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Aug. 9, 2022

183 [BEST OF] How to Choose Courage and Be Brave at Work with University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Jim Detert | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

183 [BEST OF] How to Choose Courage and Be Brave at Work with University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Jim Detert | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Jim Detert, John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business and author of Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work. In this conversation, Jim Detert shares how we can become more courageous by developing our courage capabilities. Jim Detert also shares how leaders can nurture a psychologically safe organizational culture, enabling and encouraging more courageous interactions and decisions at work.  

Some highlights:

-Why attributing courage just to historical figures can be counterproductive 

-The importance of being more courageous and how to develop our courage muscle

-Jim Detert on the benefits of courage at work

-How leaders can create a psychologically safe environment that encourages team members to speak up and contribute their best at work


-Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and author of Fearless Organization and Creating Psychological Safety

-Vanessa Bohns (Listen to Partnering Leadership conversation with Vanessa Bohns)

-Gary Bolles (Listen to Partnering Leadership conversation with Gary Bolles)

-Difficult Conversationsby Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone, and Sheila Heen

-Radical Candor by Kim Scott

-Giving Voice to Values by Mary C. Gentile 

-The Silent Language Of Leaders by Carol Goldman

Connect with Jim Detert:

Jim Detert Website

Choosing Courage on Amazon

Jim Detert on Facebook

Jim Detert on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:




More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 


Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

Mahan Tavakoli Website

Mahan Tavakoli on LinkedIn

Partnering Leadership Website


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited to speak, to be welcoming, Jim Detert. Jim is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. His research focuses on workplace courage. Why do people speak up or stay silent? I really enjoyed the conversation, which mostly focused on Jim's book, Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work, because Jim talks about courage as a muscle that can be developed.

A lot of times we think people are courageous and we admire courage but wonder whether we can exhibit the same kind of courage. And the answer is yes, we can. It is a muscle and it can be developed. And most especially it's important in the work environment. When we want to have a psychologically safe environment for us to choose courage as individuals, and encourage that courage as leaders. There are many takeaways from this conversation on specifically how you can develop the muscle of courage for yourself and your team. 

I'm sure you will enjoy the conversation as much as I did. I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com.

Really enjoy those voice messages. Don't forget to follow the podcast Tuesday conversations with magnificent Changemakers from the greater Washington DC DMV region and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders. Now here's my conversation with professor Jim Detert.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Jim Detert, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me. 

Jim Detert: 

Delighted to be with you.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I'm really excited. I love the book, Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work. And you've continued writing about how we can bring more courage into our lives and into the work environment.

But before we talk about that, we'd love to know whereabouts you grew up. And how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become. 

Jim Detert: 

I grew up in a medium-sized town in Wisconsin called Fon Du Lac. My parents divorced when I was about four. And there were a period of years, you know, a solid 10 years where my mom was really working to sort of get back on her feet. We spend time in low-income housing, all the typical struggles of poverty. And I mentioned that because I think that was pretty formative to who I became and also to the kind of work I do and the beliefs I have. 

I mean, I think when you're in that environment and you're looking around you, see a lot of what you don't want to be, or the life you don't want to have. And I think it sort of became clear to me that, waiting around and hoping that, I was sort of magically going to end up in a different place, was folly. That thinking I wasn't going to have to advocate and be courageous and, frankly, be willing to behave in ways that most of my family didn't behave like, was not going to lead me to somewhere else.

And I think a lot of my personality and certainly, a lot of my belief systems came from that pretty humble beginning. And that sense that we can not wait around and think that anybody else is going to change the world for us. I sure as heck has a five-year-old, I didn't know what Gandhi or anyone else had said. But I think, you know now capable of knowing that I believe things like, you have to be the change you want to see in the world.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that leads well to some of the work you've done because to lead change, whether it is for your own life, for your team, or society at large, it takes courage. What guides you to study courage in the first place? You are a professor at a business school.

Jim Detert: 

It was a confluence of things. Some of the early work, I actually just stumbled into, while doing my Ph.D involves some work on why people spoke up or not at work, whether they felt safe or not to speak up. Whether they felt it was worthwhile or not to speak up. And not surprisingly as we now well know from Amy Edmonson and others were generally speaking when people do feel it's safe to speak up at work, but I think this is true in any environment they do.

