The Courage to Be Candid

It takes a surprising amount of bravery for employees to point out ways organizations can learn and improve. Leaders can make it easier for people to speak up.

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When you think of workplace courage, your mind might go straight to whistleblowing — calling out unethical behavior, often in the senior ranks of an organization. That’s the example we see again and again in news stories: people who have risked their jobs, entire careers, or even family relationships to report doctored research, for instance, or delays in recalling potentially deadly defective products.1

But whistleblowing is only the most obvious example. Other behaviors that organizational leaders tend to see as “just doing your job” take guts as well. Challenging bosses about strategic moves or operating policies, speaking honestly to peers or subordinates who aren’t pulling their weight, making and owning bold decisions — these, too, are acts of workplace courage.

In a study of employees of all types from hundreds of organizations over the past decade, we identified 35 behaviors that employees often view as quite courageous.2 As it turns out, many of them are also behaviors that lead, directly or indirectly, to personal, team, and organizational learning. That is, they are behaviors that promote growth; individuals and groups that engage in them become stronger, more capable, and more productive.

Here’s the good news: The more of these behaviors people report seeing at work, the better the outcomes for individual employees, teams, and their organizations. Take, for example, speaking truth to power. A company’s learning cycle is strengthened and optimized when people give honest feedback to those in charge. It leads to greater reflection at all levels and increases the flow of new ideas about how the organization can operate and perform.3 Similarly, teams in which peers hold one another accountable are more likely than others to identify areas of improvement and increase both individual and group effectiveness.4 And taking on stretch assignments or championing a bold process change can be a significant driver of personal growth and learning for individuals — which, of course, also benefits the organization.5

But here’s the bad news: Courageous behaviors that result in improvement, learning, and higher functioning over the long term don’t happen nearly enough day to day. In our research, we found a consistently negative correlation between how courageous people think a particular behavior is and how frequently it happens. That’s not surprising overall, since a person’s perceived need for courage implies that they fear taking a risk — an obvious deterrent to action. What was more unexpected was the consistency of these patterns across settings and situations. It didn’t seem to matter whether respondents worked for a type of company that one might assume promotes exploration and learning — for instance, a young tech company, a small startup, or a business with a relatively flat organizational structure — or whether they were younger, more educated, or in higher-status roles. Across the board, they tended to see many communication and growth behaviors as risky enough to be deemed courageous and adopted them with worrisome infrequency.

Compounding these problems, in many of the organizations we studied, leaders didn’t seem to fully appreciate the types or levels of risk that their employees associated with these behaviors, and so they felt little pressure to change the status quo. As a result, many leaders continued to (inadvertently) encourage, reward, and model behaviors that thwart growth instead of promote it.

In this article, we hope to help leaders more clearly see both the benefits and the risks associated with the behaviors we identified and to become more invested in cultivating them. To that end, we’ll dig into our results and share some stories from managers and employees to illustrate the value that these gutsy behaviors can bring to the workplace — if they are encouraged and the risks are mitigated.

An Index of Courageous Behaviors

Courage is a foundational virtue because people often need it in order to display other virtues.6 That holds true not only for individuals but also for organizations — particularly, we’ve observed, when it comes to innovative, growth-oriented behaviors that promote learning.

When we set out about 10 years ago to create a behavioral taxonomy of workplace courage that could be evaluated systematically across different contexts, little research had been done on the topic. So we began our study by collecting over 700 stories through interviews and open-ended surveys. Participants varied widely in age, work experience, national origin, job type, job level, and industry of employment. In analyzing their stories, we found that 35 work-related behaviors were routinely described as being at least moderately courageous. These behaviors form what we collectively call the Workplace Courage Acts Index.7

We then surveyed an independent sample of over 1,400 highly diverse respondents to see how they stacked up against the index. After answering some basic questions about how well things were going in their organization, they were asked to think of the environment directly around them at work and rate on a seven-point scale how courageous each of the 35 behaviors would be. They were also asked how often people at work actually engage in each behavior when the opportunity exists.

Consistently, respondents who reported seeing the behaviors more frequently at work also reported seeing better outcomes in three key areas that social psychologist Richard Hackman identified as essential for effective teams: meeting or exceeding stakeholders’ performance expectations, fostering team cohesion and growth, and supporting individual learning and well-being.8

Understanding the Risks and Benefits

Knowing which behaviors take courage is illuminating. (See “Acts of Courage That Lead to Growth.”) But it’s only a start. It’s also important for managers to recognize why these behaviors are courageous and what can be gained if they are adopted. That involves considering what we call the targets of action — those who are primarily affected by the behaviors — when people speak truth to others and when they challenge their own sense of self.

