Q&A: How to Practice ‘Everyday Courage’ in the Workplace

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Q&A: How to Practice ‘Everyday Courage’ in the Workplace

University of Virginia professor Jim Detert studies courage.

More specifically, the Darden School of Business professor studies courage in the workplace – the kind of courage it takes to disagree with your boss, put forth a new plan, confront a negligent coworker or hold a difficult client to account.

“Generally, people speak up if they feel it is safe, or stay quiet if they don’t,” said Detert, a professor of business administration and associate dean for executive degree programs and leadership initiatives. “However, as we began studying workplace relationships, we realized there is a third category: those who realize it is not safe to speak out, but still do so.

“That is clearly a type of courage – whether it is speaking truth to power or speaking up in your relationships with peers, subordinates, clients or customers.”

Jim Detert headshot

Jim Detert began studying professional relationships as a Ph.D. student and soon focused on acts of courage in the workplace. (Photo courtesy of Darden School of Business.)

Over the course of his research, which began as a Ph.D. dissertation, Detert has talked to hundreds of managers and employees, as well as current and former Darden students, and created electronic surveys for thousands more.

All of those stories have taught him a lot about how to speak up in the workplace – and how not to. We asked him to share a few of the lessons he has learned.

Q. How do you define everyday workplace courage?

A. Most simply, I define it as doing something for a worthy cause despite the perceived risk in the work domain. It’s undertaking a risky act for a cause you believe is worthwhile.

Q. What stood out to you as you went about your research on courage?

A. First, I realized that we need to let go of the notion that courage is the province of just a special few, rather than all of us. People tend to think that courage is innate; that you are either born with it or you are not. Research suggests that is not true, and it’s an unhelpful and potentially dysfunctional belief because it allows the vast majority of us to let ourselves off the hook.

That is why I refer to it as “everyday” courage. I want people to understand the opportunity is there quite often.  

Relatedly, we need to accept that courage is a behavioral skill or competence that we can practice and work on. It’s like a muscle – if you want to be ready when a difficult situation arises, you need to practice smaller acts of courage regularly.

Q. What can employees do beforehand to minimize the risk of speaking out?

A. On an ongoing basis, you can make yourself as credible and respected as possible, so that when you do speak up, you will not be dismissed as disloyal or incompetent. You can also maximize your autonomy by saving part of your salary and keeping up your job skills, so that you know you have something to fall back on.

Once you decide to speak out, consider the timing carefully. Are you taking action for the right reasons? Is this battle important to the larger war – the cause you want to achieve? Are there other things going on that might distract your audience or keep them from taking action? These are important questions, though there are certainly circumstances – such as sexual harassment – where such sensitivities can and should be set aside.

Q. What about in the moment?

A. In the moment, it’s a combination of phrasing and emotional control.

One big mistake people make is presenting the issue solely from their point of view. Instead, frame the issue favorably from the perspective of the person or people you need to convince.

Second, control your emotions and the emotions of those in the room. Recognize when others are getting frustrated and think about how you can redirect that.

Finally, after the moment passes, – and this was the biggest surprise for me – really courageous people tend to be great at follow-up. Most of us, after we go through some sort of confrontation, are so exhausted that we tend to run away from it. Really skillful people, however, follow up with those who were upset and those who agreed with them to plan out the next steps. They are good at securing action and repairing damaged relationships.

Q. How can employers create an environment where their employees feel comfortable speaking out?

A. This is an interesting question that I have talked through with a lot of different companies and managers. I pose it this way: You have two choices. You can ask how to encourage courage – making sure you thank people who stick their necks out, train your employees to face difficult situations, etc. You can also try to reduce the perceived need for courage by making sure people see and believe that they will not get in trouble for speaking out. Make sure they know that you are not looking for yes-men, but for people who challenge you constructively.

Most employers I talk with recognize that it is important to focus mostly on the latter option, while also encouraging courage when needed.

Q. How do you teach “everyday courage” to your students at Darden?

A. I firmly believe that you cannot become more courageous or confident in high-stress situations by talking about it. In my class, called “Defining Moments,” students read short case studies in real time and then are immediately forced to stand up and role play the situation. Often, I bring actors in to create realistic simulations or bring in the protagonists from cases I have written. I make students walk through a stressful scenario, then give them the tools, techniques and feedback they need to improve their responses.

Situations requiring courage are almost always emotionally “hot.” You can’t help people get better in emotionally hot situations by talking about it in emotionally “cool” ways. I’m committed to helping our students get that realistic, challenging practice while they are in school so that they can rise to the occasion later.