Fostering Workplace Courage Can Benefit Organizations

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 30, 2014
It was an hour before the launch of a space shuttle and the young NASA aerospace engineer who was responsible for loading cargo onto the shuttle realized that she had miscalculated the cargo weight.

The cargo represented the lifetime work of three researchers and its weight had to be carefully controlled. Her dilemma: Pretend she never noticed her mistake and hope the launch was unaffected, or point out her potentially harmful error? Admitting her miscalculation could result in the cancellation or delay of a mission that had cost $1 million and been years in the making, and possibly abort or derail the young woman’s career.

She sought out a colleague for guidance and 30 minutes before launch, heart pounding, she approached her boss to admit her error. He was visibly upset at the news, but the team recalculated the weight and the launch proceeded, unaffected.

“It was the right and honest thing to do … I couldn’t bear to imagine how I would feel if I hid my mistake and caused the shuttle to crash,” the unidentified woman said, one of 94 people speaking with researchers during a study on workplace courage.

The research will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Organization Science. It is based on structured interviews that Terence R. Mitchell, professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, and Pauline Schilpzand, assistant professor at the College of Business at Oregon State University, conducted in 2005 with participants in an executive education program at the University of Florida.

People in the study described witnessing and/or participating in workplace bravery. In-depth accounts included the employee who chased a robber from his employer’s store and the manager of a regional sales plan who refused her vice president’s request that she falsify sales targets so favored employees would get bonuses and those in disfavor would not.

Managers discourage on-the-job courage, though, because it encourages subordinates to speak up; that can make managers uncomfortable, the researchers noted.

“Managers might better grasp the significance of our findings,” Mitchell said in a news release, “by thinking of courageous workplace behaviors as a type of organizational immune response that identifies and corrects power abuses, errors, ambiguity and needs before they metastasize and threaten the system as a whole.”

Employees are aware of inherent social and professional risks of acting courageously. More than one-third of the interview subjects who stood up to authority believed they suffered repercussions because of their actions.

“There’s no training for social courage” in the workplace, said David R. Hekman, assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business and study co-author.

“If your boss is abusive, you put up with it or leave. If someone’s being hurt in the workplace, that’s OK, just keep your mouth shut. If you speak up, you’re fired. That’s a pretty typical outcome.”

Types of Workplace Courage

Standing up to authority was the most common of four types of courage workers had witnessed or performed, and the most harmful to those who practiced it. Protecting those in need was the second most common type of courage, followed by uncovering mistakes and taking a stance on an issue with possible serious repercussions and no clear solution—such as a CEO making an organizational change unpopular with others in the company.

“At least half the time, white-collar acts of courage ended up with some retribution, [or] retaliation … whether firing or a bad performance evaluation or some negative personal consequence,” Hekman said.

He pointed to the story of a product manager whose company was selling a software product that was incomplete. In the middle of a meeting with a large customer, the product manager spoke up about the problem; he was fired before he had returned to his hotel.

“Unfortunately, the standard mode of operation in the corporate world is don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge authority, keep your head down or you’ll get hammered,” Hekman told HR News.

But having employees with the courage to speak up can benefit an organization, the researchers said. A case in point: The aerospace engineer who admitted her error. She didn’t lose her job and an important verification step was put in place that required someone to check weight calculations.

Courage Can Be Learned

Researchers found that a company’s cultural norms—such as allowing employees to take risks and have a voice—may play a prominent role in allowing employees to behave courageously.

“What’s surprising about the findings,” Hekman said in a news release, “is that they tell us courage is not just a personality trait, it’s a behavior that can be learned.”

Courage is very social, he said, explaining that people look around to see if there are others more prepared or powerful to step forward. One way to deal with this, the report advised, is for organizations to select people in expert roles—such as human resources—and in leadership roles—such as managers and team leaders— to train or prepare for courageous action.

Faced with wrongdoing or danger in the workplace, the most significant factor that prompted people to act bravely was a personal sense of responsibility for those who would be affected by their decision to act or not act. They felt an obligation to step forward “out of a sense of duty, morality, responsibility and value for human life,” the researchers said in their report.

“Almost everybody we talked to—even those whose acts caused them physical harm or did damage to their careers—said they’d do it again,” Mitchell stated. They were proud of what they did, he added, but didn’t advertise their actions.

Courageous actions can inspire others.

One person recalled his CEO who, during a company party with vendors, staffers and executive team members, jumped on stage in front of hundreds of people to admit his leadership mistakes and promised to make changes. His action “was the jolt we all needed,” the interviewee told researchers.

“People started taking their work more seriously and really being committed to customers and what we were doing to try to turn things around,” the person said.

The flip side is that malfeasance often is contagious, too, the researchers noted.

“Merely witnessing uncivil or illegal actions frequently leads observers to imitate or perpetuate the bad behaviors rather than stop them,” they write, pointing to Enron and Lehman Brothers as examples where there was widespread organizational malfeasance that could have been prevented if employees had been willing to take courageous action.

This is causing organizational leaders to realize they often must rely on employees to act courageously, the report noted. Researchers suggested developing a culture of transparency, providing contingency training much like what emergency responders go through to prepare for risky situations and having informal gatherings to foster a climate of care and concern for fellow employees so they are more likely to look out for one another when courageous action is warranted.

Additionally, managers who want to encourage this behavior among employees, the researchers advised, “might benefit by taking a look at the power structure in their organizations and thinking of ways to loosen control and encourage risk-taking and speaking out.

“Soliciting input on controversial decisions or having well-known grievance procedures or an

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.

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