And when they feel it's unsafe, they generally don't. But what became clear to me pretty early on was that there were instances where people said, yeah, it's actually not safe. I believe there are social or economic or career consequences. And yet, either I or someone else takes action and speaks up.

And when I was doing my dissertation, I had sort of coded that as like, Hmm. This really fascinates me. And the truth is I didn't do anything with that for a long time. My dissertation was actually on why people speak up or not. But as I was teaching leadership classes, I would finish my classes with remarks about, well, we have learned a lot of tools, but in the end, I think the test of whether you're a good leader or not is going to come down to whether you have the courage to use those tools in the toughest situations, not how many tools you have. 

And, students kept saying over and over and over, man, why'd you wait for the last five minutes of the course to say that. Like, that's what we should have had a course on it. That's what we needed a module on. And those two, sort of my research life and then my teaching life came together and I realized if I was going to keep encouraging courage, then, I should use my ability as a professor to actually answer their questions. 

Well, how would one do this skillfully? How would one do this? And I think that beyond, students just saying, Hey, we should have more of this. The truth is it was also becoming clear to me how many of us need these messages in these tools? Thoreau said, “Most, people live lives of quiet desperation.”

And sometimes I would look out, in my executive MBA classes or other audience, and I would have that sense that that's what I was experiencing. That people were 15, 20 years into their careers, but only mid-life. And they were asking themselves, is this it? Am I just going to do this for 20 or 30 or 40 more years? Maybe not feeling desperate, but feeling distressed about that possibility. And I realized that we all need somebody to provide, I think both some inspiration around being our best self, being willing to step out of the box, be a little bit unreasonable, but we also need, some education. We need somebody to say, be your best, strongest, most courageous self, but also here's how to be competent. So you don't blow yourself up every time you do it.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

With respect to that courage, Jim, what I found in reading, your book and some of your writing, is that you break it down and make it accessible. It's pretty easy for us to look at historical figures. Whether the Gandhi of the world or the MLKs of the world and say, oh, wow, they had such incredible courage and admire them. And even in a work environment. Look at some whistleblowers and say what courage that person had to become a whistleblower. But that seems inaccessible. That's outside of the norm of what we can aspire to on a daily basis in our own jobs and careers. 

Jim Detert: 

I think, there are several important points there. First of all, I think, when we tell ourselves, Oh, courage is the realm of only, and then, pick your favorite historical figure, or your favorite CEO or founder. We let ourselves off the hook, right? We tell ourselves, well, yeah, there's some special, unique kind of person, but it's only 1%. And so I don't have to do anything that I think is a mistake. 

If you think about what we consider the cardinal virtues, courage is often mentioned as one, but so are things like fairness or moderation. There's really no other virtue that I'm aware of that we basically say, 1% of the population should be these things some of the time. We expect all of ourselves to be fair and kind, and moderate. I'm not sure why we accepted this story of like courage for just a few.

It's also true that if you really look at, even among the folks, we do tend to name. The interesting thing about them it's not like there's actually some obvious identifying feature of these people. It's like, they're all tall. It's not like they're all of a certain nationality. It's not like they're of a certain age or level in a sort of hierarchy.

The truth is the people you, and I would mention if we did just list off are sort of famous heroes, they're incredibly varied. That itself should tell us that it's kind of BS to say, well, there's just a certain type. And I can tell you I've looked pretty hard. I can't tell you what that type is. 

And the last thing I guess I would say is, I had a doctoral student recently who, actually began to explore this systematically. And what we found is actually somewhat sadly, come to believe is true. Which is that being inspired by something is distinct or different from being inspired to do something. And what I think, the danger of only talking about, the Rosa Parks of the world is that we can be inspired by those people, but actually, the distance between sort of the image, the hero, the picture we've drawn to those people actually tends to mean we're precisely not inspired to actually mimic them, or do what they did. Indeed that's what he found is that you can be inspired by, but not inspired to. 

