Workplace courage: what makes people act?

July 8, 2014

Terrence MitchellThere are no courageous people, only courageous acts. And though they are infrequent, those acts are very revealing.

That’s the conclusion of a unique study of courage in the workplace led by Terence Mitchell, a professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

From interviews with more than 90 people who have committed or observed acts of on-the-job courage, Mitchell and his co-authors were able to discern several recurring themes.

They found that courage is a response to a specific situation rather than a personal attribute. Its principle driver is a compelling sense of felt responsibility, enabled by the ability and authority or expertise to act. And overcoming fear—often considered central to courage—is not a major factor.

“The people we interviewed didn’t consider themselves to be courageous people,” says Mitchell, the Edward E. Carlson Distinguished Professor in Business Administration at Foster. “What came up over and over again was that they did what they had to do. They felt responsibility and realized that they were the one who not only could act but also had the information or the expertise or the training to act.”

Profiles in courage

The inspiration for Mitchell’s study dates back to a 1996 sabbatical spent in Virginia. While visiting several Civil War battlefields, he found himself contemplating the psychology of courage.

“I imagined hundreds of men marching side-by-side into canon fire,” he says. “What does it take to do that? The conversation emerged out of that.”

Courage proved a difficult concept to examine, especially given that almost everyone has a notion of its constitution. For the study, the authors—Mitchell and former Foster doctoral students Pauline Schilpzand and David Hekman---used a standard definition of courage as taking a substantial personal risk to perform a social good.

They set out to understand the motivations behind these risky social goods by asking 94 executives and officers from a wide range of public, private, government and non-profit organizations—including NASA, the NFL, GE, hospitals, and the US Military—to recount the incidents in which they undertook or witnessed an act of courage.

Among them were stories of whistle-blowing and crisis leadership, of disobeying faulty orders and admitting to costly errors. An aerospace engineer reports her expensive miscalculation to prevent a space shuttle catastrophe. A military helicopter technician refuses an order to refuel under conditions that would unnecessarily endanger flight and ground crews. An accountant defies his boss’s urging to make unethical accruals. A middle manager reports an abuse of power by her superior.

Hard felt responsibility

From analysis of these in-depth accounts, the most obvious theme to emerge was that courage is the positive response to a particular situation rather than some indelible personality trait.

“It didn’t seem to us that we could measure anything about a person’s personality that would predict whether he or she would be courageous in a given situation,” Mitchell says.

Especially since the situations calling for courage are so few and far between for most of us.

Instead, the most significant factor is a personal sense of responsibility for the people affected by the decision to act or not to act. And if felt responsibility is the motivation to act courageously, the act itself is triggered by the requirements of one’s role, one’s experience and one’s confidence. I’m the one who can fix this; I have to fix this.

When these mechanisms are in place, Mitchell found that fear of repercussions hardly factors into the decision. “A lot of people are anxious about the risk,” he says. “But that’s diffused by their training, their experience, and their overwhelming sense of responsibility.”

Finally, though acts of courage are motivated by a need to perform a social good, the interviews revealed an unintended personal reward. “Almost everybody we talked to—even those whose acts caused them physical harm or did damage to their careers—said they’d do it again,” Mitchell says. “Their courageous acts clearly involved a self-reinforcing process. They were proud of it, but they didn’t advertise it. That’s an interesting thing about courage: it’s a label that other people put on you, not one you put on yourself.”

We could be heroes

Mitchell’s study is descriptive rather than predictive. But it does hold some useful information for organizations that wish to promote risk-taking for the greater good.

“Managers might better grasp the significance of our findings,” he says, “by thinking of courageous workplace behaviors as a type of organizational ‘immune response’ that identifies and corrects power abuses, errors, ambiguity and needs before they metastasize and threaten the system as a whole.”

One way to achieve this is to promote a culture of transparency. He says that many organizations are moving in the right direction on this, though he notes that the professional fate of most whistle-blowers is still pretty grim.

Another way is to develop contingency training. Mitchell says that corporations would do well to emulate emergency responders and the military in preparing their employees to act in unexpected, challenging, risky and ambiguous situations.

One of his favorite vignettes from the study is from a tank commander in Iraq who snapped into decisive action the moment his vehicle rolled over into a hidden trap: “He immediately called ‘Upside Down Tank Drill’ and everyone knew what to do. ‘We had a thing to do and we knew how to do it.’

“An Inductive Analysis of Accounts Describing Why Employees Engage in Courageous Workplace Actions” is forthcoming in Organizational Science.