The news headlines these days are filled with stories of courage and stories of absence of courage. Courage seems to be what the times are calling for. For example, the #metoo campaign has provided a new forum to help women have the courage to come forward and report sexual abuse. But what exactly is courage and who is most likely to be courageous? Might the way we think about the situation make a difference or are situational and personality factors more powerful? A recent study published online this month in the Journal of Positive Psychology explored the predictors of day to day courage in the workplace.
According to Rate and colleagues (2007; Rate, 2010), courage is a ‘(a) willful, intentional act, (b) executed after mindful deliberation, (c) involving objective substantial risk to the actor, (d) primarily motivated to bring about a noble good or worthy end’ (Rate et al., 2007, p. 95). This definition emphasizes taking action after mindful thought, rather than impulsively rushing in. This view of courage emphasizes consciously chosen behavior taken at some personal risk because of core values or the desire to bring about a positive outcome, rather than automatic, impulsive behavior that may not be consciously chosen.
The researchers in this study focused primarily on behavioral social courage, which was assessed by the Howard and colleagues’ (2016) 11-item Workplace Social Courage Scale (WSCS). This type of courage involves taking deliberate action or speaking up in ways that create risk for the person’s social image. The worker takes this action for the sake of others or of helping the organization. An example of this type of courage is speaking up when a co-worker is rude to somebody, even at personal cost.
In two different studies, the researchers looked at several different factors that might predict courage, including personality traits (grit and proactive personality), job characteristics (e.g., complexity, autonomy or social support) and demographic factors like age and sex.
The first study surveyed more than 200 workers and found that the personality factors of grit and proactive personality were predictive of greater social courage, after controlling statistically for the other factors. Gritty people are determined, passionate about their goals, and willing to persevere. Proactive people take action to address and fix problems, rather than avoiding.
In the second study of more than 200 workers, various leadership styles (e.g., empowering leadership, abusive leadership) and cultural influences (e.g., power distance, humane orientation) were assessed as predictors, along with age, tenure with the organization and gender. In this study, empowering leadership, age, and power distance were all predictive of social courage, but gender and other cultural influences and leadership styles were not. Empowering leadership involves providing guidance and autonomy and making decisions collaboratively. Power distance is the extent to which rank and position in the hierarchy conveyed special privileges. These findings suggested that leaders who empower their workers and less hierarchical organizations enabled workers to act more courageously.
The researchers then conducted a third study of 395 workers in which all of the variables in the two previous studies were included as predictors, along with an assessment of the perceived benefits and risks of behavioral social courage. In this study, age and proactive personality were the strongest predictors of courage. Social courage is more related to fixed factors like age and tendency to be proactive than to aspects of the work environment or workers’ beliefs about the consequences of speaking up.
This study’s findings suggest that courage is mostly an internal quality of a person, although workplace environment and leadership may have a role in empowering people to speak or act courageously. This study is limited by the fact that all variables were assessed by self-reported questionnaires, rather than by observing the workers’ behavior in actual situations.
Research about courage is still relatively new and emerging. One implication of this study is the importance of encouraging our children to have a voice and teaching them how to take action to help themselves and fix problems, so they can develop more proactive personalities and therefore feel more empowered to act courageously as adults. Also, older people can play an important role as courageous role models for their younger colleagues. Organizations and society can benefit when people act courageously.
Howard, M. C. & Cogswell, J. E. (2018). The left side of courage: Three exploratory studies on the antecedents of social courage. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 17 January, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1426780