Episode 59

Choosing Courage

with Jim Detert, Ph.D.

April 14, 2022

Jim Detert, Ph.D.
John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration

Jim Detert is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior area at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration and a Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Jim’s research focuses on workplace courage, voice and silence, ethical decision-making and behavior, and other leadership-related topics. This research (and related consulting experience) has been conducted across a variety of global high-technology and service-oriented industries as well as public sector institutions. His research has been published in the top management journals, has won several academic best paper awards, and is regularly featured in various online and print media outlets. Jim is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review, and the author of the book Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work, published by Harvard Business Review Press. Jim has also written many teaching cases and other curriculum materials and designed leadership and ethics classes taught to thousands of students of all ages around the world in degree and non-degree formats. He has received numerous awards for his teaching and curriculum development in both MBA and Executive MBA settings at Cornell and the University of Virginia. Jim received his M.A. in sociology and Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Harvard University. He also holds an MBA from the University of Minnesota and a BBA from the University of Wisconsin.


Most people know what the war is. But they get derailed by overreacting to the wrong battles.



[00:00:06] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Have you ever wanted to disagree with your boss or make a tough decision you knew would be unpopular? Dr. Jim Detert is a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. And today we explored courage from his recently published book, “Choosing Courage”. We dive into better understanding courage. There is no such thing as a courageous action if there’s no risk. Professor Detert describes four types of risks and the reasons why it may be difficult for people to balance risks with action. We discuss how to create the right conditions for a courageous act and how to choose the right battles. Professor Detert explains different ways to manage your message, channel your emotions most effectively, and how to follow up on those actions to ensure they stick. We explore how to build up your own courage over time, as well as how leaders can create a learning culture that eliminates the risks and barriers to courageous actions. For young leaders, Professor Detert says the time is now. You can’t wait for that promotion or for family or for other conditions to change. Accept that there will be risk and consider that the most common regret is from inaction.

Well, good afternoon, Jim. And welcome.

[00:01:29] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: Thank you. It’s great to be with you this afternoon.

[00:01:32] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: We’re pleased to have you at this microphone. This show is about leadership and you’ve written a book that’s highly relevant to leaders, “Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work”. Let’s dig right in because this will be quite interesting to all of us who are leaders. First question might be, given your writing, your teaching, your consulting, when did you become interested in courage, Jim?

[00:01:58] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: So academically I think it goes all the way back to when I was doing my dissertation. My dissertation was on why people speak up or not in organizations. And the, you know, sort of simple way of stating the core findings were, somewhat obviously, that, when people feel it’s safe to speak up, they do. And when they think it’s unsafe or futile, they generally don’t speak up. But there was a subset of individuals in the data I collected who spoke up or told me about somebody else speaking up even when it wasn’t safe. And I had made a note like this is really about courageous action and I didn’t do anything with that. Wasn’t the focal part of my work at that point. I didn’t do anything with that for about a decade. But during that time I was teaching leadership classes of all types. And at the end of every leadership class, I would end with a short 2, 3, 4 minute things saying, look, we’ve learned lots of tools, but at the end of the day, the real test of leadership, in my opinion, is whether you’ll use those tools when the big moments come. And that’s really the test of courage. And I would just give a few inspirational quotes. And even though we had spent, in some cases, 30, 40, 50 hours together on sort of post-session post-course feedback, when I’d say, well, what do you wish we had spent more time on ,the dominant response became, we need more on courage. We need a module, we need a course. We need help. And so about going on a dozen years ago now, I decided that it was time to actually sort of speak to that need. And when I looked around and said, well, what practical useful advice is there that also has some evidence-based behind it around how to behave courageously at work? There just wasn’t anything. And so I decided and spent the next 10 years saying, let me see if I can help people because it’s clearly something that people are expressing a desire to know more about.

[00:03:47] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, you teach at the Darden School of Business of the University of Virginia and at the Imperial College in London. So how do students today, today’s students, receive the message of courage and how eager are they to dig into that?

