Choosing Courage In Leadership

07.19.21

Choosing Courage

WITHOUT A DOUBT, courage matters—and we need more of it. Courage to see the right thing done. Courage to present a new idea. Courage to innovate and grow.

Courageous acts can be risky—career-wise, socially, and sometimes physically. But if it weren’t risky, it wouldn’t be courageous. Acts of courage are worth considering to not only help others and yourself but to avoid regret. Acting courageously can help to solve problems, avert disasters and open the doors for opportunities. It also means taking personal responsibility even when it hurts. Author and consultant John Izzo wrote, “We must live with courage, moving toward what we want rather than away from what we fear.”

In Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work, Jim Detert says we can all learn to be more courageous. But to do it right requires preparation and the right mindset.

Courageous people sometimes pay a price for being courageous, “but often it’s not nearly as bad as we, or they, anticipate. And they seldom regret what they did, because they know I was the right thing to do based on their values, whether they’re defending someone else, doing what’s best for the organization, or simply being able to sleep well at night.”

Detert 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 for doing so.

That definition could give one the impression that we should act courageously whenever we get the urge. Ranting is not a courageous act. Acting courageously requires good judgment, as well, as Detert makes clear.

One of the most important points he makes in the book is that the outcome of your courageous move hinges a great deal on how you behave—how you present it—and your reputation.

We can confront, challenge, or disagree with powerful people in ways that evoke more or less threat, anger, and defensiveness simply by changing the how, where, or when of what we say or do.

Of course, this is true no matter to whom you are speaking. Reading the situation and proceeding with humility is critical. Sometimes too, what we perceive is not reality.

Detert presents five steps to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome and decrease the odds of negative personal consequences when acting with courage in any context.

Choosing Courage Steps

Creating the Right Conditions

Build your reputation before there is a need to be courageous. “This means creating a strong internal reputation which involves being seen as humble, kind, and generous, and also as a consistent high performer.” If you are seen as someone who has the organization’s and other people’s interests at heart, your words will be seen as less threatening, and you are more likely to get an audience.

“If you haven’t routinely demonstrated emotional ability and stability, people aren’t likely to respond well to your courageous act.” With a track record of emotional maturity, you will buy yourself a lot of goodwill. Furthermore, don’t take sides. “When you’re seeking support from others, you’ll fare better if the people involved feel you’re acting on behalf of a collective interest that includes them.”

Choosing Your Battles

Not all battles are worth fighting. “Work life is filled with things that irritate or anger us, frustrate or disappoint us, and fill us with passion about what our organization could be doing more of or doing better.” You need to be very clear about what is really important. If you take issue with everything (most things), you will be labeled as a troublemaker, and your influence will be compromised. Good questions to ask are:

What are my key values and goals?
Are my emotions informing or controlling me?
What are the broader gains and losses—the bigger picture?

And get the timing right.

Competently courageous people pay attention to timing. They recognize that even the most reasonable comment or idea, presented in the most constructive way possible, may still fall flat or lead to trouble if delivered at the wrong time.

Managing the Message

We run into trouble when we make the message about us. “Understanding how others see the issue, what they care about, and what kinds of data and solutions they are most likely to find compelling allows us to make many important decisions about how to present our message and connect it to others’ priorities.”

The same message can be framed in ways that are less likely to offend and more likely to resonate with the target(s). People are more likely to accept your message when they believe you want to build on their prior efforts, include them in the future, and help them achieve their current priorities.

Importantly, Detert also adds, “People don’t like to feel ambushed or ganged up on. So, if you have a chance to speak to someone in private—at least for the first time—you’re likely to get a better reception.”

Channeling Emotions

Success in presenting an idea or issue may very likely depend on how well you manage your emotions and those of the target of your courageous act. “Shaking while talking, going silent, or literally fleeing the situation because we’re scared at the first sign of resistance doesn’t help. While being angry might fuel action, failure to control it can undermine success. Managing our emotions makes it easier to focus on others’ responses.” Anger doesn’t help make your point.

You should also be clear that you are merely offering a perspective—not the only perspective or relevant facts. Avoid common phrase like “the explanation…,” or “the obvious problem …,” or “it’s totally clear that ….” When we speak this way, we’re not just implying that there is only one point of view; we’re implying the valid view is the one we hold, and others who don’t see it that way are stupid or self-interested. This is what psychologists call naïve realism because it’s not an accurate view of the world.

Finally, Detert writes, “The goal is to have your emotions be the motivation for action, but not the driver of how you behave.”

After the Act

Whether your courageous act went well or poorly, it is critical to follow up “whether to clarify a position or solidify next steps, check in and address lingering doubts, or thank those who have helped and share any credit for any wins.”

No matter how skillfully you frame the change you’re suggesting or making, there’s a reasonable likelihood someone will be hurt, angry, or confused. After all, change implicitly says that something currently happening is a problem. You can’t ignore others’ feelings, hoping they’ll just get over them, but letting this negative energy fester can be bad for the changes you want. And it’s almost certainly a bad idea to ignore others’ feelings if you care about those relationships. In short, it’s usually worth it to address what you sense or know are lingering negative feelings, even if doing so feels like yet another courageous act.

The outcomes of some courageous actions are determined immediately—like when you intervene to prevent physical harm to a fellow employee who is doing something unsafe. Often, though, it takes a long time to determine what’s possible, and the best outcomes accrue only to those willing to keep trying and learning over an extended period of time.

Detert packs a lot of wisdom into this book to help us do the fearful and difficult things in a way that gives us the best chance for a positive outcome. Much of his advice requires us to slow down and think about what we are trying to accomplish and the best way to approach the people we are trying to influence. Choosing Courage will help us to achieve greater impact without regret.

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