Emory Report
November 7, 2005
Volume 58, Number 10


Emory Report homepage  

November 7 , 2005
Worline extols courageous leadership in the workplace

BY myra thomas

According to Monica Worline, assistant professor of organization and management in Goizueta Business School, courageous behavior—the ability to act on a perceived good for the organization, even in the face of fear or reprisal—can benefit companies. In an interview with Knowledge@ Emory, Goizueta’s electronic newsletter, Worline discussed the implications for managing with courageous behavior in mind.

Knowledge@Emory: How did you come to believe that courage could be a useful attribute in the workplace?
Worline: As a former entrepreneur, I was interested in what it takes to make a place really “good” to work, and to get people to produce at their highest levels also means that these individuals will be placed in difficult situations. This interest led me a step further to research courage, and I chose to look at the way people in everyday circumstances are trying to do their best under certain stressful situations.

What is the benefit to the organization in having employees act in a courageous manner? And why aren’t more managers encouraging this behavior?
The benefits of courage in an organization are many. For instance, the atmosphere can become more open so that when something needs to be said, it is immediately clear. Information is provided. Managers need to create a climate where difficult things can be said and there won’t be a fear of what happens in the future. I call courage in the workplace “constructive opposition”: when someone is standing against a flow of events that are naturally going to occur in order to safeguard their work or their project.

You note there is a role for emotion in the workplace, which goes against decades of business-management education.
Courageous activity is linked to emotional response. Instinct often tells us when things are wrong, but we throw emotion out the window. Now we see this is really one of the myths better organizational scholars are trying to erase; the role emotions can play in the workplace can be positive as well as negative. What managers can do to foster courage is acknowledge that, when people express opinions that differ from the mainstream on a product or project, emotions will surface in the group—frustration, anger, defensiveness. The way the manager handles that situation will determine if this courageous person or others will speak up again. Managers need to see that there will be anger and frustration in the workplace, and there needs to be a constructive way to voice opinions and to have people act on their intuition. Most people want to take pride in their work, and if you let them voice their opinions, you can tap into this.

Are most employees and managers not speaking up in difficult situations because they are in fear of losing their jobs?
There are a lot of mechanisms today that make people feel as if they are challenged on the job. Many do think they face retribution when the next downsizing announcement gets made. If you think of a company or a system designed to reinforce the status quo, and add in the fear of losing a job, then that’s how you end up with a ton of conscientious people who don’t speak up. My research shows, however, that speaking up in a difficult situation is often successful at creating change—and it inspires others to do the same.

How can you differentiate between someone who is truly acting in a courageous manner and someone merely bent on causing conflict or contention?
Culturally we have this view of the courageous individual as a solo figure out on a limb. But what I hear time and time again—and one thing that distinguishes courage versus self-aggrandizement—is that the courageous person internalizes the mission and purpose of the organization. They act in the way that they do because they believe they are working in the best interests of the company. As human beings, we can easily see this distinction. Managers can do subtle things to reinforce the mission and purpose—to make people clear on why they do the work they do. It will increase the likelihood that people will defend something they believe.

This story is reprinted with permission.