[00:04:04] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: I think that earlier in my career, I feared that people would say that’s some kind of soft topic or what do we screw around with that in a business school for? What I will say is it is a strongly positive reaction. I think there are very few people who can’t relate to the basic idea of wanting to behave authentically, wanting to have a big impact, wanting to be more innovative, who can’t identify with the idea of problems out there that they’d like to solve, but also feeling a lot of reasons to be afraid. A lot of reasons to think that being authentic or trying to be innovative is also just sort of some form of career suicide. And so, I have been really overwhelmingly, positively pleased with how open students of all types are to really talking about this topic

[00:04:51] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, “Choosing Courage” is an excellent book. It’s a readable book, which is terrific. And I would think, from the standpoint of any of your students, they’d want to get a copy and dig right into it. We have to ask the question, Jim, as we ask all authors on this show. Do you enjoy writing?

[00:05:11] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: Yeah, I’m smiling because the answer is sort of, it depends what kind of writing. You know, the first 15 years or so, my career was focused on writing only for academic audiences. And honestly, that can be a really tedious process. One paragraph is a multi-day journey to try to perfect. As I have turned a lot more toward writing shorter articles for practice blogs on this book, I actually found it to be quite rewarding. It’s really nice to be able to say things with the intention of being helpful to those who want to do something with it, as opposed to sort of merely for the purpose of sort of being in some kind of intellectual debate. And so, yeah, I actually, I do enjoy writing.

[00:05:54] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, do you have a specific time of day that you write or is it when the spirit moves you, or you just have time? How do you go about that, Jim?

[00:06:03] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: So a little bit of both and neither. So I you know, I believe strongly, having read a lot about the process and practice of writing, that, if you just wait till the moment sort of strikes, you will be a pretty unproductive writer. You know, writers don’t agree on that much, but one of the things they agree on is you got to get sort of the butt in seat and just dig in, and you got to do it all the time. So, you know, I don’t wait for the moment to strike. I also am not a writer, though, who says, like, geez, I’m only a good writer from 6:00 AM to 8:00 AM or only in the evening or whatever. The reality of being a professor, with all sorts of teaching and research and consulting obligations, is you don’t have day after day and hour after hour free. You have to just learn to write in those half hour windows that, you have.

[00:06:50] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, let’s move to “Choosing Courage”. How do you define courage, Jim? Seems like an obvious thing I think we all know. But, how do you define it?

[00:06:59] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: So I think in its simplest terms, you know, there lots of other components you can debate or discuss, but at simplest terms, what everybody pretty much agrees is that a courageous action is one that is considered to be a worthwhile act, something done for a noble or worthy cause despite some form of risks. So it really pretty much boils down to those two features. It’s risky action taken for worthwhile purposes.

[00:07:26] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: So, how does the courage and risk, what’s that balance that you found? I mean, the book gets into risk more. But just at the highest level, kind of, what’s the balance between courage and risk?

[00:07:41] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: There really is, because of that definitional nature, there is no such thing as courageous action if there’s no risk. On the other hand, we can think of sort of acts of extreme risk, but that are just sort of foolhardy daredevil behavior. Which either, because they’re not particularly worthy, you know, they’re just sort of self, you know, self risk seeking behaviors or because they have zero chance of success that we have a hard time labeling as courageous action. So, in general though, courageous action is action taken despite risk. And the question really is, what are those risks? And then how can we learn to be as skillful in our action despite those risks?

[00:08:24] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah, for sure. Well, you laid out four risks in the book. Could you just review those four risks for us, Jim?

