allow us to stay both in control and safe while we try new behaviours. Best-case scenario, we have success and feel great. Worst-case scenario, we see that we survived just fine—despite it feeling unpleasant in the moment.

So, I encourage people to build a personal courage ladder where they put courageous acts at different levels of difficulty on different rungs. That may include stepping beyond the boundaries of one’s role, challenging a boss about a policy, or even confronting peers. Our courage ladders are unique to each of us. If you want to change your behaviour, the only “wrong” ladder is one that you are not willing to climb.

Jim Detert is professor of business administration at Darden School of Business