Does Your Culture Inspire Courage…or Stamp It Out?

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Ed Hess explains why courage must be part of your organization’s culture. Here are nine indicators that courage is alive and well in your workplace…and six red flags that fear might be preventing your employees from doing their best work.

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Oakland, CA (September 2020)—In today’s fast-paced, highly competitive marketplace, we need our employees to excel at collaboration in pursuit of innovation. To connect with each other in meaningful ways. To disrupt the status quo, take risks within financial parameters, fail, learn, and get back up again. If your company is to hold its own in a super-competitive, innovation-fueled marketplace, leaders and employees at all levels must do all of this and more.

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Unexpected Results Are Surprises, Not Mistakes

But it’s no job for scared people, says Ed Hess. People need to feel comfortable trying new things, doing experiments, and understanding that unexpected results are surprises, not mistakes. That means fear must be eliminated.

“People need to be able to bring their best selves to work every day,” says Hess, author of
Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, September 2020, ISBN: 978-1-523-08924-6, $29.95, “That means coming to work in a state of mind where they can be authentic and humble, disagree with others, and do things that scare them despite any fear they may feel in the moment. They can’t do these things without courage. And employees will have courage if their bosses enable them to be courageous.”

Hess says we must all be able to continuously learn, unlearn, and relearn by adapting to the reality of the world as it evolves. It requires a set of attitudes and behaviors he calls “Hyper-Learning.” Becoming a Hyper-Learner is not easy considering our inherent ego-driven need to defend what we think we know.

Courage is just one of the foundational behaviors required to make the shift. Without it, people surely won’t perform to their potential.

“Developing courage is an individual journey, but it’s greatly impacted by the environment we work in,” notes Hess. “When companies are set up and led in ways that encourage Hyper-Learning, employees are more likely to find and express their courage.”

So…are the people in your organization courageous? OR are they fearful? Here are some observable behaviors to look for:

Nine Signs of Courage…

  • People are willing to experiment because they know failure isn’t punished. (Leaders promote psychological safety by allowing people to try things and fail.)
  • People freely admit when they are wrong. People are comfortable saying, “I don’t know the answer,” or, “Let’s go find out!”
  • And oeople are willing to navigate uncertainty and ambiguity. They never rush to the safety of making comfortable, speedy decisions.
  • People volunteer for new projects. They regularly step into uncharted waters and try new things.
  • Employees challenge the views of higher-ups. When they disagree, they speak up and explain why. In turn, the higher-ups thank people for having the courage to challenge their ideas. They keep an open mind and try to understand the other person’s views. They strive for an idea meritocracy.
  • Leaders and employees alike ask for feedback. Even though it may be uncomfortable, everyone welcomes constructive criticism.
  • People are transparent. They explain their thinking and reasoning behind their decisions.
  • Leaders are willing to be vulnerable. Those who are highest-ranking are vulnerable first, sending a message that they trust others. They show that it is safe to ask for help or advice and to admit to uncertainty. This fosters psychological safety.
  • Leaders freely say, “I don’t know,” “I was wrong,” “I apologize,” or, “I should not have interrupted you before you were finished making your point.” If they publicly embarrass someone, they publicly make amends. They transparently own their bad behaviors.

...And Six "Red Flags" That Show Courage Is in Short Supply

  • People are hesitant or unwilling to take risks. They feel afraid to put their necks on the line even though change and trying new things is essential for innovation.
  • “Learning mistakes” are punished. People may be scolded, shunned, or penalized in more overt ways.
  • People are guarded and closed lipped. They do not trust that it’s safe to be vulnerable.
  • Leaders avoid uncomfortable and difficult conversations. Poor performance goes unchecked, and the whole organization suffers.
  • People at all levels avoid asking for feedback.
  • Employees do not speak up to higher-ups. They do not feel free to challenge or disagree with their bosses.

Leaders, pay close attention to your people over the next few days. If you don’t see courage on full display, it’s time to take a hard look at your culture and, as importantly, a hard look at yourself and how you behave. Leaders operationalize culture by their behaviors. Culture is only as good as the most recent behaviors by leaders.

“A culture of courage must start at the top,” Hess concludes. “When employees see leaders being vulnerable and transparent, it fosters trust throughout the organization. When employees see their leaders acting with courage, it emboldens them to make their own courageous decisions. Courage is contagious, in the best way.”

About the Author:

Edward D. Hess is professor of business administration, Batten Fellow, and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business and the author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change.

Professor Hess spent 20 years in the business world as a senior executive and has spent the last 18 years in academia. He is the author of 13 books, over 140 articles, and 60 Darden case studies. His work has appeared in over 400 global media outlets including Fortune, European Business Review, HBR, SHRM, Fast Company, WIRED, Forbes, Inc., Huffington Post, Washington Post, Business Week, Financial Times, CNBC Squawk Box, Fox Business News with Maria Bartiroma, Big Think, WSJ Radio, Bloomberg Radio with Kathleen Hays, Dow Jones Radio, MSNBC Radio, Business Insider, and Wharton Radio. His recent books and research have focused on Human Excellence in the Digital Age: A New Way of Being; A New Way of Working; Humanizing the Workplace; and Hyper-Learning.

For more information, please visit 

About the Book:

Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, September 2020, ISBN: 978-1-523-08924-6, $29.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

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