Courage in the Workplace: Why Many Important Behaviors Happen Far Too Infrequently

James R. Detert and Evan Bruno and Christina Black ,

The kinds of behavior critical to functional organizations and employee well-being are often seen as requiring significant courage. As a result, these behaviors occur far too infrequently — courage is rare, and organizations suffer as a result.

Darden Professor Jim Detert and Ph.D. candidate Evan Bruno have developed the Workplace Courage Acts Index (WCAI) to measure how courageous each of numerous workplace behaviors is seen as being in respondents’ own work environments, and how frequently each occurs when opportunities arise. The 35 behaviors on the index represent inductively-derived descriptions of behaviors that people across many environments tend to call “courageous.”

Their findings so far both paint a picture of typical organizational problems and provide hints as to what levers might work to mitigate those challenges.

The Reality of Courage in Action

Take, for instance, their finding that something as simple as operating with more autonomy than currently granted by one’s job description happens less than 50 percent of the time. Or that leadership behaviors such as taking responsibility for one’s subordinates’ or peers’ mistakes happen even less frequently, about 42 percent of the time. Likewise, confronting peers on inappropriate interpersonal behavior also happens less than half of the time. Though somewhat more common, even disagreeing with popular positions held by subordinates happens only 55 percent of the time.

Waiting to do the courageous thing until you have more power? The results so far say that difficult conversations and other courageous behaviors don’t become magically easier if you are positioned higher in an organization’s hierarchy. Detert and Bruno have found that those at the top and at the bottom of organizations reported that almost all of the behaviors on their index required the same amount of courage or occurred at the same (in)frequency. There were only two exceptions: owning responsibility for a novel idea and going to bat for a subordinate or peer, both of which occurred more frequently the higher the respondent’s position in an organization.

Hard but Important

Even leaders working hard to create a generally positive environment face challenges getting people to do some of the things that are truly important for a healthy workplace. For example, even in environments reported as being high in “psychological safety,” respondents said it took a significant amount of courage to do things like speak up or stand up to one’s boss about his or her unethical or illegal behavior.

Given these persistent challenges to getting employees to undertake many of the workplace behaviors Detert and Bruno have studied, it would be fair to wonder whether a leader can successfully encourage courage. Perhaps leaders would be better off trying to change the conditions in their organizations so that employees around them didn’t think it required courage just to do many of the basic tasks covered on the WCAI survey. What’s more certain is that these types of behaviors are critical to an organization’s success.

Various forms of “speaking truth to power” were the types of courageous behavior most closely correlated to organizational success. The more these behaviors occurred, the more people agreed with the statement “My organization is operating and producing in ways that consistently exceed customers’ and other key stakeholders’ expectations.”

Curious how your work environment ranks? Take the free WCAI survey to find out. You will be able to see immediately how your responses compare to those from all the others who have taken the survey — and contribute to this important new research coming out of Darden.

About the Faculty

James R. Detert

An expert on leadership and ethics, Detert’s research focuses on workplace courage, why people do or don’t speak up, and ethical decision-making and behavior. His research and consulting have been conducted across a variety of global high-technology and service-oriented industries, in addition to public sector institutions, including K–12 education.

Detert has... Learn More