And so in my work, yeah, sure. Of course. I try to pay some attention to the figures that we all are impressed by, in love, but I, actually have tended to focus more on saying, let me tell you a story about, steady Eddie or courageous Cindy, because, what people need to understand is its people just like themselves.There really isn't a great excuse to not just, pick a reasonable action and get started.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You use courage and courageous act as a verb rather than a noun. Gary Bolles, I was having a conversation with him on the next rules of work, does the same thing with leading. He says it should be a verb. It's not a noun. It's not that someone is a leader in the same instance. Courage is through courageous acts. There isn't a courageous person. 

Jim Detert: 

I believe that's correct. To put it in a facetious way, right? If you do an autopsy on a human body after death, and can't find a stock of courage. There is no such thing. 

We don't have courage in the sense of having, physical muscle, for example, we just don't. Courage is an attribution, that courageous is an attribution that people make. They watch you do something and they say, wow, that was courageous or, wow, she's courageous. But if you actually think about like, when we say, wow, she's courageous, we don't actually mean by personality. We mean, we can think of one or more things she's done. That to us were worthy risky actions.

I think that's part of also dispelling the myth is if you allow yourself to believe that while there are just some innately courageous people who have courage, that's another story that allows you to say, well, I wasn't born that way. And what I think is really important for us to be willing to admit is none of us were actually born that way.

I think Scott Peck got it right. 30, 40 years ago now he said something like, most people think courage is the absence of fear. And he said, no. Courage is not the absence of fear. The absence of fear is some kind of brain damage. Courage is the capacity to go ahead and in spite of, or despite the fear. And I think that's right. Reasonable, normal people have fears of offending people above them or being, ostracized by friends, or people in their peer group. That's reasonable. It's reasonable to be afraid. We can choose to act differently.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I wonder why Jim, we, don't. You say we can develop courage and would love to understand some of your thoughts and perspectives to that. But I had a conversation with Vanessa Bohns. She has a great book, You have more influence than you think. And one of the examples she gives also is an experiment where women were asked, what they would do if they were asked uncomfortable questions in an interview and they said, I would walk out, I aloft the person so on and so forth. However, when put in those situations, they didn't do that. And this is just one of many examples where when people are asked about courage, they say, of course, I would have the courage. But when put in situations, they don't behave in a courageous way.

Why is that? And how can we address it by developing courage in ourselves? So we behave differently. 

Jim Detert: 

It's a great question. At some level, it's the foundational question. Let me start by saying I agree with Vanessa in her sad, but true findings. 

For example, in some of my courses, I will bring in a couple of protagonists, suppose protagonists of a case where, for example, the senior managers considering change presentations by my students and I will actually intentionally have one of the actors make a microaggression. A rude, obnoxious, offensive comment to the other. A white male might say, for example, to a black female, who is his peer in this situation, Hey sweetie, take the notes here, okay? Things like that. And my intent is to actually see what will my students do? Will they be courageous? Will they say something? 

And almost to a person, they don't. And when, you ask them why, then you start to get to the heart of it. And what is the heart of it? Fea. Well, I didn't want to misunderstand their closeness, I didn't want to look stupid in front of everybody else. Maybe it was just me being over-sensitive and I didn't want other people to think I was trying to sort of get these two people's approval for my idea. And if I angered them by confronting the microaggression, the comment, maybe they would be angry at me and not support my idea. 

And, those are the same kinds of reasons that people report in every kind of work organized. If I stand up and be courageous, I might face professional consequences, social consequences, or psychological consequences. 

Now I think, the reality is that's the set of reasons people don't do it. They're afraid. And those are very legitimate fears. We obviously know why people are afraid to be fired. The economic costs of that. We often underplay or downplay the social costs, Like what if you stand for the right thing? So what if people exclude you? But that's actually ignoring our nature as a species. 

For most of our time on earth, if you got isolated from your small tribe or clan, if you got cast out or ostracized, you are going to die pretty quickly. And that's not true anymore. That doesn't mean that the pain we feel from ostracism, isn't essentially as strong as physical pain, we do not want to be ostracized. Those are pretty strong reasons. 

Let's simplify it. What has to change? You either have to sort of reduce how fearful people actually are. How strong those fears are. Or you have to help people develop countervailing reasons to do it anyway.

I have two daughters. If anybody comes near my daughters, it doesn't matter how big their stick gun, I'm fighting back. Yes, I'm afraid. But in that instance, my love for my children is massively stronger than that fear. 

