Why Personal Courage is Missing in the Workplace

Posted on November 14, 2011.

"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. " A. Redmoon

The Penn State story is on everyone’s mind. How did everyone involved fail to do the right thing?  In Alexandra Petri’s recent Washington Post blog , she defines this failure as the bystander effect.  While the outcome is significantly less egregious than Penn State’s, workers often standby and say nothing when they witness favoritism and bias, unethical behavior, or blatantly bad decisions implemented.  Few people have the personal courage to speak up. Why is that and how can we turn the tide?

Clearly, fear is the biggest factor-fear of losing your job, fear of losing your reputation, fear of workplace retaliation, fear of being wrong. The list goes on and on.  Let’s face it, is it any wonder that so many people choose to be bystanders when we see Maria Bartiromo being publicly booed for daring to raise the question of character and leadership at the recent Republican debate?  She had the courage to speak up about an issue that needed to be addressed and yet the audience reacted negatively and the moderator changed the subject. This kind of public admonishment doesn’t exactly stem the tide of silence.

Don’t you wish that many of the traders on Wall Street, who knew they were selling garbage, had the personal courage to speak up? They not only had the fear of job loss, but loss of significant personal gain.  The reality is that most corporate cultures not only fail to promote personal courage, but often punish it.  And seeing Bartiromo publicly chastised means even the media is not immune to promoting a culture of silence.

If we really want to start encouraging personal courage in the workplace, here’s what we need to do:

  1. Create and communicate a policy that supports personal courage. Make it clear that if someone sees something that is wrong or will impair the company, and it’s substantiated with facts, that person will not only not be fired, but rewarded. Spell out the consequences in the policy.
  2. Publicly support and communicate the Whistleblower Protection Laws.  Make it clear that your company endorses all facets of the Act.
  3. Encourage dissent. Stop giving lip service to saying you “really want someone’s opinion”, when what you really want is the opinion that agrees with your own. Openly challenge your own ideas and others will do the same. In the end you will end up with the better decision.

The bottom line that organizations must remove the fear that creates a sea of bystanders. Isn’t it time we decided that courage is finally more important?