[00:08:33] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: The most common risk, and certainly it’s true historically, if we think about you know, writing over the millennia about courageous action. The most common risk score historically is physical, right? I mean, most courage writing took place in the context of military conquests. Today, of course, in most organizations, if you’re not in the military or firefighting, you don’t think about physical risk so much, but we know it’s true. I mean, if we look for example, in the pandemic the last couple of years, there were huge added physical risks for healthcare workers, for any frontline service workers. So, many people that we don’t tend to think about do face physical risks still in modern organizations. Then there’s what we would think of most commonly in modern organizations are economic or career risks, right? I don’t want to get fired. I don’t want to get blackballed. I don’t want to see my promotion opportunities go away. People worry about what those with more power may do to them in organizations. Then are social risks. You know, this explains why people think it takes a lot of courage to confront peers, even to give difficult feedback to subordinates. Those are not folks who have formal power over us, but they can do this thing called ostracize us, isolate us. And if you think about our evolved time on this earth for most of it, 90 some percent of it, we lived in very small tribes, clans, and our survival task was really a physical daily struggle. And to be cast out by the group meant pretty certain death pretty quickly. So, it’s not actually hard to understand in those terms, why we still want people to like us. We want people to accept us. And so that’s that social risk. And then the fourth kind of risk is psychological risk. We want to see ourselves as competent. We want to see ourselves as good, smart, intelligent human beings. And so, often, for example, in the realm of innovation or, in medicine, you often see this more on the academic side. If you say, hey, why didn’t you speak up in that meeting? Why weren’t you willing to challenge the science? You often hear things like, I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I didn’t want to look foolish. I didn’t want to stick my neck out in something beyond my area of expertise. And that’s really about psychological risk, right? It’s as much about how we’ll feel about ourself is how anybody else would feel. If you put all four of those together, I mean, this goes back to your question about, why are people pretty open to talking about this? I think the answer is because none of us tends to exist in an environment where one or two or three or all four of these kinds of risks aren’t present.

[00:11:10] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You answered the question in the book, but I’d like to just ask the question, which is, why does courage matter?

[00:11:16] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: Well, it matters, I think, for multiple reasons. First of all, it matters for ourselves. You and I, and listeners, everybody, you know, we face a lot of choice points in our life where, even if we don’t think about it in these terms inherently, what we know is, am I going to live my values out? Am I going to be true to who I am? We might use the word authentic. And every time we are, even if it doesn’t go well, we sort of affirm our identity, our self, as a person of value and worth. And every time we don’t, I believe a small part of us sorta dies. And, you know, frankly, going back to like students’ reactions, a lot of the students I work with are mid-career. And a lot of them, I learned over time, they’d be in their late thirties, forties, even in the fifties, and I think essentially what I was witnessing was people asking themselves the question, I’m 20 years in, I got 30 left. Is this all there is? Is this sort of day in day out, not really being me, not really creating the impact I want, is this what my life is going to be? Sort of Thoreau’s living a life of quiet desperation. And so one reason it matters is it says a lot about whether we’re going to sort of live our best life, our highest potential life. And that matters in the here and now, but it also matters when we look back. Whether you study legacy or regret, people’s legacies tend to refer to those times when they really stuck their neck out, when they really did something big and bold and important on behalf of people they care about. And their biggest regrets tend to be inaction. So the science, the study of regret, says that, essentially, most of our regrets are not like, geez, I did this and it didn’t go that well. Most of our regrets are, I wish I had. And it’s those inaction regrets that we have a hard time letting go of. And so it matters a lot for ourselves. Then, of course, it almost goes without saying that it matters for other people. I mean, if you have colleagues, if you have subordinates who are being treated poorly, whether that’s sort of in sort of interpersonal, derogatory, disrespectful ways, or just not given opportunities, not given resources, not taken care of, your willingness to stand up, speak up on their behalf, fight for resources for those people determines the quality of their work-life and, in some respects, their life. You know, perfect examples, nowadays, everybody’s talking in the DEI space about being an ally. Like don’t just be a mentor or a support, be an ally. What does it mean to be an ally, right? It means actually to stand up and do something. You can’t be a silent saying, hey, Gary, behind closed doors, I’m your buddy. I’m your pal. I’m with you. That’s not being an ally. Being an ally is, when we were out there and something was happening, did I stand with you? Did I speak up on your behalf? And so it’s about taking care of others. And then frankly, it’s also about organizations on the whole. Every organization talks about needing to be more innovative, more agile, more adaptive. But in reality, how are you going to be any of those things if people won’t break out of the status quo, if people won’t say it’s time to stop doing what we’ve always done. Innovation itself requires a lot of courage because it is about fundamentally changing things and that upsets people when you do that.

[00:14:44] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, you laid out a five point framework, basically, as you say, fundamentally changing things, but in terms of how you both understand courage and how you can channel your own courage in a sense. The first one is, what are the right conditions and how can you set the right conditions for courage, Jim?

