Having just published a book called “Choosing Courage” (HBR Press, 2021), you’d think I’d be in favor of encouraging courage within an organization. Certainly, I’m all for more courageous action when it’s ourselves we’re talking about. We all have just one shot at being our best selves and making our greatest possible mark on the world through our work.
The Problem With Encouraging Courage
For leaders, especially those with significant control over an organization’s policies, practices and cultural norms, I suggest rethinking the “encourage courage” mantra. In a healthy or laudable organization, do employees need to routinely accept significant risk just to do important parts of their job? For example, should employees have to risk economic, social or psychological harm to tell their boss or other leaders the truth about strategic, operational or interpersonal issues? Or to make a tough decision that colleagues or clients aren’t going to like but that defends important principles?
When leaders encourage courage without addressing the underlying reasons for people’s fear, they’re essentially telling them, “You’re right; it’s not safe, but I need you to ignore that. Buck up, and act courageously anyway.” To tell the people below you to be more courageous without also doing everything you can to change the conditions that make key behaviors feel risky is to displace responsibility onto people with less power.
Fostering Psychological Safety
So, when I hear leaders lamenting that “no one around here has enough courage,” I implore them to investigate why everybody needs so much courage to work in their unit or organization and then to get serious about change. I encourage them to focus their efforts on decreasing others’ perceived need for courage, which involves creating what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson has described as “psychological safety” — the belief that one won’t be punished or humiliated for engaging in behaviors that help the organization learn, even if things don’t turn out perfectly or feelings are hurt along the way.
For example, rather than focusing training primarily on how employees can speak up more effectively, it’s also worth training managers on how to receive and respond to feedback more constructively — and then holding them accountable for doing so. Rather than pressuring employees to step out of their comfort zone, it’s better to redesign evaluation and reward systems that convince people it’s easier to move ahead by trying new things than by playing it safe.
Walking the Walk
Perhaps most importantly, leaders who want to see more courage in others would be well served to be sure they’re seen as courageous — or just routinely willing to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult — themselves. People pay attention to power. They see the people above them as “embodiments of the organization,” the living illustrations of what the organization values and is like. As a result, the best way to encourage courage without saying a word is to model it.
If people with more power or status don’t do the hard things — tell their own boss the truth about problems, take prudent risks to defend and promote others, or put their foot down when they know something is wrong — the message is all too clear: “Courage may be given lip service, but it isn’t actually expected or rewarded around here.” It won’t matter if leaders say they want others to be courageous because, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, what they do will speak so loudly that no one will hear them.
Facing Risk in the Workplace
Take the issue of inclusion: the tall task of ensuring that all members in an organization feel like they are truly and equally welcomed — that they belong, are safe and can expect to be treated equitably and with respect. Just about every leader I meet today says that he or she supports this notion and expects people in the organization to behave inclusively. Yet, when I run simulations in which trained actors level microaggressions at each other during a 10- to 15-minute experience, most of the participants (who come from all types of organizations and industries) don’t respond. When we debrief, and I ask why they stayed silent, the most common response — by far — is, “Because confronting it would have been ugly and probably derailed the meeting.”
Remember, this is a simulation with actors the participants had never met. If they believe that pushing back against the microaggressions was risky and would go poorly, they brought that belief to the situation from their own experiences. This response suggests that they haven’t seen microaggressions routinely called out by their own leaders. It means that rather than seeing their leaders respond with gratitude and remorse when taught to see their inadvertent microaggressions, they mostly don’t. It means they’ve learned it’s not safe to address microaggressions.
And so, it means that the naming and productive handling of microaggressions when they occur — something that’s important to having an inclusive workplace — continues to feel too risky and, thus, happens too infrequently. This situation won’t be changed by encouraging others to accept more risk just because inclusivity is now a key objective. It will be changed by leaders who are courageous enough to change themselves before asking others to, by leaders who routinely model, recognize and reward the behavior they want to see, and by leaders who hold themselves, above all others, accountable.