And I think, one thing we don't probably pay enough attention to is if people aren't willing to push back, or speak up, what does that say about how important an issue or the organization or whatever is to them. And in a lot of cases, the facts are, it's just not strong enough. Or people who haven't put themselves in the right position we can talk. And I think we will about how could you build some skills to be more courageous and that's important.

But I also think it's important to ask your listeners and others. What are you doing to make yourself less afraid in the first place? If you don't keep your job skills current and you have no job mobility, you're always going to be more afraid at work. If you don't save anything from month to month and year to year, you're never going to have that safety nest egg to walk away and make a transition to try something different. If you don't have an identity, a set of friendships outside of work or outside of your unit at work, it's going to be very, very hard for you to risk the social disapproval of those at work. And the skills that are really important for reducing your fears are acting despite your fears, but so are there other things we can do that we're just not so afraid of in the first place? 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's really important for us to keep in mind. In many instances, we set up the conditions that allow us to act with more courage or not. The other thing I love about how you approach this Jim is that like anything else, first of all, by having a growth mindset, we can develop courage. But more importantly, it takes little bits of work and effort to develop more and more courage. You even have great tools on your website that I highly recommend, including the courage ladder, showing how we can develop. 

I know you mentioned this repeatedly it's as if we want to go to a gym and lift a weight or run a distance, run a marathon, you don't go out and run a marathon. You don't bench press 200 pounds or whatever it might be. You can work to it gently, slowly. With respect to courage, how can people work up? So they develop those courageous muscles. 

Jim Detert: 

It's a great question. And it links back to our prior discussion, I think late Colonel Air Kale got exactly right. He said we can't become something in 30 seconds that we haven't been for the last 10 years. And what he was saying is if you don't practice, if you don't get yourself ready, you will never magically be ready.

And I think that relates to this issue, of just more generally telling ourselves a story about like, oh, time's not right now, but it will be right. And what I should have said as part of your prior question. It will never suddenly be the right moment and you will never suddenly be prepared for the right moment if you haven't been preparing.

And what do we do about that? I think actually it's like what you would do if you decided to get in shape physically. You are sure as hell wouldn't try to lift 500 pounds the first lift and you wouldn't try to run a marathon the first time you put your running shoes on. You would develop a very slow, steady workout routine. A routine that was hard enough to get your heart rate up or to make your muscles sore, but not so hard that you quit. Or that you were in such physical pain that you had to take three weeks off after every workout because it's counterproductive. 

And the idea of the courage ladder is, very much akin to that, which is to say if I just ask you to think of like, tell me a courageous act you could take? The first thing we tend to say will be the thing that's pretty high on our courage ladder actually because it's that sort of most daunting, scary, big thing we are most afraid of. But that's not the place to start. 

What I say is, that's fine. Put that at the top of your courage ladder at a distress level, a fire level 10. But then you need to think of, distress level sevens and fours and threes and twos because those are the place to start. If you pick something that's a bit frightening for you and would require, a bit of practice and skill development, one it's low enough that you could probably get yourself to do it instead of just endlessly making excuses. 

And two, and you're more likely to have at least enough success. I'm not saying it'll go perfect. It likely won't go so poorly and have such consequences that you'd say, this just proves I should have never tried. You probably have enough success that you'd be willing to try again. That you'd actually be motivated because if you say, what does it take to overcome fear? 

Part of what it takes is motivation. You have to start to see, oh, this is the upside. This is why. And if you can start smaller, if you start at the bottom of a courage ladder, you're more likely to have enough success that you're motivated. And I think that we know enough about motivation to know how important that is. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And as you mentioned him a lot of time. When we think about courage at work, or visualize the person quitting their job and slamming the boss's door, or whatever else, and walking out in protestation of whatever is happening. But those are the extremes and therefore inaccessible. It's finding smaller elements of courage and working on that courage. 

The question in my mind though, is how do you do that in displaying courage, in a work environment without becoming a nuisance? To the point where everything anyone says you have the courage to speak up against then you're constantly, trying to display courage at a minor level. Not moving anything forward, not making a real difference, and being seen more as a nuisance. Where is that balance? 

