5 Ways to Build Moral Courage in the Workplace

Posted on April 10, 2012.

In a recent Inc. article, Margaret Hefferman talks about the risk of creating an environment of obedient employees.  She discusses how the military, unlike corporate America, actually encourages dissent if an idea seems too crazy or risky.   Do you think the real estate agents, mortgage bankers, and traders thought no money down loans against peak values was a good idea? 

Moral courage isn’t just being a whistleblower like Eileen Foster, who tried to expose the unfair lending practices at Countrywide.  Moral Courage is accepting the responsibility that when an idea is presented that makes zero sense, you have the guts to say so.  As a manager, it’s easy to discourage dissent.  Let’s be honest, having everyone agree and just move on is the easiest (and laziest) way to manage.  So how can you encourage disobedience without driving yourself crazy?

  1. Communicate the difference between complaining and disagreeing. Lay the ground rules of what is acceptable dissent. Unsubstantiated complaining is unacceptable. If someone disagrees with the strategy or plan, they need to outline the reasons it will likely fail.
  2. Encourage opinion.  Set up a suggestion box online. Make sure you implement the ideas that make sense or people will stop using it.  Reward suggestions that save the company money by giving back a percentage of the savings.  By putting it online, everyone has the ability to view the ideas. If you want to have some fun, you can run a poll to see how many people like an idea.
  3. Don’t punish the dissenter.  How often have you heard a company executive or owner tell you how much they “really want your opinion”? Only to then you see the most vocal quit after a demotion or leave the company through job elimination. It’s not lost on anyone why these people are gone and it fosters an environment of silence.
  4. Explain why you may not agree. Creating an environment of disobedience doesn’t mean you have to agree with the dissenter. But if you don’t, be prepared to explain why your strategy or idea is a good one and try to mitigate their concerns. Maybe you just didn’t communicate the idea very well.
  5. Be patient. It’s much easier to give an order and have everyone just move to execution. It makes your job a lot easier. Until the idea fails of course.  So one of the hardest things to do is really take the time to listen and be thoughtful about your responses.  Employees that take the time to study a strategy and see the potential flaws are your most passionate employees. They care the most and sometimes that passion can try your patience. Don’t let it.

If every manager and leader in every company were to follow the military in their encouragement of disobedience, we might be able to avoid the financial meltdown or other corporate tragedy.