[00:15:06] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: So before I speak specifically to that, let me clarify a little bit what you said. You talk about five conditions, and we’ll talk about those, but let me say that, really. I see those five as describing a sequence that includes sort of what we do before specific moments of action and then sort of how we handle those moments themselves and then sort of what we do after. And so, the first step, if you will, is the question you asked, which is, how do we sort of set the stage? And I think in short, we can think about this as really focusing on the two fundamental human social perceptions that everybody has about us and that we have about everybody else. And that is, what are people’s judgements about what social psychologists call our warmth and about our competence? And warmth is, hey, does Gary actually care about me or is he out for himself? If Gary says he’s going to do something, is he going to actually follow through? So it’s those sort of judgements that people have about our benevolence, about our integrity. And they matter a lot because, if you come into me today and say, hey, Jim, let’s change this up entirely. Or I need a million dollars for this project. One of the two key questions I’m going to be asking myself is, why does he want this? What’s his angle? Is it really for the organization as a whole? Is it really to help others? Or is this some self promotional scheme he’s working on? The second question I’m going to ask myself, you come in asking for a million dollars or a big change plan is, is Gary competent? Can he do it? Yeah, I’m not going to give you a million dollars or I’m not going to upset people by announcing a big change if I think you’re going to screw it up because you’re not capable. And so sometimes people say, hey, I’m not ready to take big action X. Like that’s my ultimate goal. And I say, okay, you don’t have to take action X today. But for sure you can be doing something that builds the perception others have of you around your warmth r oaround your competence. And those are really valuable. Psychologists talk about this thing called idiosyncrasy credits. I think of idiosyncrasy credits as sort of a stack of poker chips. You earn idiosyncrasy credits at work when you conform, when you basically sort of be a member of the team, when you sorta act like us, when you go along. You sort of stack up these idiosyncrasy credits. It helps people think you’re warm and you’re competent. Those chips, it turns out, right, are necessary at times when you want to non-conform, when you want to actually say, hey, let’s change. Hey, I’m sorry, but I don’t like this behavior. You sorta need to push those chips into the table at that point. Well, you know what the research says is that if you don’t have any chips to push in, you’re not playing poker. So, part of having courageous actions go well, being perceived as sort of worthy acts done for the right reason, involves whether you have spent the energy building sort of your warmth and competence. And so that’s really stage one and that can occur over quite a long period of time. It’s also why, as we know, it’s very hard for outsiders to come in and make changes and get people on board right away, because they haven’t yet established their warmth or their competence internally.

[00:18:18] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Your next condition is choosing the right battle. How do you think about that, Jim?

[00:18:24] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: I think about that in really two basic ways. One is sort of choosing the number of battles and the particular battles skillfully. You know, one way to think about it is to say you might choose and win a battle, but it might lead you to lose the war. You know, we have in our language, and I think in many other cultures, we have these stories of, like, the boy, the girl who cried wolf, right? And the moral being, if you’re speaking up all the time about everything, when it really counts, people won’t listen. I think in organizations, we often see that too, right? There’s the person we sort of label, oh, it’s the eye roller, right? That person starts talking, everybody else’s eyes start rolling, right? Because that person’s always agitated about something, always criticizing something. And so, I tell folks, like you gotta be really clear on what your most important objectives are, like sort of what’s the war you’re after, because, otherwise, fine, you make a big point, make a big stink on Monday, you get a few resources, people go along with you. When your biggest issue comes up on Friday, nobody wants to hear from you. And so that’s part of it, right? Choosing your battles wisely, and that’s really about knowing what you care most about. And then the second thing it’s about is, do you have the emotional discipline to follow through on that, right? It’s one thing to say, oh yeah, I’m going to choose my battles. But it’s another thing to actually have the discipline when every issue that sets you off happens and your blood pressure’s up, and your face is red. Can you actually get yourself to slow down, to silence that internal race? Can you actually separate out, hey, in the scheme of things where this is actually only a four, I recognize that the reason it feels like a 10 has nothing to do with what’s going on here. It’s some other stuff. And so there’s also a set of, I think, emotional skills involved with choosing your battles. Most people know what the war is, but they get derailed by overreacting to the wrong battles.

[00:20:33] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yep. I could see that. Well, next comes managing your message, which seems critical, building on the last two points. But how do you think about managing your message, Jim?