Speaking truth to others. Many of the courageous behaviors have a dominant target of action — that is, one or more people most likely to be angered or threatened by the behavior and potentially able to inflict negative consequences on the actor. For example, stories about speaking up about unfairness or disrespect cast the actor’s boss as the target of action in 89% of the cases in our study; they feature peers, subordinates, or other stakeholders in just 11% of cases. Targets of action might respond to someone’s courageous behavior in ways that present economic, professional, social, psychological, or even physical harm to the actor. So the behaviors we’ve identified can involve a great deal of risk, even though when people adopt them, individuals and organizations benefit.

For example, people who reported higher rates of upward-directed behaviors like challenging a boss about strategy or pushing back on operating policies were also more likely to see their organizations as “operating and producing in ways that consistently exceed customers’ and other key stakeholders’ expectations.” This survey finding is consistent with our qualitative evidence. Take, for example, Ellie, a manager at a medical devices company, whose team scored poorly on an internal assessment of effectiveness and organizational impact.9 The results were to be presented to senior management, with explanations for why the team’s work was rated negatively by other business units. When her manager insisted that she change the results to cast him in a better light, Ellie refused. She not only challenged the ethics of manipulating the data but also respectfully pointed out that the low score could be used as a galvanizing force for team growth and improvement if left unchanged. The manager was irate but, fortunately, was eventually replaced, while Ellie remained and saw her unit improve its performance.

Sometimes improving an organization’s functioning requires willingness to challenge skip-level leaders — those two or more levels above the actor. John, a shift supervisor in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, sang the praises of his boss, who “stuck his neck out for us” to secure the space and resources his team needed to do their work effectively. Despite having just undergone an expansion, their area was still bursting at the seams. Rather than telling them to be grateful for what they’d already gotten, John’s boss put together yet another detailed proposal and presented it to leaders several levels up to advocate for those who felt voiceless even though they were “doing the work that actually makes the money.” Perhaps not surprisingly, one of us (Jim) had been directed to study this plant precisely because it had a stellar safety and efficiency record, and its climate for speaking up was among the very best out of the company’s hundreds of units.

Laterally directed behaviors (such as confronting one’s teammates about inappropriate behavior or poor performance) and externally directed behaviors (such as having a difficult conversation with a client) are also significantly associated with Hackman’s effectiveness criteria, particularly with team functioning and cohesion. For example, Randy, a business unit manager in a Canadian oil and gas company, had planned for an important budget meeting and distributed key documentation to be reviewed beforehand. When a colleague showed up unprepared for the detailed discussion that needed to happen and said he’d have to share his views sometime the next week, Randy had had enough of this common occurrence. He frankly told the colleague that he didn’t appreciate his showing up to meetings late and unprepared, that it was a sign that this person didn’t respect everyone’s time, and that the middle of the following week would delay the project too much. Though he didn’t like how emotional he got during the confrontation (as anticipated, the colleague reacted defensively), Randy was proud that he had defended the team’s process and those who had done the majority of the work that was now being put at risk.

Since the behaviors we’ve described so far are likely to be met with some resistance — from above, from peers, or from external stakeholders — it stands to reason that people see them as risky and thus don’t do them nearly enough, despite their potential value. But even when the target of action is a subordinate, holding that person accountable for undesirable choices and actions (rightfully considered “simply doing one’s job” as a manager) is rare because of the courage it requires. Annie, for example, failed to confront her restaurant employee who was consistently rude and underperforming, because he was also rumored to have a history of violence. And Jacob, a new partner in an investment firm, hesitated to challenge his new team members — some of whom were much older than him — when they undermined his authority with other employees and external clients.

