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.
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.
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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.
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.