Courage at Work
To survive and thrive, organizations need members who behave courageously. Courage is required to reverse organizational decline, combat unethical practices, and accomplish most worthwhile goals. Nevertheless, forces operating in most organizations serve to stifle courage, and courageous acts are routinely discounted and even punished in many workplaces.
To better understand the role of courage in the workplace, I recently conducted a qualitative study to investigate courageous acts and the social forces that influence them. In the study, 89 MBA students—all full time business professionals—described courageous acts they observed or participated in at work. As I analyzed the data I was able to identify a distinctive pattern in the experience of courage, and several individual and social factors that determine whether and how courageous acts occur.
Four elements of courage. Courage researchers have isolated four elements that define a courageous act. First, the motive behind the act must be worthy or noble; acts that are self-centered or pedestrian don’t qualify as truly courageous. Second, a courageous act requires one to overcome fear, risk or significant obstacles; if there is no threat, there is no courage. Third, the risks associated with the act must be known, and the outcome must be uncertain. Finally, the act must be freely chosen, thoughtfully considered, and executed; courageous intentions are insufficient. Virtually all of the courageous acts submitted for my study met these four criteria.
In one account, for example, a construction company employee was responsible for accompanying city building inspectors on the final inspections of the company’s housing units. During one of the inspections, the employee noticed a main structure beam that contained a large bore hole—which the building inspector did not notice. The employee easily could have ignored the problem, and he knew his superintendent would be angry with him if he were to call the inspector’s attention to the holes; fixing the problem would cause delays and be expensive. Nevertheless, the employee was worried about the structural integrity of the building and he felt people’s lives could be in danger, so he told the inspector about the hole in the beam, even though he knew that by speaking up he was placing his job in jeopardy.
Stages of a courageous act. My analysis revealed that courageous acts unfold in a predictable manner. In the first stage of the process, a trigger event occurs—usually a shock or serious threat that captures an individual’s attention. In an effort to understand the event and decide how to respond to it, the individual deliberates—sometimes at length, and often in consultation with others. During deliberation, the second stage, an individual considers his or her fears and the potential consequences, and then makes a decision to behave courageously, or not. The decision to be courageous and the act itself constitute the third stage, which is a defining moment. The fourth stage occurs when the individual reflects on the act. Every courageous act in the study was described in admiring and appreciative terms—even when the courageous actors were punished for their actions, whereas acts involving a lack of courage were viewed as failures.
An account involving a young female professional illustrates the distinctive pattern associated with courageous acts. The young woman was relatively new to the company when she began to receive an unusual amount of attention from a male executive in the company, described as the “second in command.” She became increasingly uncomfortable with the content of the executive’s phone calls, personal visits and text messages, until one evening, after hours, she received a “very crude and vulgar” message from the executive. When she expressed her discomfort to the executive, he reminded her of his level of authority and threatened her with termination if she were to discuss his behavior with others. After considering the situation for several days and talking the situation over with close friends, she decided that she “needed to take a stand against this man.” She took her case, and her evidence, to the company’s president. She observed, “It certainly was not easy to face this situation head on . . . . but ultimately I knew that I had to if I wanted to be able to sleep at night.”
Characteristics of courageous individuals. In my analysis I discovered that courageous individuals shared three characteristics. First, they identified strongly with their jobs, groups or organizations, and in fact, most courageous acts in the study were intended to benefit a group or organization, not an individual. Second, courageous individuals had strong and well-defined personal values; courageous acts were often intended to combat unethical or unfair work practices. Finally, courageous individuals had a strong sense of self-efficacy; their self-confidence was high, and even though they worried about job loss and punishment, they believed that by acting courageously they ultimately would prevail.
An account involving an engineer illustrated all three of these individual characteristics. The engineer discovered a problem with production facility software he was evaluating. Convinced that the issue could cause catastrophic problems, he went to his manager to discuss the situation. Together they decided to document the situation and present it to the program manager and head of engineering. The person who observed the act of courage said, “It would have been very easy for the engineer to sweep the evidence under the rug. We had been shipping product for some time with no problems in the field.” By raising the issue the engineer subjected himself to management scrutiny, conflict and criticism from those who didn’t want to believe that the problem existed, and the engineer knew that he also would pay a steep personal price—hours of “mind numbingly boring work” as he worked to correct the problem. The engineer consciously chose the harder path because he believed it was the right thing to do for the company and its customers, and he knew he could fix the problem.
Social factors that inhibit and promote courage. The study also revealed that social factors play a powerful role in inhibiting and promoting courageous acts at work. One of the most prominent inhibitors of courage was power or status inequality. Considerably more courage was needed when an individual considered opposing someone with a higher level of power and status. Many accounts in the study featured an employee who stood up to his or her boss, or even to the boss’s boss. In most of these cases, the individual worried about retaliation—and for good reason. In a high proportion of cases, individuals were punished for courageously opposing their superiors, even when it was obvious that their opposition was in the company’s best interests.
Courageous acts also were inhibited by organizational norms that prohibit opposition. In many organizations, disagreement and conflict are taboo. When these types of norms exist, considerable courage is required to oppose practices or people. The third inhibitor of courage was concern about negative interactions as a result of a courageous act. When individuals deliberated about behaving courageously, they worried constantly about the damage the act could do to their relationships. They expressed concern about “ratting out a friend” or “betraying” a work associate, and they were particularly troubled by the prospect of harming their relationship with their boss. Whenever courageous acts involved opposing someone with whom one had a strong or important relationship, a great deal of courage was required.
I discovered that three social factors promote courageous acts at work. First, in organizations with ethical cultures, the consequences of courageous acts were far less worrisome; individuals believed that they would be treated fairly for doing the right thing. Second, when individuals perceived that others in the organization had behaved courageously, they were more inclined to model that behavior and behave courageously themselves. Indeed, in the study there were many instances in which one act of courage spawned many other acts of courage. Finally, the presence of social support made courageous behavior much more likely. Supportive friends and colleagues not only helped individuals make courageous decisions, but also assisted them as they dealt with the consequences afterwards.
One of the main conclusions of the study is that courageous behavior generally benefits both organizations and individuals, so leaders should foster courage in the organization, rather than squelch it. Today few organizations can afford to employ people who carry out their work obediently without taking initiative. Courageous acts are needed to seize opportunities, confront problems, and engage others in building workplace vitality. A better understanding of the experience and social context of courage at work can help to ensure that courageous behavior flourishes in organizations.