As hard as these conversations can be, managers who delay or avoid them inadvertently sacrifice organizational learning and growth. Respondents who said that subordinates are confronted about and held accountable for disrespectful, hurtful, or unprofessional actions in their organizations also consistently agreed that “my team/group/unit is growing stronger and more capable each day.” This makes sense, because unchecked bad behavior — whatever its cause — undermines others’ beliefs that people will be treated fairly, that merit matters, and that it’s worth working harder or being committed to a team effort.10

Challenging one’s sense of self. While many courageous behaviors are risky because they can alienate people with economic, organizational, or social power, others largely involve stretching or challenging one’s sense of self. These latter behaviors are the most highly associated with individual growth and improvement. For instance, taking on a stretch assignment, stepping out of one’s comfort zone to innovate, showing vulnerability, and taking a principled stand all contribute to individual learning and well-being. You might, for example, let your employees see how something deeply upsetting has affected you. Sharing your emotions so openly may not currently jibe with your self-image as a leader. But as long as you’re sincere and also able to keep moving forward productively — as David, a site manager, did after a safety incident led to an employee death in his mining organization — catching this glimpse of your humanity won’t make people think you’re weak. They’ll see that you’re strong enough to be real and not a robot. That will increase their connection to you, fostering trust, commitment, and team cohesion. It will most likely help you become a better leader.

Something similar can happen if you open yourself up to criticism, embarrassment, or potential failure by standing up for a controversial cause that you believe in. That’s what Fred Keller, the founder and now chairman of Cascade Engineering in Michigan, did when deciding to experiment with welfare-to-work and ex-felon employment programs. He faced significant pushback from stakeholders, who called his judgment into question, but he persisted with the programs. As Kenyatta Brame, an executive vice president at Cascade, said in an interview with us: “It’s a big deal for someone to speak out for populations that have no champions. It’s a big deal to admit your own prior shortcomings when having dialogues about racism. As a business leader, he doesn’t have to do any of these things … but [Keller] does [them].”

Has Keller’s pattern of courageous action led to good outcomes? Unquestionably. Cascade’s welfare-to-work program, with placement of state social workers onsite, has become an award-winning model for the state of Michigan and beyond. And the “culture dividend” at Cascade is evident. The company has very low turnover, with managers turning down higher-paying opportunities elsewhere because of their commitment to the organization and its leadership. Its climate surveys show that traditionally alienated employee groups, including Black people and other minorities, are satisfied with their experience at Cascade. When the company does need to hire, it benefits from being a standout employer of choice in the area.

Promoting the Behaviors

As we’ve noted, lots of people in lots of places avoid lots of opportunities to engage in what we might hope would be routine growth behaviors. These behaviors are difficult for everyone — a middle manager in the tech industry, a C-suite executive in a consulting firm, a production worker at a manufacturing company — and they happen so rarely that there are measurable negative effects on individual and collective well-being. We do find that the degree of difficulty is greater for some behaviors in certain contexts: Upward-directed “truth to power” behaviors are perceived as even more courageous, on average, in organizations with taller hierarchies, and lateral and downward-directed behaviors are perceived as even more courageous, on average, in flatter organizations. This makes sense, though, given that vertical power structures may inhibit behaviors through threats to career or economic well-being (such as lack of promotion), whereas flatter settings — where people are more likely to know one another better and have more of a “family feeling” — may create greater fear of social fallout.

What about brazen young professionals and leaders — those we’d expect to have less fear of authority and be more willing to be themselves? Sadly, in our sample, they didn’t see the behaviors as meaningfully less risky or more likely to happen than older respondents did. And the younger folks we work with regularly (MBA students) seem to have already deeply internalized a fear of rocking the boat and thus constructed a narrative about how they’re going to do so in a couple of decades, after they’ve acquired more power. We’re not saying that they’re destined to become the organizational “yes men” of decades past, or that they “can follow an existing path but don’t have the imagination — or the courage, or the inner freedom — to invent their own,” as former Yale professor William Deresiewicz has asserted.11 But we do think they fail to understand the inhibitive power of socialization, growing obligations to others, and golden handcuffs if their strategy for being courageous at work is mostly “I’ll do it later.”

Simply expecting people to take on the risks isn’t an effective way to solve the problem, though. If you’re a leader — someone who wants to inspire and influence others rather than merely boss them — you can’t just ask them to display more courage. You have to actively encourage the behaviors and make them safer to exhibit. Here, we offer a framework for addressing this ubiquitous challenge.

Accept the problem. First, acknowledge the ways in which you have not yet done enough to reduce the array of risks or to increase people’s ability to act in spite of them.

