Five Insights About Being Courageous at Work

July 15, 2021

Having spent the last decade trying to understand what workplace courage means, looks like, and if and how it can be developed, I’ve found that our intuitions about courage are, in many instances, both limited and self-limiting. Here I briefly share five insights that are covered in more detail in my book Choosing Courage (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021).

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.

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. 

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. 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. 

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. 

When asked to describe things that would be courageous in their workplace, people describe a wide array of behaviors beyond speaking truth to power: handling difficult, uncomfortable situations with peers, subordinates, customers, and various external partners; and 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. 

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

How you behave “in the moment” makes a big difference in whether a courageous act goes well. 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.

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

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.

Written By

Jim Detert

Jim Detert is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior area at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration and a Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Prior to joining UVA, he taught at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management and was the faculty director for the School's leadership initiative.