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5 Insights About Being Courageous at Work

Being competently courageous is about commitment and practice, not personality.

Key points

  • Courageous behavior is a choice anyone can make, not just the responsibility of those with some imagined personality type or characteristic.
  • Courageous behaviors in workplaces take many forms (beyond whistleblowing and other major acts). Opportunities are ubiquitous.
  • Like any behavioral skill or useful mindset, competent courage comes from routine, deliberate practice.

Everyone knows what courage is, right? Well, yes and no. Sure, everyone has a lay definition of courage and has probably claimed, “Wow, that’s courageous!” upon witnessing certain acts. But, as psychologists and other social scientists know well, this kind of intuition is a long way from the kind of scientific understanding that helps people better understand the world around them or adjust their own behavior to be more in line with an espoused best self.

For years, I ended my leadership courses with the assertion that the size of a leader’s toolkit doesn’t matter if they aren’t willing to be courageous enough to use them when the opportunities arise. This clearly resonated, because courage was the topic students consistently said they wished we’d spent more time on. That led me to spend a decade trying to understand what workplace courage means, looks like, and, most importantly, if and how it can be developed.

What I found through careful study covering thousands of participants in total was that our intuitions about workplace courage are, in many instances, both limited and self-limiting. While I describe these insights in detail — including what we can do about them — in my new book Choosing Courage (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021), I briefly share five of them here.

Insight 1: There’s no magical gene or personality trait for courage possessed by only a few. It’s a choice all of us are responsible for making and capable of doing something about.

The people who do courageous things at work range across gender, ethnicity, nationality, religious commitment, income level and so many other dimensions we use to categorize people. Sure, some people are more assertive, altruistic, or prone to risk-taking. That, however, does not necessarily translate into actions taken on behalf of others, or actions done with sufficient skill to make a positive difference.

Here's what I found: There are no obvious differentiators of those who take opportunities for courageous action at work and those who don’t. And even if there were, would that be an excuse for inaction in the rest of us? We don’t claim there are personality traits or other individual differences that make it OK for most of us to neglect other virtuous behavior like being fair, honest, or prudent, so why should being courageous be different?

Think about what we’ve seen during the pandemic. It wasn’t just a few doctors or nurses putting themselves at risk on patients’ behalf. And we don’t say that doctors or nurses were born ready or have some rare personality traits. We know that they’re capable and willing to act successfully in stressful situations precisely because they’ve spent years training to effectively own this kind of responsibility. All of us can make the same choice.

In sum, if we’re going to have the kind of workplaces most of us would like to work in, we have to let go of the myth that it’s easier for someone else, or someone else’s responsibility, and start holding ourselves to the same standard of action as those we admire or consider our heroes. This will be easier if we think about courageous actions rather than about courage as some sort of invisible stock residing within people.

Insight 2: Fear doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t act courageously. It means the stage is set.

Every normal person feels afraid or intimidated by the prospect of doing some things some of the time. As M. Scott Peck wrote: “The absence of fear is not courage; the absence of fear is some kind of brain damage.” We need to accept that courage is about taking action despite our fears.

For most people, what comes to mind first are economic or career risks. We’re afraid that if we push the envelope too far, we could get fired, blackballed, held back, or otherwise negatively impacted financially.

Social risks also loom large. For most of humans’ time on earth, being ostracized by those around you wasn’t just psychologically unpleasant—it was life-threatening. You courted death if you were left alone to face violent predators and harsh environmental conditions. While today you’re unlikely to actually die if your coworkers shun you, that doesn’t mean we don’t have horrible fears of “social death.”

Standing out also poses psychological risks. No one wants to feel stupid or incompetent. Yet that’s exactly what’s at stake when we take on high-visibility projects or stretch assignments beyond our current expertise. The same is true when we ask for help or admit mistakes. We’re our own judge and juror, and when we’re really pushing boundaries or showing vulnerability, there’s a real chance we’ll take at least a temporary hit to how we feel about ourselves.

So, yes, there are lots of fears. But acknowledging fear doesn’t mean a courageous act is impossible. It means the stage is set.

That’s what Colin eventually realized. He worked for a boss who “kissed up but kicked down”; she was pleasant to the president but cruel and impatient with her staff. And she’d admitted to others that she loathed Colin. After silently taking the abuse while his own and others’ drive and passion waned, Colin had finally had enough. He first went to her and told her how her behavior was impacting the team and his own morale. Then he went above her and told the CEO everything that had been happening.

