In a prior article, I interviewed Jim Detert, a professor at the Darden School of Business (University of Virginia), about his book: “Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work. We specifically talked about the types of fear that prevent employees from being brave at work and in life. In this article, Detert describes how an employer can create a culture where being brave is no longer required because the culture incentivizes and rewards employees for being candid, authentic, and bold.
Whitler: Let’s walk through an example. Assume that I want to help my students be more courageous in class. I know from talking to colleagues at other schools and looking at the data, there are a number of students who fear that what they say may be held against them by the professor and/or their classmates and so they shut down during difficult or controversial discussions. This is not healthy. We should be teaching people how to engage productively during these moments and it seems to me that part of this is that we have to ratchet down the perceived risk – provide more grace, forgiveness, and tolerance. How can managers (and selfishly, professors), create a culture that makes being brave easier?
Detert: This is a great question. I want to focus on one key method – modelling key behaviors yourself. Provide the roadmap and cues that it’s safe and desirable for other people to emulate you. I’ll suggest eight ways to do this.
1) Surround yourself with people who have different views. If I choose an assistant who thinks just like me, my blind spots are less likely to be revealed. For example, this year I had two teaching assistants and we would reflect together after each class. They have differences in background, identities, and some political positions, so the debriefing would help me see things I was missing. One was great at identifying when social conservatives in the class might be holding back or feeling cornered; the other was great at helping me see when women were likely to be more offended or misunderstood. This greater awareness allowed me to work to include these students more actively, shift subsequent discussions, and even adjust content in real time. The key here is that most bias is unconscious, so unless you surround yourself with people who are different, you will not eliminate it just by trying harder alone or with others who think just like you do.
2) You must change the conditions so others don’t feel being honest is an act of courage. You alluded to this in your question. Some cultures require extreme bravery and others don’t require any bravery. You can’t just say “be brave.” If you do, you’re essentially acknowledging the environment you are leading is dangerous and you don’t intend to change it—it’s on them! A good leader, I believe, would instead do everything they could to make it psychologically safer to speak up.
3) Be aware that some groups are exhausted. About halfway through every quarter, I have students from minority groups come to my office and say “I’m so sorry I didn’t speak up this week…for a year and a half I’ve had to explain what it is like to be a woman, gay, black … and I’m tired.” The more you understand how tired some people are from having to consistently “be brave,” the more compassion you can have and the more committed you’ll become to changing the conditions for all.
4) Use feedback devices. I give students a “red card” that they can use one time in class when they feel we’re missing a key point, have said something hurtful or wrong, etc. When they raise their red card, they get the floor and we all commit to hearing them out. It’s symbolically potent in indicating the kind of environment we’re co-creating. I also strongly encourage students who didn’t feel safe in a discussion to write it down and share it with me–and to do so right after it happens so I can still address it productively. To help them feel more comfortable, I share funny examples of feedback I’ve gotten about myself – like that I should wear contacts because “my glasses created a barrier to communication.” Laughing together – at situations involving me – helps create trust early on. This helps normalize honest feedback and provides crucial information that I can use to improve the experience for all.
5) Set expectations … you have to be very direct, honest, and vulnerable. My syllabus says that it is my job to create conditions of psychological safety and then all of our jobs to maintain it. We are here to make meaning together. If we are going to have a trusting conversation, we shouldn’t record it or make social media posts or gossip about what was said later. I’m also clear about my own vulnerability. I tell stories about where I made a mistake – for example, a stupid, hurtful comment I made to a friend in college based in my ignorance. I tell stories like that to say that we have to hold people accountable but we also have to have the grace to understand and allow people the chance to learn.
6) You have to take risks if you want them to take risks. The previous example makes this point. If I don’t take risks and expose my imperfections, how can I ask those with less power to? If I won’t admit I don’t know it all or am sorry, why should they?
7) You have to be seen as fair in a profound way. This cannot be overstated. People are prepared to spot evidence that those above them are being unfair – for example, that you will criticize one group and let the other get away with murder because you identify with the latter or dislike the former. There must be consistent application. A common one in academia is around political arguments. If the professor is liberal and consistently supports liberal thinking with little pushback but then is quite critical of conservative thinking, it’s no surprise that the conservative students will shut down. Intentionally or not, you’re not being fair. I call this tribal hypocrisy – we can see all the problems with others’ values or ideology while missing the same flaws in our own.
8) Give the reasoning and not just the conclusions. We tend to give conclusions and not the reasoning…and when there’s disagreement, we just state our conclusions more forcefully rather than actually explaining the data, reasoning, and logic underlying our position or asking the other person to explain the “why” below their conclusion. This practice doesn’t mean either will necessarily “convert” the other, but it does facilitate understanding and tends to reduce negative stereotyping. Simple phrases like “Here are my data and reasoning and “Help me understand your thinking” go a long way toward more productive conversations.
By Kimberly A. Whitler
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