[00:20:45] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: Yeah. So this is the, in the moment, what do you do? What do you say? This is the one that we tend to focus the most on, and we could talk for hours about, but let me sort of, maybe, encapsulate a lot of the specific ideas under this by saying it’s really about recognizing a bit of a glitch in the way we all tend to think. You know, if I were to say to you, Gary, hey, think of something that’s really important to you and pitch me. Try to persuade me why I should do something about it or support you. What tends to happen is that you will think of in your mind and you will marshal all the data for a way of seeing this problem and your idea that compels you, right? In other words, we marshall data in the way that we are compelled by. The problem often is that what compels you is different than the way I, your target, sees the word, right? So imagine, for example, that you want to tell me about the reason something in the healthcare system, our healthcare system, should change. And you come in and you tell me all the reasons why this change fits our cultural values, our top values, so perfectly, and is a great opportunity to lead the way in hospital transformation, let’s say. So you pitch cultural fit of an opportunity. But it turns out, maybe I have a finance background, and I’m actually worried about a lot of messes we’re in financially, that I’m actually driven by. What’s this going to do for the bottom line soon? And what’s the threat that this would help us address. Well, if I’m interested, if I’m compelled by threats with economic measurables and you come in pitching a cultural opportunity, we’re just out of sync from the get-go. And so, so much of it is about, know your target, what do they find compelling, and framing that. And then in addition, lots of sort of sub piece of advice flow from that. If I’ve interacted with you and watched you and I realize that, when people celebrate your past accomplishments and then suggest ways to take it to the next level or to develop the offshoot from it, you get excited. When instead, what I’ve noticed is that if anybody suggests anything like, hey Gary, your idea or program is not working very well, you get horribly defensive, then I frame as, hey Gary, we’ve had so much success already with with your program. Here’s a way to take it to the next level. And I know you can hear that. I can learn your trigger words, right? I can learn that, whereas some people would want to know like, well, where are we hitting the ethical boundaries? That would be important for them to hear. I might know that, when you hear the word, I’m worried about the ethical boundaries, you hear that as me calling you unethical and you get very defensive. So, so much of what we say is not, in a sense, in the you didn’t bring any data or your idea had no logic. Those usually aren’t the problems, right, for anybody who’s relatively sophisticated. The problems are actually the smaller framing ways where I can have so much of it right, but that 5% I got wrong derails, the whole conversation.

[00:24:15] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: So a fair amount of nuance involved in this. Yeah, that makes good sense. You mentioned emotions earlier, but then there’s a broader issue of channeling your emotions kind of in this courageous act or this time of courage,. How do you think about channeling your emotions, Jim?

[00:24:36] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: Yeah, I think of this as being clear about the difference between what is often a misconception, that sort of emotional intelligence is keeping emotions out of something, and what I think emotional intelligence absolutely is, which is being able to read and channel emotions appropriately. You know, think about it in both respects. If I want to get you excited or willing to support a change and I come in and I pitched in a totally monotone way and I, myself, show no excitement and I don’t do or say anything to get you excited, what’s the likelihood that you’re going to have the right emotional reaction needed to sort of generate energy around my idea, right? It’s going to go nowhere. You know, similarly, like, if I say good management is keeping my emotions out of it, if I’m pitching to you, and for whatever reason, you do get quite angry and visibly upset, right, and I’m playing some script in my head that says, keep emotions out of it. And so I just ignore that. The reality is, what emotions are is information. And if I see you getting red in the face and your voice raising and you leaning forward, that’s information. That tells me something about this is sitting wrong. Something about this is making Gary a blocker. And the most foolish thing I can do if I actually want your support or need it is to ignore that, right? I have to find a way to say, to name it, to say, hey, Gary, you look upset. Can I check in with you about that? Or, I hear you raising your voice. That tells me you have a lot of energy about this. Can you explain that to me? The reality is, keeping your own emotions out of a situation is not a successful way to lead. And similarly, trying to just ignore other’s emotions is also not a successful way to lead. It is about recognizing and channeling your own and others’ emotions.

[00:26:37] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: So we’ve gone through and spent considerable amount of time preparing and setting up our courageous act. And then we actually went ahead and did it. What’s the followup then, Jim, to this to make sure we’ve capitalized on all this energy that we’ve spent?

