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  • Debbie Dougherty

Weaving Courage into Your Organizational Culture

Updated: Jan 20

Part four in a four part series on fear and courage in organizations

Super Hero woman in green outfit with cyclones whirling on her hands.
Is this What Courage Looks Like? Cyclone, by Freya Clark

What do you think draws so many people to superhero movies? And make no mistake about it, we are drawn to these movies. Here is my best guess. We love these movies for two reasons. First, there is a clear line between good and evil. Wouldn’t it be nice if that line was so bright and clear in the real world? Second, we are drawn to superhero movies because we are drawn to the idea of courage. We love superheroes because they put themselves on the line at great personal risk in order to save something or someone. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a real life Spider-man with super spidey powers who could prevent crime, save lives, and make sure that everyone has a warm meal and a safe place to sleep?

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In organizational life, as in the everyday world, people acting courageously can be hard to come by. Heck. It can be hard to find the hero in ourselves, never mind in other people. People are so fearful in their organizational lives that they won't ask questions, pretend like they are fine when they are not, will go along with really problematic behavior, and rarely step in as engaged bystanders.

And guess what, your organizational followers are earnestly nodding their heads approvingly when you present bad ideas.

Why is it so hard for organizational members to be courageous and what can leaders do to inspire courage? Before I answer that question, perhaps we should take a closer look at what courage is (and what it is not).

What is Courage

Courage is what I call a partner emotion because it can only be enacted in the presence of fear. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series on fear and courage in organizations, fear is a primal emotion that involves a universal biochemical response and a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological. Sometimes fear stems from real threats, but it can also originate from imagined dangers. While fear is a natural response to some situations, it can also lead to distress and disruption when extreme or out of proportion to the actual threat.

In contrast, courage is a response to fear. One of the wisdoms I share with my children is that it is okay be afraid. But you also need to have courage. Be brave.

We all experience fear. It is a primal emotion, and it is fairly easy to trigger in most people. It is a reflexive emotion that produces the fight or flight response. Courage allows us to choose our response. It allows us to act in purposeful ways when experiencing fear. Successful entrepreneurs know this. Their organizations are built on courage.

Now, if only entrepreneurs and other organizational leaders could weave courage into their organizational culture!

Leading with Courage

Look, there is always that one employee who acts with courage. Sometimes we support that person. Sometimes we don’t (check out this video of Mr. Smith the Cat for more on this topic). Yes, we need to support those individuals. But don’t you think it would be way more awesome if courage was woven into the fabric of the organizational culture? Wouldn’t leadership be so much easier if our employees routinely practiced courage? But how do we get there? How do we go from supporting the occasional courageous employee, to creating a culture where courage is what we do?

Organizational Cultures that Inspire Courage.

Organizational cultures lie outside of the formal organization. Your culture is not in your policies. You cannot find it in your handbook. Organizational cultures are patterns of behaviors that become meaningful overtime (here is a good place to plug my book. If you want to know how to re/build culture in the face of serious organizational challenges, I strongly recommend that you read my book. It is available on Amazon, or for the digital version, purchase a copy through the publisher). In other words, organizational cultures are what we do. If you want courage to be woven into the fabric of your organizational culture, then you and your organizational members need to persistently and consistently DO courage.

I am challenging you to do something difficult for your organization, whether that be a business, a nonprofit, governmental, church, or auxiliary. I am challenging you to do courage in your organization. Here are six challenges that can begin to move your organization toward a culture that inspires courage.

Six Challenges: Weaving Courage into Your Organizational Culture

Challenge 1: Ask More Open Ended Questions

If you want to build your followers/workers/employees’ confidence that their courage will be taken seriously, ask more questions. Well, let me revise that statement a bit, because not all questions are the same, right? For example, there is a difference between open ended questions such as, "tell me about what just happened?" And closed ended questions, such as, "are you being a jerk?"

Open ended questions are surprisingly difficult to create. I teach a graduate level class where the students learn how to ask open ended questions, and it is the hardest thing they have to accomplish in that class. The primary thing to remember about creating open questions is that 1) open questions are an invitation for another person to speak, and 2) open questions only work if you do not assume that you already know the answer.

You can learn how to ask open ended questions. It is harder than you think, but will make a world of difference to your workplace culture. Here are a few examples you can try out:

  • I see you nodding your head. Will you tell me what that means?

  • It looks like you like this idea, but I would also like to hear your misgivings. Can you describe important problems or constraints we might experience?

  • It looks like you are upset. Would you please tell me what happened?

Challenge 2: Encourage Employees/Organizational Members to Ask Questions

I have discovered that organizational members are often afraid to ask questions. This may seem trivial, but it is a serious problem. Questions are the under girding for organizational goals. If people are afraid to ask questions, how can you be successful? Remember, courage is the antidote to fear. This means that, despite their fear, organizational members need to ask questions.

Of course, organizational members are no better at asking questions than organizational leaders. As the leader, your job is to be patient and to help them ask the right question. So, before you jump to conclusions because you think you know what they are going to say (you probably don't), pause, provide eye contact, and repeat back the question using your own words--"This is what I hear you asking."

Challenge 3: Listen

If you want to nurture courage among your followers, then really listen to them when they speak. By the way, hearing is not the same thing as listening. Hearing means that you have processed someone's words. In contrast, listening is the process of understanding what another person is saying. Most leaders I have worked with think they are great listeners. Sadly, many of these people do not have the patience or the vision to listen well when their followers speak. To listen means that you must engage with other people, take their words and concerns seriously, and you must actually think about what they are trying to say. Listening is hard work. After a bout of listening, you will probably feel exhausted, especially if you have not routinely flexed your listening muscles.

Challenge 4: Engage with the Complexity of Communication

Very often, fear threads its way through an organizational culture because organizational leaders fail to understand the communication that creates and sustains fear. Most people think of communication as the exchange of information. Even at the level of information, so much can go wrong, so it is never simple.

You also need to understand that communication forms the bedrock of your organizational cultures. Communication does things. It creates relationships, builds contracts, sets goals, establishes priorities, and determines what organizational members can and cannot do. Communication is how you and your followers come to understand what it means to be a member of your organization.

Consider this. The information exchanged can be rather benign, but the underlying context and the way the information is provided is one way in which threats, bullying, and harassment become part of the fabric of your organizational culture. If you only focus on the information being provided, you will miss your opportunity to shape your organizational culture.

Challenge 5: Reward Courage

Let's be real, courage is not always attractive. It does not look like Spider-man fighting the bad guy. Courage can be disruptive. It can upset people who benefit from hidden values of fear. Those people are often powerful. Despite the reality that courage can be ugly, it is absolutely necessary. Organizations that reward courage are the organizations that weave courage into the fabric of their organizational culture.

Challenge 6: Do Courage

Courage is not abstract. It is not something that we naturally have. Instead, courage is something that we do. If you do not act with courage, then you do not have courage. So take a look in the mirror and ask yourself how you can act with courage. After all, a good leader is a role model, and research is very clear, leaders with moral courage inspire moral courage in their followers.

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Lee Akers
Lee Akers
Jul 12, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Very excellent article. Listening to employees is of great value, especially if they have something to benefit the company. blowing them off is disturbing to them. I once said to my fire captain while I was still in the fire service, "Well I think." He cut me off abruptly saying "You don't get paid to think! You get paid to do what I tell you to do!" I never forgot that, or him.

Debbie Dougherty
Debbie Dougherty
Jul 12, 2023
Replying to

Excellent example. Of course, firefighters who don’t think are firefighters who are more likely to be hurt!

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