Jim Detert: 

It's all about choosing your battles. Before I say more about that though, let me backtrack for a second and say, it's not just to where you started. It's not just a matter of, well, the only courage act I can think of is, slamming the door and telling the boss off or whatever. It's not just that it becomes accessible cause most of us don't want to do that. It's actually also the case that doesn't tend to change anything except for your employment status, right? 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I'm making you feel better. It doesn't make a difference. 

Jim Detert: 

Right. That's what I try to help people realize is that look, there are some times when basically, just our sense of authenticity or our sense of self-esteem feels like it requires us to take a stand consequence, be damned. And I'm great with that. I say kudos to people who are willing to do that. But we shouldn't confuse that with changing somebody else or changing the organization. You can feel great about yourself as you're filling out new job applications. But your former boss is probably still the jerk or she was. 

I do think it's important for us to ask ourselves, and I think that's actually part of choosing your battles is, that you can speak up. Look, all of us, if we're honest, we can find five things or more every single day that we're irritated about, or that are suboptimal from an efficiency or effectiveness perspective. That's the nature of being a human being among all other fallible human beings, there are plenty of problems. Most of them, if we, just engage in chronic outbursts about we're not going to change anything. 

The way I think about that is the first skill you have to learn in that regard, is the emotional control to say, can I separate my initial emotional response to all of life's irritating moments from my reaction, because the issue is it's not in any absolute sense of a problem to speak up about anything that's wrong, but in some key ways, you have to understand the difference between the battle and the war. You could win the right battles, but lose the war you care most about. 

And I think the only way you will succeed at that in choosing the right battles is if you work on the emotional skills to stop your first impulse to act. It seems counterintuitive because we think of courageous actions or courageous actors as people who act as people who put themselves out there. 

I understand it seems somewhat counterintuitive for me to say, yeah, that's true, but they don't act impulsively. They act in very thoughtful, controlled ways. And skilled, successful courageous actors can also tell you about a lot of instances when they wanted to act, but they held themselves. They waited for the right moment.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that right moment allows you to have an influence in using that courage to change for the better. Whether it is the person, the team, or the organization. That emotional intelligence aspect of it, and to a certain extent, being strategic with respect to the use of courage, it enables the courage to be used for good and for making a difference. 

You also mentioned Jim, that language plays a role on a tactical level in how we are able to either bring other people, individuals, or team along when we want to show courage to initiate. 

Jim Detert: 

I think a lot of times when people don't succeed whether it's with, let's say business venture pitch or trying to internally get people to change, to support something or allocate resources, or whether it's just an interpersonal issue. We tend to say, you didn't get it right in terms of what you said. And that often gets taken to mean, your data we're fundamentally flawed. You chose the wrong data. Or there was no logic in what you said. 

But in my experience, that's actually, usually not really the problem. Usually, the basic underlying data and the basic underlying reasoning are just fine. But it's very subtle shifts in the way that data or that reasoning is framed that make a huge difference in how it hits. 

Imagine that you are my boss, and I want to convince you that we should start doing a new program in a new area. And I come to you and I tell you why this is a perfect match for our culture. It's all about the values we care deeply about. And you know what? We really be at the cutting edge if we do this. I pitch cultural fit and leading-edge for my idea. But it turns out, that if I had paid attention to you and all the other times that I or somebody else had pitched ideas to you, what I would have known is that actually you're a lot more compelled by are we going to make or lose money on this idea and how much? And if we don't do it, what's the competitive threat or risk.

I would encourage listeners, to think about the last couple of times you were pitching an idea or you were trying to tell somebody why you would like them to do something differently. And analyze like, well, what'd you say? And what I'm guessing is true is what you said is what is compelling to you. If you like financial framing, you framed it financially. If you are more responsive to threats, you framed it as a threat. 

The problem with that is if you could make the change or control the change, or you had all the resources, you're not pitching the idea anyway. The whole nature of anything interpersonal or any resource acquisition thing is that you need to convince somebody else. And what you find compelling doesn't really matter. I think that's kind of one really important idea is to spend enough time to know what does the other person respond well to? 

And then there are smaller tactics related to framing people respond a lot better if you say we should change because we should evolve because your idea has already succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. Let's evolve or take it to the next level. You feel pretty good. If I say your program has already been such a smashing success, let's evolve it. If on the other hand, I say, I really think we need to fundamentally change and adopt this new approach. The essence of what you're hearing is that your idea, your approach, or plan has been a dud. I want the same thing anyway. Why not frame it as let's evolve something that's already paid off? 