[00:26:54] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to put it is, how do we capitalize? So, take the case where you think it went pretty well. I pitched a group of people on an idea and it seemed to go pretty well. In my experience and those I’ve been told about, in very few cases do you go from, like, let me pitch an idea in a single meeting to, the person or people with the most power saying, okay, we’ve decided, here’s your $5 million and your 10 new lines. Go higher. Yeah. Like we don’t love that, but that’s generally not the way it works, right? Like usually if we’re lucky, best case scenario is the reaction is, thanks. That was great. We should definitely explore that more. Let’s keep talking, right? Okay. So in those cases, then what’s crucial is that you do those things and you do them soon. You say, great, I’ll put some time on your calendar for next week. You follow up. You have listened carefully about what the reservations were and, when you show up, you have that data ready to talk about. So even when it goes well, you’ve almost never really secured the commitments in real time. So you do something concrete about that. In many other cases what has happened is, even if it has gone pretty well, someone has not liked it, right? I mean, if, for example, you say, if your issue was, I think we need to build this department, right, this surgical unit, this whatever, up by 25%, in many, many instances, that means some other department, some other unit is going to have resources taken from it. Okay, well, it’s a high likelihood that those folks were not happy about what you pitched. Sometimes it may be that the change initiative you’re promoting implicitly is a criticism of somebody’s existing project or existing program. And you’ll see their kind of negative facial reactions, or maybe they actually even say something snarky in the meeting. And after we’ve expanded the energy to sort of get in front of everybody or have that first conversation, it’s very understandable that our instinct is, like, I want to go back in my office and be alone for awhile. But sometimes the most important thing is to say, you know what, I saw that Gary looked skeptical. I could tell that Gary was angry. As I predicted, the folks in that unit were snickering to each other. I’m going to walk down the hall and I’m going to poke my head in Gary’s office. I’m going to say, hey, could we talk? And I’m going to push myself to have what frankly feels like a second courageous action, which is to look you in the eye and say, can we talk about that? And and in my experience, you know, because in the end, even if you have power or you get power support, a lot of people can be blockers and create a lot of drag on any change initiative. And frankly, even if that weren’t true, it would really stink to work in an organization where we sort of just had relational casualties left and right every time we tried to change things. And so I think that follow-up is really crucial.

[00:29:56] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You’ve laid out a very thoughtful pathway to courage or to an act of courage, let’s say. How do we practice to become better at this? And particularly you laid out a courage ladder in the book that I found pretty helpful in terms of thinking about it. So could you discuss all of that for us, Jim?

[00:30:18] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: So basic idea is that, sort of, as we’ve been talking about, the idea isn’t just to say, I’d like to become more courageous. What we would hope, right, is that we would become more competently courageous, right, that, when we would take these actions, despite risk, we would do it in a way that maximized the likelihood that good things happen and minimized the likelihood that bad things happen. And my argument there is pretty simple, that for that to happen is no different than the development of any other skill. It requires consistent practice under relevant conditions, right? Like you want to be a great basketball player and you want to make the free throw in the big game? Well, then you better play a lot of basketball, get good coaching, and you better take some free throws in some other games that matter. All right. And so my argument is the same, like these are learnable skills and the way to develop them and master them is one step at a time with lots of consistent practice. And the idea of a courage ladder really just is a sort of simple visual way to bring that home for people. It says, hey, take not just the most courageous thing you can think of to do, because that’s the top rung on your courage ladder. That’s the 10 on the units of distress scale. But think of some sevens and some fives and some twos and even a one and build that ladder of sort of progressively difficult actions you’d like to take. And then do what smart people do when they’re trying to master something. They start at the bottom, right? If I want to run a 10K, but I’m not in good shape at all, the most foolish thing I could do is try to go out and run 10K today, right? Because one of two things will happen. One, I just won’t do it. I’ll never leave the house because I’ll know it’s too daunting. Or two, I’ll try to run too much, too fast, and I’ll be so hurt, it’ll go so poorly, that that’ll be the last day I run for a really long time, right? So what would a smart thing to do if I wanted to train for a 10K be? It would probably be, I go for 20 minutes where 17 minutes are walking and three are short intervals of jogging, right? And then I would slowly increase that. And the same idea applies here. You build that courage ladder, and then you start with the lowest, easiest, it’s still challenging, but the most attainable action step on your ladder. And the idea is that, in doing that, you will be practicing under conditions of stress because that’ll still be hard. But you are more likely to have it go at least reasonably well enough that it increases your motivation to get out there and run again the next day, as opposed to be defeating. And what I know from working with lots of people is that, when you break it down into sort of specific, but attainable steps, and you help people start with lower level action steps, it makes a huge difference. I mean, I’ve seen many lives changed by this.

