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What does it mean to be courageous at work and how does it impact leaders, teams, and organizational effectiveness? How can leaders model an environment of open communication where it’s safe for all to speak up?

Jim Detert (“DEE-tert”), an award-winning social scientist who focuses on improving the agency and effectiveness of individuals and the cultures within which they work, is the leading expert on the role of workplace courage. By centering on not just the what but also the how of building a culture of honest communication and emboldened action, Detert gives leaders and employees the tools to improve their odds of successful interactions despite feelings of risk or fear.

“We have to drop the myth that there’s a personality type for courage. There is no such thing. Courage is simply the willingness to act despite fear,” explains Detert, the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “By teaching executives and managers specific skill sets and actions, they will learn how to manage difficult interactions and follow up accordingly.”

By encouraging organizations to build the everyday management skills that have become underappreciated and undervalued in today’s environment – including constructively challenging bosses, confronting peers, and giving difficult feedback to subordinates – Detert empowers managers to lead with values and competence, inspiring teams to communicate openly and effectively.  

Climb the Courage Ladder to Conquer Fear

Detert’s research shows that most employees sometimes remain silent when they know they should speak up due to a combination of fear and lack of confidence in their communication skills in high-stress, emotion-laden situations. Explaining that these skills can indeed be taught, he provides leaders with concrete strategies for developing and practicing what he calls “competent courage,” allowing managers to model healthy interpersonal communication and foster a culture of courage.  

Whether the goal is managing difficult interpersonal conversations more effectively or persuading top leaders to adopt systemic change and innovation, Detert’s talks and workshops are based in deeply researched tools that help take organizational communication to the next level. Detert’s unique high intensity learning process – The SUCCESS Method – includes the building of a “courage ladder” and personalized simulations of specific conversations to build skills with high likelihood of transfer to on-the-job challenges.

“Everybody has a set of rungs on a ladder that go from ‘it’s a little frightening’ to ‘it’s terrifying,’” explains Detert, author of “Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021). “The key to moving forward individually is to build and climb your own courage ladder and start practicing ways to be courageous enough to change cultures.”

Ensure Psychological Safety to Build True Learning Organizations

A collaborator with Harvard Business School Professor and psychological safety pioneer Amy Edmondson, Detert stresses that leaders must create an environment of psychological safety as a vital starting point for organizational learning to take place.

“Leader behavior is the most important lever for creating a culture of psychological safety,” Detert explains. “For leaders to get the input they need to be a learning organization, employees must feel safe being honest with their feedback at every stage of the process.”

Jim Detert - Choosing Courage

The ability to lead with competent courage is critical for any leader interested in psychological safety. “There’s no point espousing the importance of psychological safety,” says Detert, “if you as a leader won’t courageously step up and challenge the norms, practices and people who are making it feel unsafe to speak up or take prudent risks.” Detert advises leaders to drop the practice of “encouraging courage” and replace that with courageous actions of their own that make courage less necessary for those they lead.

In a world where courage propels innovation, organizations need strategies and frameworks that help them navigate uncertainty and foster a culture of competence. Stern Strategy Group connects you with renowned thought leaders whose insights, strategies and management frameworks help organizations fuel growth and disruptive innovation to better compete in a constantly changing world. Let us arrange for these esteemed experts to advise your organization via virtual and in-person consulting sessions, workshops and keynotes.

The Competent Courage Playbook for Open Communication that Drives Innovation was last modified: December 14th, 2023 by Justin Louis