And I talk a lot in my book and in my other writing about these subtle ways in which we can convey the same information, but do it in ways that don't evoke defensiveness, that doesn't evoke a win loss kind of frame mentality. And the more you can get skilled at doing that, the more you'll start to see your courageous actions. And they're courageous because it is risky to say, Hey boss, I think we should change something. But the more you can add that competency to that courageous action, the more you'll start to see less defensiveness and more success. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Courageous actions are not necessarily courageous just in isolation. They're courageous in moving what you want forward. Whether again, when we talk about societal courageous actions or in the organization when you want to advocate for what you believe is right. It does take courage. 

However, you can't be oblivious to the perspective of the group or individual you're trying to bring along. The courageous actions are not, in and of themselves in isolation, they are in relation to the external world and bringing those people, that individual along your way of thinking. 

Jim Detert: 

Yeah. And that's true for us as like internal, as employees at any level, it's also true. 

If you think of any client engagement. Let's say you're consulting or your marketing and advertising your firm that provides services to somebody. If your approach to recognizing any social issue, racial, gender, the environment. If your approach to having a point of view about any of those issues with your clients is essentially going to be either you do exactly what we tell you to do or we're out of here, then you're going to be out of every relationship, right? Because that's not the way the world works. And by the way, you'll just be out of business. I think what consultants also have to realize is there's a difference between not caring at all about the behavior of others and thinking that you can just dictate a successful change happens if you find a way to engage with those partners. 

Talk with them about change in a way that meets their value system, and their financial objectives, and help them get somewhere. But simply, the idea that you can shame others into change, in my experience, doesn't work very well. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It doesn't and I think this is a really important point for a lot of people to understand. As they want to initiate change in their organizations, a lot of, millennials, gen Z, are passionate about different issues, whether it be ESG or, social issues that they want to advocate in their organizations and good for them, for having those strong beliefs.

It's important to understand that it takes courage to stand up, but part of that courage will be in engaging the others to bring them along as you mentioned. 

Now, you also have written quite a bit, both in the book, and Harvard business review articles Jim about leadership and how leaders can create a more courageous environment. So how can leaders bring a more courageous environment into their workplace?

Jim Detert: 

The risk of oversimplifying, think the answer is twofold. 

One, you have to model what you want to see in others. You can't expect it. And frankly, it's just wrong to expect that others, for example, your subordinates would be courageous toward you. They would point out, problems, in your behavior or in your strategies. If they see you sit in meetings with your bosses, never saying a word, it's crazy to think that your employees are going to think outside of the box and take those kinds of risks. If they see you do nothing but toe the line. If you aren't willing to stand in front of your people and sometimes say, I don't know, help me. I'm sorry. I screwed up. Here's something we tried or I tried that didn't work out. But thank goodness we learned something let's keep experimenting. If you won't do that, why would your people do that? 

We know from research that a nature of human hierarchy that people pay massively more attention to. Their perception is much more focused on the people above them. You can tell your people would be courageous all day long, but if they see you're not doing it, they're not going to do it. It's simple. But, one thing. You gotta be the change you want to see going back to where we started.

You know, Shail Jain is a co-founder and CEO of Farragut systems, a software development company in the US and, he's a really wonderful example he read choosing courage. He built his own courage ladder, and he started to take the steps one at a time. We had a difficult conversation with the executive team.

He confronted your employees about some entitlement kind of behavior, you know, had a set of conversations. After he did the third or fourth of these, clearly his senior executive team noticed. Then the senior VP who had been leading their organizational development, and they had been talking about being more courageous and having more candid conversations, but nobody had really been doing anything.

The senior VP finally saw Shail doing this. And he showed up at the next senior executive meeting and says, I think we need to stop talking about this. I think we should all build our courage ladders. We should all take steps and we should build an internal SharePoint document where we document our courageous actions, sort of what it was, when we did it, what skills we tried to employ, and we should start celebrating those instances of courageous action and pretty soon, he had a lot of the senior team engaging in these behaviors because he modeled it. 