[00:33:16] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: In your consulting business, do you ever meet with not only just with a leader, but let’s say a group, perhaps, under the leader and discuss courage and propose the courage ladder and that sort of thing?

[00:33:31] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: Yeah. Often. And in fact, I think you can take the idea of a individual courage ladder and you can easily transform that into, let’s say, a group or a unit courage ladder, right? So, and you could do that through a simple process of having folks sort of develop their own sort of lists and then a collective discussion where people would say, hey, can we agree upon the sets of things that are both really important to us to have happen as a unit, and that right now are somewhat distressing, moderately distressing, highly distressing. And then what as a unit do we want to do about that? Well, what can we do about that? You know, one example Shail Jain is the co-founder and CEO of a software system, Farragut Systems, in North Carolina. And he started by building his own courage ladder. He didn’t tell anybody. He just did it. And then he started to take those action steps, and he took three or four of them in a row in a pretty short period of time, and said, I could tell people were noticing, what was I suddenly doing, but I didn’t say anything more. And then one day I was having a conversation with the VP who was sort of in charge of leadership development for the whole place. And I, one of the courage action steps I took is I told him, honestly, that I thought we had been talking a lot about courageous behavior, but we hadn’t really been getting anywhere and seeing it happen. That stimulated this other VP to show up the next day and encourage everybody on the senior team to develop a courage ladder. He developed 10 and what they did is they created an internal SharePoint document where they said, let’s now, company-wide, when we take courageous actions as the senior leadership team, let’s record our name, the date, the action, what skills we hope we modeled, and let’s record that. And when we get to certain milestones, first 50, first hundred, let’s celebrate those. And when others do them, let’s celebrate it. And so what started as really just a personal courage ladder for Shail became sort of a collective way of being.

[00:35:36] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: If you’re a leader, how do you address fear among employees? Fear of being courageous. How do you begin, even begin, to think about that as a leader, Jim?

[00:35:48] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: I think in this respect, my answer is, comes closer to amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety. And I didn’t mention it, but we started this talk, I mentioned, 20 years ago, I was doing my dissertation. Well, Amy was one of my dissertation advisors. And you know, so Amy and have talked a lot about the fact that sort of working to create a climate of psychological safety and sort of working on courageous action are really sort of these complimentary acts because the reality is very, very few, and Amy would say this, very, very, very few systems have managed to become completely psychologically safe up and down the hierarchy for everybody, right? So you can work on setting the conditions for learning behavior to be safer. But at the same time, you will still need people to be willing to take risky action. And so how does that apply to sort of what I think about for leaders? I think, to me, what that says is there’s a difference between acknowledging that people are afraid and telling them to just buck up and be courageous anyway, versus acknowledging that people are afraid and therefore doing things that would help change that for them. And so I don’t see the role of very senior leaders as being to encourage courage because what I really think is that if you’re a CEO and you stand up there, you’re a hospital head, and you stand up there and say, hey folks, I’m here to encourage courage, we need to see more courage, what you’re essentially saying is, hey, I realize that there’s a lot of fear in this system. I don’t intend to do anything about that, right? So get it together and be courageous anyway. Well, that’s kind of a terrible way to lead, in my opinion. So I thik what great leaders, especially as they become more senior, would do is they’d say, I need to acknowledge fear exists, and I need to start doing things to change that. Some of that, frankly, would be quite courageous on your own part as a leader. It would mean that, when your people see you around your own bosses, they see you be willing to challenge in respectful ways. They see you going to bat for them. They see you being innovative rather than a yes man or woman right? So one thing you do is you just model the same behaviors you would hope your people would take and you stop fooling yourself and thinking that if everybody behind your back saying, you’re the weakest office leader they’ve ever been around, then you are not modeling what you’re hoping for. Two, I think this is where some of this language around vulnerability comes in. If you don’t ever, as people’s leader say, I don’t know, help me, I made a mistake, I’m sorry, let’s fix it, if you won’t do those things, then you’re not creating the conditions for people to think you actually want to be told the truth, right? So you have to do that kind of modeling. And then I think the third sort of set of courageous actions that leaders could do to address people’s fear is be willing to change some of the systems that frankly are inconsistent with what you’re espousing, right? So you can tell people all day long, we want to be innovative, we value agility and creative thinking and innovative behavior. But if everything in your pay scheme pays for accomplishment of established metrics, then you don’t really want innovation. If people can look around and say, hey, who got promoted, and everybody that got promoted were the yes men and women, and nobody that’s an innovative out of the box thinker got promoted, then your system’s not aligned. If you say we want more participation, but you continue to only invite certain people to key meetings, you set up a big square table where the leader’s clearly at the head of the table and the lower ranking people are way in the back, then you have symbolically made it clear. You don’t really care about participative decision-making. And so, way back, I think 1975, Steve Kerr talked about the folly of hoping for A while rewarding B. He said, like, all the time, leaders say, hey, we want collaborative, longer-term thinking. But then the pay scheme is quarterly results on objective metrics at the individual level. That’s the folly of hoping for A while rewarding B. Well, I think courageous leadership would also say, if I really want people to speak honestly, if I really want innovation, if I really want a more inclusive organization, then what am I going to do to change the structures and systems and processes that prevent that from happening?