Was he afraid? You bet. But he’s proud of what he did and has no regrets. “Having been on the receiving end of much bullying as a child,” Colin told me, “I had never once mustered up the courage to confront my aggressor and fight back. For once in my life, I didn’t turtle. I didn’t just choose the easiest path where I simply endure being disrespected by someone simply because of their position.”

Remember, if there’s no perceived risk to an action, it’s not courageous! Courage is about what we do despite acknowledging we’re afraid. It’s about not turtling.

Insight 3: “Truth to power” acts might be the prototype of courageous action in the workplace, but they’re far from the only behaviors commonly seen as courageous.

Whether it’s about speaking honestly to our direct bosses or skip-level leaders, or using our own judgment in ways that might anger authorities, or defending others from those in power, we know we might be courting trouble.

But once we acknowledge the multiple kinds of risks that people face in workplaces — not just economic/career risks, but also the social and psychological ones — we can see why so many other kinds of behaviors also get labeled courageous. My colleague Evan Bruno and I identified another 24 kinds of behaviors seen as significantly courageous when we developed the free Workplace Courage Acts Index. These include handling difficult, uncomfortable situations with peers and subordinates, customers, and various external partners. They also include a number of bold moves that people sometimes make, ranging from taking a major new work assignment to deviating from established practice in innovative ways.

Think about your own context. Would it be easy to confront a peer who said something racist or sexist because he doesn’t have formal power over you? Or, would it be easy to fire a profitable client or walk away from an investment because someone acts abusively toward you or your people? We know it’s not, just like it’s not easy to try new things at work just because everyone’s espousing wanting more innovation these days.

Here’s what I’ve learned: When asked to describe things that would be courageous in their workplace, people describe a wide array of behaviors beyond speaking truth to power, and report that none of these happen nearly enough. That’s really troubling because my data also show that the behaviors seen as courageous in many places are also positively related to individual, group, and organizational well-being.

Insight 4: The moment matters, but so does what you do before and after.

We all know that how you behave “in the moment” makes a big difference in whether a courageous act goes well. That’s why we spend a lot of time advising people to carefully manage the style and substance of their message, and to channel emotions productively.

We spend a lot less time thinking about what comes before or after those high-stress moments. That’s unfortunate because what I’ve learned is that a lot of what determines how courageous actions turn out is what happens before or after the moment that everybody talks about.

For example, being taken seriously by or not offending others when you push them on something has a lot to do with the credibility you already have or don’t have. People need to believe that you’re warm — that you care about them or others and aren’t just being critical or self-interested. They also need to believe you’re competent — why should they accept your viewpoint or grant you resources if they don’t think you know what you’re doing?

Follow-up is also critical. It’s quite likely when you bring something up for the first time that you end the discussion without explicit action plans or metrics, and that busy people will soon forget the conversation. And those who weren’t that dissatisfied with the way things are will gladly leave it that way. That’s why you’ve got to follow up quickly to nail down actual commitments.

Follow-up is even more important when someone seemed hurt, angry, or confused by your act. You can ignore others’ feelings, but there’s a reasonable chance they’ll end up creating a problem for the changes you want. And if you care about those relationships, following up is simply the right thing to do. So, even though it can feel like yet another courageous act, it’s usually worth it to go resolve those lingering negative feelings.

Insight 5: Courageous acts aren’t only the biggest and scariest things you can think of, and not the right place to start anyway.

If you ask people about something courageous they could do at work, they’re likely to tell you about something that involves risking their job or important relationships.

That’s unfortunate for two reasons. First, when people only call to mind the riskiest thing they can think of, they’re not very likely to do it. Second, if they do give it a try before they’ve practiced in easier situations, there’s a good chance it won’t go well. That only confirms the belief that acting courageously is stupid and makes it less likely people stick their necks out again.

We know from exposure therapy, learning theory, and other psychological principles that it’s much more productive to start with smaller, more manageable steps. That allows us to stay in control and relatively safe while we try new behaviors. Best case scenario, we have success and feel really great. Worst case—we see that we survived just fine despite it feeling unpleasant in the moment. We’re not so scarred that we won’t try again.

I encourage people to build a personal courage ladder where they put courageous acts at different levels of difficulty on the different rungs and then start with the action on the bottom rung. As we know from the study of performance in all different types of domains, the way to hone skills is by trying something, carefully studying what happened, revising, and then trying again in a deliberate manner. And we’re more likely to try again if we start small.

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