Most leaders seem clear about some but not all of the risks that hold people back at work. They might, for example, understand that employees are worried about career consequences and therefore focus on convincing them that they won’t be penalized if they challenge authority. This, however, won’t address the social risks that also loom large. For most of human history, being ostracized by those around us wasn’t just unpleasant; it was life-threatening to be left alone to contend with violent predators and harsh environmental conditions. While today we’re unlikely to die if our coworkers shun us, that doesn’t mean we don’t have horrible fears of “social death.”12 As a research scientist in a Fortune 100 company pointed out in an interview with us, it’s fair to worry that speaking up at work might alienate your colleagues: “You might look like a showoff, not a team player, and then your peers would isolate you.” Leaders who don’t fully appreciate this reality will have a hard time promoting the honesty they want among peers or between managers and subordinates.

Leaders who want to encourage growth-oriented behaviors also have to more fully appreciate that standing out poses psychological risks.13 No one wants to feel stupid, incompetent, or impotent. Taking on high-visibility projects or stretch assignments beyond one’s current competence opens up the possibility of public embarrassment. Showing vulnerability to facilitate the work or well-being of others risks being seen as weak or inept. Implementing an innovative product or process you developed could cast you as the champion of a failed experiment. Sure, these behaviors sometimes expose people to career and social risks, too. But they involve psychological risks every time.

That’s why behaviors related to pursuing innovation are often viewed as so courageous. For instance, while you probably won’t be shocked to learn that respondents rate “quitting as a principled stand” and “jumping into physical danger to save others” as the most courageous behaviors (with mean scores of 5.72 and 5.69, on a 7-point scale, respectively), you may be surprised to know that “engaging in an entrepreneurial act” comes in at a very close third (with a mean of 5.66). Even taking on stretch assignments and owning novel changes are seen as significantly courageous. We’re our own harshest critics, and when we’re really pushing boundaries, there’s a real chance we’ll take at least a temporary hit to how we feel about ourselves. Leaders who don’t deliberately counter the labels people readily place on themselves (“I’m stupid,” “I’m incompetent,” “I’m a failure”) will struggle to encourage growth behaviors.

Commit to real change by modeling and supporting the behaviors. Armed with a better understanding of what’s holding people back, your next step is to make real changes. This usually involves altering your own behavior and the conditions in which your people operate.

In our research, we’ve seen the following pattern play out in many organizations:

  1. Broad employee survey data indicate a dearth of courageous growth behaviors.
  2. A task force is formed, usually without serious participation by people at the very top.
  3. The task force makes a set of relatively safe and modest recommendations that mostly won’t be implemented or, if they are, won’t be enough to truly change behavior.

When you’re trying to solve a problem as challenging as this one — we’re talking about helping people develop the motivation and skills to overcome deep-seated fears and rational calculations of self-interest — a perfunctory approach simply won’t get it done.

Leaders who are committed to addressing these obstacles in their unit or organization must make significant investments and meaningful system and policy changes. But their job doesn’t end there. They must also change the stories people tell and the beliefs they internalize about what’s really valued in the organization, not just what’s espoused. How do you do that as a leader? You start by modeling and supporting the behavior you want to see.

We suggest building two “courage ladders.” One is your personal ladder, on which you put a series of actions that range from somewhat daunting but immediately doable (on the bottom rung) to highly challenging (on the top rung) for you. If you’re the CEO, your ladder might, for example, range from “Stop delaying action on the division president I know is not working out” to “Adopt a strategy that risks current sales to promote a future-oriented line of business.” An entrepreneur might have a ladder that goes from “Have an honest conversation with my cofounder about the interpersonal tension that’s building between us” to “Refuse much-needed funding from an investor who I know doesn’t share my values.”

The other ladder you should build is a shared one. Spend time getting honest feedback about the important behaviors that your people are currently too afraid to routinely do but that they know are critical to individuals’ and the organization’s growth and well-being. Then lead a process where you collectively agree on the behaviors you’ll put on your group or organizational ladder, and in what order. If you’re not sure you already have the level of trust needed for this exercise, engage someone else to lead the process.

With your personal and collective ladders developed, it’s time to make some visible commitments. So far, it’s all been a theoretical exercise — an examination of what should be done or would be nice to see happen. Now it’s up to you to show people that things are actually going to be different. One way to do this is to make your goals public. Tell people around you what you’re committed to doing in the coming weeks and months. Tell everyone in your unit or organization what actions you’ll be supporting, assessing, and rewarding. Public statements don’t just inspire or motivate others; they also compel us to act, because now we’re at risk of embarrassment should we not proceed.