[00:40:29] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah, I love this discussion, Jim. With your examples, it really makes it easy to think about this. I’m sure it’s tough to do as a leader. But you’ve certainly given some steps that you can track along to try to encourage, starting with yourself, but others, to be more courageous. Let me ask a final question if I could and, not so much about courage necessarily, but just your whole experience, working with leaders. What advice would you give younger up and coming leaders?

[00:41:03] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think, I have been fortunate to work with a lot of young professionals, MBA students in their twenties, late twenties, early thirties, all the way up to fairly senior people. And what that has allowed me, I think, to develop is the perspective that things are not sort of magically going to be as different as you assume. And you know, that’s what I say to young people all the time. They say, like, hey Jim, I want to be more courageous. But you know, I’m only going to be at this low level when I go into my next work or right now I’m only a middle manager. And when I get to X, then I’m going to do it, right? Or they say, like, I’d like to do it, but right now, I mean, I’m just starting a family, it’s not really a good time for me to, but in a few years it will be. And what I now have the perspective to say is that time you’re talking about never comes. You know, in 10 or 20 years, you’ll just have a bigger mortgage and now you’ll have three or four college tuitions to pay for. And the handcuffs you feel now financially, they’ll just have gotten more golden. And so, oh, and by the way it’ll turn out that whatever, like, illusion you have about people around you right now are not that open and it’d be hard. But when you get up a few levels, everybody’s going to be magically more open-minded, that’s not true either. So, I have heard and then, and I’ve in fact, empirically looked at this, and the level of fear of speaking up doesn’t decrease as you go up levels. The frequency about important issues doesn’t go up as you move up levels. And so I think what I can pretty confidently say to people is, you have to make a choice and you have to keep affirming that choice, and that choice is, am I going to be sort of the agent to my life? Am I going to stand for the things I believe in? Am I going to push, skillfully, but am I going to push to defend the values I care about even if it would mean I’m not popular or I have to change organizations, because the time isn’t going to magically appear where that becomes easy. Just like I’ll never be a skilled 10K runner. I mean, that’s the perfect example, right? To say, like, look, if you think it’s hard to train for a 10K when you’re 30, try training for it when you’re 50. In reality, so much of what we would like to believe we’ll have more time for, or more appetite for, these things don’t magically happen. You have to choose what kind of life you want to have and you have to accept that there’s some risk, there’s some pain at every step of the way, but that’s what makes a great life lived in time.

[00:43:39] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Professor Jim Detert. The book is “Choosing Courage”. It’s a good one. Jim, thanks for being with us today.

[00:43:46] Jim Detert, Ph.D.: Pleasure.

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