Courage at Work

5 minute read

Having grown up in a military family and then having been in or around the military for the first 40 years of my life, I felt like I had a good idea of what courage was. For the next five years, I worked with the first responder community and pushed my concepts of courage even further. Courage in these jobs wasn’t the absence of fear—it was focusing on something else more than your fears. It’s time to bring that idea of courage to the work that all of us do.

While at West Point, I learned the phrase “intestinal fortitude,” a fancier way of saying courage. It was expected of us in physically dangerous situations, and also in difficult conversations. Cadets were held to a strict honor code to tell the truth, even if that meant the other person wasn’t happy with what we said.

In the workplace today, there is too much hesitancy to be candid with each other, especially with our managers. This is true even when the stakes are high for the business. Almost everyone has seen situations where a manager proposes a terrible approach to solve a high-impact problem, and no one says anything. People remain silent, even when they recognize the dangerous outcomes for the team.

I’ve even asked teams of leaders, “How many of you want your direct reports to tell you if you have a bad idea to solve a problem?” Usually, every hand goes up. Then I’ll ask, “Now, why are you afraid of doing that with your manager?” That’s followed by some uncomfortable shifting in their seats and staring at their shoes.

This isn’t unusual. Many people will hide behind their fear, allowing their nightmares of being fired or yelled at to run rampant. They let themselves be muzzled by their overblown fears.

It’s time to start doing something different.

You can start by remembering that courage isn’t the absence of fear…it’s focusing on a greater goal.

What do you really and truly care about? What do you really want for your team members, for your direct reports, for your manager, and for yourself? You probably want them (and you) to have less difficulty, to be successful, to be happy.

One way to practice courage is to care more about what you want than you care about your fear of a difficult conversation. 

That’s it. Most people don’t say anything “negative” because they are stuck in fear…fear of rejection, of not being liked, of being ignored. When you switch from focusing on what you fear to focusing on what you truly care about, you’ll find yourself willing to go further. You’ll find your courage.

And, the majority of the fears we have are overblown…we let them become bigger and bigger monsters in the closets of our minds. You let yourself be held prisoner by focusing on the worst possible outcome.

So, when you start to feel uneasy and you catch yourself backing away from something you know is important, ask yourself:

This is what good coaches, teachers, and leaders do. They aren’t focused on their fear of being rejected by someone, so they help the person by giving them honest feedback. You’ve probably had a tough conversation with a teacher, aunt, neighbor or coach who saw that you could do more than you were doing. The clear and resounding message those people were sending is “I care about you so I’m willing to have a conversation to help you, even if it’s temporarily uncomfortable for both of us.” If you’ve been lucky enough to have had that, you know exactly what I mean.

If you’re not sure how to translate this practical application of courage into the workplace, you’re not alone. 

For starters, don’t overcomplicate it. Remember what you care about and what you want for the other person. Get clear and specific. Mentally put yourself in their position and ask yourself, “What would I want people to tell me?” 

Remember that you will have lots of opportunities to be in the “coach” seat, regardless of your title, seniority, or responsibilities. You’ll have an opportunity to decide how to show your care for someone else, regardless of where they sit in the org chart.

And you will also have lots of opportunities to be “coached”, sometimes by people you don’t think know as much or don’t have the degrees or certifications. In this situation, honor the care they are bringing to the table and their willingness to speak up, especially when it’s uncomfortable. This is an incredible gift, even if you see things differently.

As you practice using courage at work, give yourself some easier places to start. Create a “courage pact” with a coworker so you’ll both speak up more and support each other in the process. You’re building up a muscle that may be weak from lack of use…and it’s still there.

You’ll make this so much easier by first identifying what you want for yourself and for others. When you think about people’s bigger game (including your own), your courageous caring will help you get clear on what you want to do to help them and let you bypass your fears.

When you start with honest caring, there’s no limit to how far you can go.