The second is, actually, you should eliminate from your vocabulary, saying to your people, I need you to be more courageous. I mean, I know that sounds a little odd coming from like the courage guy. But I strongly believe that. Because if I, as the leader, I mean, imagine, putting this in the context, when you tell your people to be more courageous, what you're essentially acknowledging is I know you're afraid. I know it's risky for you. I don't intend to do anything about that. Just be more courageous. You assume the risk. That's a terrible thing to tell people, right? If you have information and sadly most do, right. Psychological safety is not very high in most organizations. 

My research shows clearly lots of just everyday important professional or managerial behaviors are seen as requiring a lot of courage and therefore not done enough. If you're in a situation like this, telling your people just be more courageous, as essentially saying, you don't intend to do anything to fix it. You don't intend to make it safer. And, for that, I would say politely, shame on you. If you are a leader at any level of significance and your strategies just tell people to be more courageous, it's you who needs more courage. You need to start changing things.

I was fortunate enough to have Amy Edmondson on my dissertation committee and I've known Amy for 20 years. And I know Amy and I think the same way about this. The truth is a lot of the things you have to do to make an environment more psychologically safe actually require a lot of courage. Because when things aren't safe, you often would have to change systems of hierarchy that make people feel low status. You would have to change who's at the table and who has access to decisions or power. That takes courage for people to let go. You'd have to start confronting people who get away with things they shouldn't get away with. You'd have to, actually be willing to tolerate and celebrate prudent risk-taking, that's hard to do. The truth is you don't get psychological safety without courageous action. And that's what I think leaders should be focused on.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

This is really important to both think about and act on Jim. Leadership is an example. And as you said leaders can show that courage. One of the ways they can show courage, which you also write about and mentioned is the willingness to show vulnerability, the willingness to talk about their own mistakes.

It's not only showing courage in standing up to leaders, above them, if that is needed, that's fine. But it's also how they are willing to have the courage to have those authentic conversations with their teams. You also mentioned the willingness to engage in difficult conversations that requires courage. How do you see leadership and courage changing as a result of the work environments we will be having in the coming months and years?

Jim Detert: 

It's a great question. And I think the environments we've studied over the last a hundred years in organizational studies were largely in-person environments. But we do know a number of important things that are relevant here. And we know that ultimately, whether you're talking about vulnerability, whether you're talking about psychological safety, where they talking about courage, a lot of what we're talking about, ultimately are the conditions of trust. 

Vulnerability is essentially saying I'm going to put myself out there because I trust that you'll reciprocate or treat me decently and return. Safety is similarly about trust, right? The truth is a lot of the struggles that I think you're describing and that I also see every day are that, it's harder to either establish or maintain trust when you're working in a virtual environment or when you're coming together only so often.

And so people are left reading thinner cues and clues about whether people are trustworthy or not. You and I are having a face-to-face conversation, but I can't see the rest of your body. And the rest of your body also gives off a lot of signals about how trustworthy you are. And about whether you're feeling safe around me. And I can't see any of that. 

What I think we are now struggling with is the reality of that. We have thinner and less information upon which to decide do I trust you and do you trust me? And I think that means we're going to have to work a lot harder at it. 

One of the things I have been asking people describe meetings that went well that you felt kept the team together maintained its trust or helped to build trust versus meetings that, did the opposite, that were destructive or made you doubt. And what's interesting, again, was a little surprising to me because my assumption is that we're all sick of virtual reality and that we would prefer every meeting to be as short as possible so that our preference would be, you know, Hey, I'd like my boss to get and if we had an hour for this meeting, but if we can do it in 40 minutes, I'm going to be delighted because I'd like to get off this meeting. 

But what I've been told over and over is the opposite which is that it's precisely because we're in this, thinner, medium, and we're not spending that time in person that the leaders doing the best and managing this are spending the most time at the beginning of meetings with check-ins. How are you doing? What's going on at home? Are you really okay? Oh my God. Let me tell you about this struggle I've been having or how I'm feeling today. And really doubling down on the interpersonal. Not trying to make the meeting as short and efficient as possible.

I have a suspicion that a lot of what it's going to mean to create the conditions, both of safety, but where people can be courageous and understood to be well-intended is going to be about shifting our mindset about short-term versus long-term productive. 