Take concrete steps. Now climb your own courage ladder one step at a time. We suggest starting with the least daunting behavior for two reasons. First, when people think about tackling the toughest action on their list, they’re way more likely to just not do it. Remember, it’s at the top for a reason, whether you don’t yet have the skills to pull it off or you’re just not psychologically ready. Second, starting with a more manageable act increases the odds that it will go reasonably well and thus increases your motivation to keep learning and keep climbing. The last thing you want to do is fall off the ladder by moving to the top too quickly, thereby cementing your fear that “courageous action” is just a synonym for “stupid choice.” As a manager, take the same measured approach to your group’s collective ladder. Use one-on-one and small-group meetings to ask people how they’ve started working on the lower-rung actions, debrief and praise what they’ve done, and coach them to take their next concrete step.

Whether your goal is to promote more courageous action by others or to decrease the riskiness of the many everyday opportunities for learning and growth in your organization, the changes have to start with you. It’s not going to be easy, because all of us fear some combination of career, social, and psychological consequences when we challenge norms or try new behaviors. No one wants to look foolish, be disliked, or get negatively labeled for rocking the boat. And managers, if they’re honest, don’t like being the boat that’s getting rocked or being told that it has a leak. But nor do any of us want to look back at our work and our careers with such regret over what we left undone that it outweighs much of the good we’ve done.

Standing up and speaking out matters — for ourselves, our teams, and our organizations. What we become, what we accomplish, and the legacies we leave depend on it.

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References

1. J. Carreyrou, “Theranos Whistleblower Shook the Company — and His Family,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 18, 2016, www.wsj.com; and T. Higgins and N. Summers, “GM Recalls: How General Motors Silenced a Whistleblower,” Bloomberg Businessweek, June 19, 2014, www.bloomberg.com.

2. E.A. Bruno and J.R. Detert, “The Workplace Courage Acts Index (WCAI): Observations and Impact,” Academy of Management Proceedings 2019, no. 1 (August 2019). See also J.R. Detert, “Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2021).

3. See, for example, E.W. Morrison, “Employee Voice Behavior: Integration and Directions for Future Research,” The Academy of Management Annals 5, no. 1 (June 2011): 373-412; A.C. Edmondson, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly 44, no. 2 (June 1999): 350-383; and E.W. Morrison and F.J. Milliken, “Organizational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World,” Academy of Management Review 25, no. 4 (October 2000): 706-725.

4. A.C. Edmondson, “Speaking Up in the Operating Room: How Team Leaders Promote Learning in Interdisciplinary Action Teams,” Journal of Management Studies 40, no. 6 (September 2003): 1419-1452.

5. L. Dragoni, P.E. Tesluk, J.E.A. Russell, et al., “Understanding Managerial Development: Integrating Developmental Assignments, Learning Orientation, and Access to Developmental Opportunities in Predicting Managerial Competencies,” Academy of Management Journal 52, no. 4 (August 2009): 731-743.

6. G. Scarre, “On Courage” (New York: Routledge, 2010).

7. To see where you and your organization fall in our index, you can take a survey at www.workplacecai.com. When finished, you will get a free report showing how your results compare with others’ responses.

8. J.R. Hackman, “Group Influences on Individuals in Organizations,” in “APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology,” vol. 3, eds. M.D. Dunnette and L.M. Hough (Palo Alto, California: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1992): 199-267.

9. Examples in which last names are not used have been disguised in the interest of privacy.

10. C.L. Porath and C.M. Pearson, “The Cost of Bad Behavior,” Organizational Dynamics 39, no. 1 (January-March 2010): 64-71.

11. W. Deresiewicz, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

12. K.D. Williams and L. Zadro, “Ostracism: On Being Ignored, Excluded, and Rejected,” in “Interpersonal Rejection,” ed. M.R. Leary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 21-53.

13. D. Putman, “Psychological Courage,” Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 4, no. 1 (March 1997): 1-11; and D. Putman, “Philosophical Roots of the Concept of Courage,” in “The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue,” eds. C.L.S. Pury and S.J. Lopez (Lanham, Maryland: American Psychological Association, 2010): 9-22.

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Anonymous
I can’t praise this article enough.  I studied it carefully.  If there is just one article to read this week, this is the one.  Extremely well done.  The chart showing Acts of Courage that Lead to Growth (just after para. 12) is a very useful summary table.
Stuart Roehrl