Being Brave at Work: A Q&A with Pauline Schilpzand

Pauline Schilpzand wants you—and your employees—to be brave.

By David Ward Apr 1, 2015
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Most people like to believe they could act courageously if the situation called for it, but the reality can be far different, at least in the workplace.

Surveys indicate that roughly 30 percent of employees regularly observe illegal workplace actions—and nearly 80 percent have seen abusive behavior—but only a small percentage blow the whistle on such conduct.

A new study led by Pauline Schilpzand, assistant professor of management in the College of Business at Oregon State University, indicates that courageous behavior—such as admitting a mistake to one’s boss, divulging that a product is faulty during a client meeting or calling out a superior for mismanagement—is not necessarily something that comes naturally. Indeed, by definition, courage involves acting in the face of fear or danger—something most people instinctively avoid.

After interviewing 94 employees who witnessed or performed such acts of valor at work, Schilpzand and her colleagues concluded that courageousness is a behavior that management and HR professionals can teach and encourage among employees in virtually any organization.

Is courageous behavior in the office a byproduct of good management?

It can be. Several participants in our study mentioned that good management practices facilitated their speaking up. When employees feel they are trusted, empowered and autonomous, it helps them behave courageously. When they don’t, it becomes much more difficult because the costs of being brave are much more salient and workers are aware they could be punished.

Can the right organizational structure or environment encourage workers to be more courageous?

Yes. If people work in a horizontal structure or an open office design, harmful conduct becomes easier to notice. The types of courageous conduct we found in organizations included standing up to authority, uncovering mistakes, reducing uncertainty and protecting those in need. For such acts to occur, the harm must first be noticed, but then employees need to feel it is up to them to act. In organizations that are less hierarchical, workers might feel more powerful as well as more personally responsible.

How can organizations help people to correct mistakes or confront dysfunction?

Training managers and HR professionals would be a good start. It is likely to facilitate courageous conduct, as employees may feel more prepared and responsible to act if the situation calls for it. Because HR can address employees as a whole, it can make courage a more important topic. Then workers can begin to feel that it’s expected and OK for them to act when they see wrongdoing.

Should HR establish a process for workers to report abusive supervisors or management errors without fear of punishment?

Yes. Such practices would likely reduce the perceived costs to employees of acting courageously. Maybe it would also curtail harmful conduct before it has the chance to become more intense or widespread.

Can encouraging courageous behavior lead to higher morale, better decision-making and more-productive organizations?

Causality can be a hard thing to determine, but I believe that encouraging courageous behavior to address and reverse harm could make for a healthier work environment. The harm would be more likely to be addressed and might be handled sooner, before it escalates.

David Ward is a freelance journalist based in Southern California.

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