It might feel like, geez, if we spent 30 minutes catching up and really checking in an hour meeting, we wasted 30 minutes. But I think that over time, what we're going to see is that teams that care enough to do that will actually be better off.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I love the way you put a Jim. Events within short-term versus long-term, productive. And there are a lot of times we sacrifice the long-term by trying to focus on the short-term. And some of those trusting relationships that need to be established need to be re-established, because part of what has happened is that we've all gone through a couple of years of what for each and every one of us has been a tough experience. 

Some are much harder. Some people have lost loved ones, But every person has gone through a transformative experience. That's sometimes referred to as a liminal experience. The leaders need to establish those connections and that trust and spend the time and effort on it in order to be able to have the kind of courageous environments that organizations need most especially in an uncertain environment that will continue changing at a much faster pace. 

Jim Detert: 

I'm with you. I would say, look, if, unless there's something wrong with you. The last few years have really should have led everybody to be in some ways, reevaluating. What's this all about? What am I doing with my time? What's important to me? If you get in there as a leader of any meeting and you sort of say, okay, let's go. Because your afraid to acknowledge or talk about it. 

Boy, I don't know about the rest of you, but getting to the end of this week and the end of this month in this dreary weather. Well, it's a tough one for me today, or boy, I'm struggling again with the news coming out today about the number. If you can't do that, then you've disallowed that reality for everybody else. 

I think that people sometimes react negatively, you know, like Deborah, and Brene Brown's work on vulnerability. Think, well, yeah, what's this not work, you know, work we're supposed to be talking about. And what I would say is being vulnerable in the relevant ways is not about some extraneous non-work-related thing. It's actually acknowledging that nobody can do their best work when they're distracted or distressed. Checked out. Scared. And talking about those things and helping people get through them is frankly, one of the most work productive uses of time I can imagine. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It really is. I appreciate you emphasizing that Jim. In addition to your book Jim, are there any leadership resources you typically recommend to leaders as they want to guide their teams and organizations to be more courageous and have psychologically safe environments? 

Jim Detert: 

I would encourage readers to check out, Choosing Courage, and also my website, which has lots of different resources and tools and things I've read. But I also think, there are lots of other great resources. I really like the book, Difficult Conversations. There's a whole array of books on skill building for difficult conversations, challenging conversations.

Difficult Conversations is a great one. There's a book called Crucial Conversations. It’s Kim Scott's work on Radical Candor is it's another great resource. There are lots of great resources on developing those specific skills. Mary Jen Tilly's Giving Voice to Values is a great one. 

Then there are specific books, for example, for people who say, I'm not sure why people don't feel safe around me, I think I say the right thing. It might turn out that you say the right things, but that everything else in your facial expression and your body language says the opposite. 

You might look into, Carol Goldman's work on The Silent Language Of Leaders, really learning how so much of what we convey is non-verbal. That's a great set of resources. 

And then, of course, people like Amy Edmondson's work on the Fearless Organization and Creating Psychological Safety. I think Amy and I have a pretty strong agreement that our work is really complementary in that, the one hand, the goal is unquestionably to create psychologically safe environments. And on the other hand, since no organization tends to ever fully get there, we still need people to stand up and step out in the meantime. 

I really see psychological safety and courageous action as sort of two sides of the same thing. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

They are very complimentary. I love the recommendation. And also, Amy's work that, as you mentioned, is very complimentary, the psychological safety, to your contribution on courage. 

How can the audience Jim find out more about you and your work and connect with you?

Jim Detert: 

I'd love it. If people, would find me on LinkedIn, might be the only Jim Detert in the world on LinkedIn. Certainly, an easy one to find. Or go to my website which is jimdetert.com. And you can find me on LinkedIn there. And as I said, lots of other resources there. Or just find me at Darden, or in the coming months, I'll be visiting Imperial College in London. Look me up in London, if listeners are. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Jim, one of the things that you mentioned, and I've read a lot about over the years is that in life, we are more likely to have regrets of inaction rather than regrets of action. And I really appreciate you, Jim, for helping us live with courage so we can live with less regret. 

Really appreciate you joining me in this conversation, Jim Detert. 

Jim Detert: 

Thank you, I enjoyed it too.