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Four Tips for Fostering a Culture of Courage at Work

We must nurture courage in our everyday actions in order for courage to become something we successfully practice

By Dima GhawiPublished about a month ago 6 min read
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Workplaces are driven by innovation. Innovation necessitates change. Yet so many of us find ourselves tied up in fear at the prospect of taking the risks required to propel change! After all, people are wired for survival. The consequence of this aversion to risk is that in organizations across industries, the dominant culture is the implicit insistence to play it safe, where we are “more afraid of potential losses than excited about potential gains.” So how can organizations challenge this mindset? How can we ensure our employees “feel psychologically safe at work” and are empowered to make innovative suggestions and pursue bold risks?

My suggestion is simple: we must foster a culture of courage.

In this blog, I will walk through four key strategies organizations can implement to promote a courageous work culture, because we must nurture courage in our everyday actions in order for courage to become something we successfully practice. Ready to get started?

1. Organizational Initiatives

Let’s begin with the broadest scale and gradually narrow our way inward! There are a multitude of company-wide initiatives that organizations can implement in order to incorporate a culture of courage into policies and opportunities, and here I will introduce us to just a few:

One way to introduce an emphasis on courage to employees is by hosting courage-building workshops. After all, when in doubt, bring in an expert! Inviting psychologists, guest speakers, or leadership experts to run engaging workshops with employees that help them develop tools to practice courage and hone resilience. Additionally, interactive discussions, artistic opportunities, and any other range of activities provided through these workshops can aid employees in identifying their fears and developing appropriate coping strategies for dealing with those fears. Does this initiative sound exciting? It does to me! A workshop-based approach is thus a great early step to fostering courage in one’s workplace.

Another strategy is to implement a “courage challenge” program. Gamification is ever popular in maintaining employee motivation, and thus an initiative that allows employees to “choose their own adventure” in the realm of learning and practicing courage is ideal. Employees can select goals that range from speaking up in meetings to public speaking to external volunteer commitments and anything in-between, where at the end of this program, organizations must reward employees who excelled at their “courage challenge” and recognize the efforts of those who may have struggled. After all, reducing shame and insecurity is imperative in fostering a culture of courage!

Speaking of avoiding insecurity, another early initiative for building courage is to ensure no one feels like they’re going at this task alone. Instead, create a “courage buddy” system. This initiative is as straightforward as it sounds: pair employees with a “courage buddy,” where both individuals are mutually supporting one another as they pursue various goals (be those goals a formal element of the “courage challenge” program or part of another initiative entirely). For these courage buddies, consider offering joint courage-building activities or other formal opportunities for these pairs to make progress together.

2. Destigmatizing Failure & Embracing Openness

I’ve offered some suggestions for initiatives an organization can implement to foster courage in their workplace, but what can we as individual leaders do to encourage courage amongst our employees? First and foremost, we must embody courage ourselves. Former Microsoft President Kate Johnson describes courageous leadership as “When you see a person trying to get it right, instead of trying to be right.” In other words, fostering courage in the workplace involves focusing on the process—getting things right along the way, including learning from our mistakes, instead of nailing everything perfectly on the first go. As leaders, we can thus foster courage by destigmatizing failure and embracing openness among ourselves. We must talk about our own failures in order to normalize failure as a necessary element of meaningful progress! We should share stories of times we’ve taken risks and made difficult decisions, and that includes being as open about the times those risks didn’t work out as we are about the risks that succeeded. When we frame the value of risk-taking as related to the choice rather than the outcome, we help foster courage in our employees by implicitly reassuring their anxieties about risks—it’s not about succeeding or failing, but the courage to make a decision and learn from whatever falling dominoes that follow.

Need a more specific example of how to model courageous leadership to employees? Leadership expert Karin Hurt recommends a simple courage-building team exercise, where we give every member of our team an index card or slip of paper with an “H” on one side and an “F” on the other, with all leaders keeping a card for themselves, too. Then, everyone takes a few moments to write down their biggest Hope and their biggest Fear about whatever project, task, goal, etc. is at hand. An open and honest discussion follows afterwards, with the team leaders leading courageously by example.

3. Create Channels for New Ideas & Dissent

We’ve gone through the initial steps of fostering a culture of courage, from introductory organizational initiatives to how leaders can embody courage as an example. But how do we put courage into action for our employees? My key recommendation is a simple one: create a “safe-to-fail” environment through the establishment of channels where people can safely express new ideas and concerns without the anxiety of judgment or punishment. These communication channels can take a multitude of possible forms, of which I’ll list a few:

  • Anonymous suggestion boxes (physical or digital)
  • Company-wide surveys (anonymous or optional identification)
  • An in-person town hall (including the collection of written feedback, for people who prefer not to or may not physically be capable of speaking up)

Of course, we should not feel limited to these three avenues, because any channel that encourages employees to openly speak up is precisely the type of opportunity that fosters courage in the workplace. It is also often helpful to provide basic guidelines for these “safe-to-fail” opportunities in order to ensure mutual respect and polite engagement from all participants, such as limiting interruptions and offering the IDEA criteria: “Is the suggestion Interesting, Doable, Engaging and what Actions or first steps can put the plan in motion?” Some organizations have also found it useful to rotate the position of “dissenter” amongst employees, especially within teams, where the role of the dissenter is “to challenge a course of action or find flaws in a proposed decision.” By normalizing dissent and encouraging alternative ways of thinking, we “remove much of the individual’s personal risk [regarding new ideas] and replace it with institutional permission,” which allows courage and courageous action “to become the norm rather than the exception.”

4. Reward Courage & Courageous Actions

Perhaps the pinnacle element of fostering a culture of courage in our workplaces is the simple practice of positive reinforcement: reward acts of courage from employees and recognize their courage in public environments to demonstrate to others that courageous behavior is welcomed and supported! Such rewards might include a monetary bonus, an anecdote shared at a department meeting, or a physical trophy. Personally, one of my favorite examples of celebrating and rewarding courage is Google’s Courageous Penguin Award, given to individuals who dared to suggest or try a new strategy without certainty in its success. The name comes from how penguins stand by the edge of an iceberg and consider jumping in the water, unsure of whether they will dive neatly into the water or hit ice beneath the water’s surface; it thus “takes a courageous penguin to take the first leap.”

At the end of the day, organizations who recognize and reward their employees who dare to “stick their neck out” and challenge the status quo reduce collective fear in their company and build the psychological safety needed for others to report, share and discuss what’s not working. To put it simply: a risk should beget a reward, and fostering a culture of courage involves recognizing that balance.

And there we have it—four key strategies for encouraging a culture of courage in any organization. So what are we waiting for? We’ve got risks to take, employees to inspire, and new ideas to celebrate!

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Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.

Reach her at DimaGhawi.com and BreakingVases.com.

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About the Creator

Dima Ghawi

Dima is an award-winning author and a three-time TEDx Speaker. Through keynote speeches, workshops, training programs, and executive coaching, she has honed a keen expertise in developing leaders to meet the demands of the global workforce.

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