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I’ve always believed you owe your boss your best and most honest opinion. Of course, sometimes that’s not possible. Or maybe not wise. Or maybe it is wise – a way of achieving your goals at work and securing the organization’s future – but costly.

In that tangle lie the many emotional challenges we face at work, as well as lost opportunities for the organization itself. Jim Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, says we all have fairly regular opportunities to act in courageous ways, to undertake actions that we or others perceive as risky but worthy or noble. “What’s so unfortunate is that we’ve largely accepted the notion that courageous action is only to be expected from extraordinary people in extraordinary situations,” he writes in Choosing Courage.

He defines workplace courage as taking action at work because it feels right and important to stand for a principle, a cause or a group of others, despite the potential for serious career, social, psychological and even physical repercussions. Winston Churchill said courage was the first of human qualities because it guarantees the rest.

Courage is needed if we and our organizations are to learn, be healthy and thrive. It’s needed to solve important challenges at work. It’s needed to pursue opportunities, such as stretch assignments and tricky projects. It’s essential to innovation. It’s needed to protect others – colleagues or customers – who are being taken advantage of or ignored. Prof. Detert finds it disturbing that a survey he conducted suggested conversations about unethical or illegal behaviour are only happening in a third of instances where they could occur.

We are told to be team players, be loyal, not rock the boat – by our culture and friends, as well as our bosses. We also want to be liked, Prof. Detert notes, viewing life – and leadership in particular – as an extended popularity contest. And there can be real risks to not going along. He notes that even the most decorated military leaders are still afraid to paint the true picture to those above them in the chain of command. “I’ve had countless senior leaders tell me that they don’t tell their bosses or boards what’s really going on for fear of career repercussions, and just as many tell me they pass up on opportunities for courageous action to avoid social or psychological consequences,” he said.

But he argues that your courage matters – for yourself and for others who see it. Your legacy endures after you’re gone, and giving up on achieving your best leaves regrets. “A single act of courage, particularly by those in leadership roles, can inspire others to be more committed, to work harder, to do things of benefit to the organization that ‘they can’t be made to do,’” he said, calling those “citizenship” or “extra-role” activities.

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The truth, he stresses, is that when we fear challenging authority – a key area where fear tramples courage – we don’t know with certainty how likely or severe any negative consequences will be. “It’s your belief that doing something is risky that affects your decision to do it,” he said. Sometimes, there is a lot of evidence of others who took such a course and suffered, but that doesn’t mean you will similarly pay a price. He recalled somebody who, when asked why he didn’t raise issues at work, admitted that his current plant managers and bosses were fine but described an awful manager of 12 years ago.

Prof. Detert admits that sometimes things don’t turn out well for challengers. But sometimes people who speak truth to power can survive and thrive.

He isn’t suggesting you become a martyr. He’s not asking you to shoot from the hip every time you have an idea or contrary thought. Instead, he says, we all need to learn competent courage, through which carefully considered actions can accomplish something positive and decrease the likelihood of negative personal consequences. “To choose competent courage is to accept not just the responsibility to act but the obligation to learn and continuously practise the skills that increase your chance of creating positive outcomes for yourself and others,” he said.

He asks you to imagine courage as a four-step ladder, then draw a sketch to clarify the challenges of courage you face. The first step, the bottom rung, is for things that currently feel somewhat risky and difficult but which you can imagine using to practise acts of courage. The top rung would be extremely difficult actions. Mark specific items on each rung of your sketch depending on the risk involved – actual actions you can take at work or life to practise competent courage. Rate them from one to 10 on the subjective units of distress you currently associate with each act, which he calls the SUD score.

Theodore Roosevelt is viewed as a man of courage, leading his famed Rough Riders in the bold 1898 charge up San Juan Hill. When Roosevelt years earlier spent time in the untamed West, he was afraid of much around him, notably wild animals and gunfighters. But he kept forcing himself to do difficult and dangerous things, until as a matter of habit he was displaying courage. Build your courage over time. Then carefully, not recklessly, use it.

Cannonballs

  • When we take pride in something, it can bias us. How might the things you take pride in be misleading you, asks Atomic Habits author James Clear.
  • Does your company have too many corporate values? Consultant and former New York Times columnist Adam Bryant says some on your list – for example, delivering results – are essentially table stakes for any competent firm and should be edited off the list so that what remains truly distinguishes your organization from others and is memorable for employees.
  • Consultant Steve Keating is appalled that some companies are investing in research to determine an acceptable level of customer intolerance and training employees to deflect customers away from the customer service department or get the individual off the phone as fast as possible. He takes some comfort in his belief that this will never become an old way of thinking – as the companies that adopt it won’t be around for very long.

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