Where is the Courage in Organizations?

April 13, 2009 / General /

By Ryan Quinn

Recently, I was talking to an HR executive from a multinational company and David Newkirk, the CEO of executive education at Darden, the University of Virginia’s Graduate School of Business. The executive’s company faces a number of strategic challenges and organizational changes. Organizational change is difficult, and sometimes even frightening for managers and employees. As a result, the executives wanted to hire courageous managers to lead their company. This created a problem, though: how do you know if a person you want to hire is courageous?

Courage is a great topic for executives to be thinking about. After all, more courage in our financial institutions may have helped prevent some of the problems we face today, and we will likely need courage to get out of the crisis. As this executive explained his dilemma, David turned to me and said, “You’ve done research on courage, Ryan, do you have ideas about how to hire courageous people?”

Where can we find courage?

I proposed, based on a subtle and important insight I learned from my colleague and co-author, Monica Worline, that the question of how to hire courageous employees may actually be the wrong question. This is because, as Monica argued in her dissertation, courage is best understood as inhering in actions, not individuals. A person can do courageous things sometimes and do cowardly things other times. Action is courageous when there is duress (fearful or risky circumstances), and when it opposes that duress constructively (trying to create a new, socially valued reality). If courage inheres in action rather than individuals, then the question that we need to ask is not, “How do we hire courageous people?” but “How do we engender more courageous action?”

Research on courage in organizations is just beginning, but we do have some ideas. In one paper, Monica and I explored what enables courageous collective action by conducting a theoretical analysis of the events that occurred on United Airlines flight 93 on September 11, 2001. Two of the interesting ideas that emerged from this analysis were

1. People may need to ground their identities in meaningful relationships in order clear their minds, calm their emotions, and find perspective for their situations; and

2. People need to develop an assessment of their situation which includes sufficient relevant inputs to ensure that their actions are courageous rather than foolhardy.

How to increase courage

If research continues to support these findings, they have important implications for increasing courage in organizations. First, organizations that want courageous action should have formal policies and informal norms that support rather than discourage the development of meaningful relationships inside and outside the organization—relationships with people like the family and friends that passengers aboard Flight 93 called when they made phone calls from their hijacked flight. We should not be surprised, for example, if there was insufficient courage in our investment banks, given that their formal policies and informal norms encouraged employees to work night and day, week in and week out, diminishing employees’ invest time in external relationships that ground their identities in much of anything that was meaningful beyond their work. Relationships within the organization should also have rich meaning as well, but even this meaning is limited if its connection to people and stories outside of the immediate work context is limited.

If we want our managers and employees to take courageous action, we also need to them to know what actions, if taken, would be most constructive. To do this, they need sufficient, diverse, relevant inputs and perspectives. In simple situations, like when a child is in danger and rescue is needed immediately, simply seeing the child in danger may be sufficient as an input. But in complex situations—like when deciding how much and in what ways to rely on mortgage-backed securities, how to deal with a faulty product feature after the product launch is already complete, or how to respond to a new and unprecedented kind of hijacking, more inputs and perspectives will be needed.

What, then, can a leader do to help employees develop meaningful relationships and seek multiple, diverse, and relevant inputs? Here are some ideas:

  • Create conversations with employees about values that are worth taking courageous action for. A great example of this is the recurring sets of conversations that leaders, including the CEO, at Johnson & Johnson have about the credo. When leaders clear their slate to spend significant chunks of time talking with wide cross-sections of employees about values with no immediately obvious economic reason for doing so, it sets an example that says that living up to values and talking about values matters in this company. This adds to the meaningfulness of both immediate conversations and long-term relationships.
  • Implement policies and procedures that encourage employees to develop and maintain meaningful relationships with family, friends, and relevant stakeholders. Examples of this may include flex-time policies that allow employees to attend meaningful events with family and friends, practices that introduce employees to the customers who benefit from the products they make, and procedures that require employees to identify and listen to stakeholders who will be influenced when important decisions are made. When courageous action is needed, meaningful relationships can calm nerves, clear heads, and focus thoughts, and diverse inputs can help employees to take wise rather than foolhardy action.
  • Recognize courageous actions. Leaders can recognize courageous action through techniques like requesting employees to submit examples of courageous action that they think should be recognized. The best of these can be selected and recognized in ceremonies, newsletters, and through other communication media. This has two benefits. First, by focusing attention on courageous action, it encourages such actions from other employees, and can also help employees understand what exactly makes an action courageous by learning why particular actions were chosen. Second, a process like this creates value-laden stories, which people tell again and again and help create meaningful relationships.
  • Train people on why they should live up to values. Research suggests, as we describe in the sixth chapter of Lift, that people seldom have good reasons for why they should live up to values that they claim to believe in, and that they are more likely to live up to those values if they think through why they should be living up to those values.* Training that includes this kind of ethical conversation strengthens commitment, and also develops the meaningfulness of the relationships of people who participate in such conversations.
  • An example of this can be found in the stories pages of the Lift Consulting website. A manager from a large company we have worked with had an idea for a new revenue stream for the company. The leaders of the company had been talking about how new revenue streams were needed, but when this manager took the idea to the CEO, the CEO shot his idea down and told him not to spend any more time on the idea. He was ready to leave the company, when he attended a training program that included conversations about why he should be courageous. He began talking to managers at a bank to figure out how to flesh out his idea, even though the CEO had told him to not spend any more time on it. With more “flesh” on the idea, he took it back to the CEO, who now saw the benefit of the idea. They began implementing the idea, and are projecting £100 million of new revenue for the company because of it—value creation that is uncommon in today’s economy. It was not this manager who was courageous or cowardly, but his actions. He took courageous action after he had meaningful conversations about reasons for why it was worth taking risks to create value, and then diverse and relevant conversations about how to do that in an intelligent way.

    * See also Maio, G. R., & Olson, J. M. (1998). Values as Truisms: Evidence and Implications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(2), 294-311; and Maio, G. R., Olson, J. M., Allen, L., & Bernard, M. M. (2000). Addressing Discrepancies between Values and Behavior: The Motivating Effect of Reasons. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 37, 104-117