How to Build Courage Into Your Culture

Gustavo Grodnitzky Organizational Culture, Organizational Effectiveness

“Why won’t my people just tell me the truth?!”

I’ve heard that statement countless times in my 20+ years of consulting — usually from a truly exasperated CEO or other executive who has learned about some systemic failure.

“These things aren’t supposed to happen!” is a typical follow-up statement, made with equal parts surprise, frustration and even anger.

Systemic failures, without the knowledge of the CEO or members of the executive/management team, don’t happen everywhere. But they happen consistently in cultures where fear dominates.

Fear of what? Fear of loss — loss of status, relationships, power, influence, comfort, title, position … the list goes on. But there is also fear of retribution from a supervisor who can give a negative performance evaluation, assign undesirable work or even terminate the supervisee.

When fear dominates your culture, you get fear-based behaviors:

  • Employees don’t speak up or out. They keep information to themselves.
  • They don’t step outside their job description. (“It’s not my job.” “Someone else will do it.”)
  • They do the minimum to get by, but not enough to move themselves or the organization forward.

Fear is contagious. When one employee or group of employees feels it, it then spreads like wildfire.

Courage Trumps Fear

But courage is also contagious, and it is the only way to remedy a culture where fear prevails. Just look at Nike.

In May 2018, a story broke that a group of women at Nike had surveyed other female colleagues about gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The survey revealed that women at Nike had been marginalized, disenfranchised and discriminated against. When that survey made its way to the CEO, he began to make changes to redefine the culture. Top executives resigned or were forced out. Bias training and other interventions were introduced.

These are the types of sudden actions required of a CEO whose HR department (or any person responsible for HR issues in your company, if you are smaller in size) has failed the CEO and/or executive team. HR’s role is to ensure that employees are treated fairly. However, sometimes HR also falls prey to the fear of loss and retribution. For the same reasons that employees might not come forward with adverse information, HR may also not attend sufficiently to an employee’s complaint against a powerful executive.

So what can an executive do to create a culture of courage?

Understand that people speaking out on problems in your organization are showing bravery. They must be supported! This may require a change in perspective. In many cultures, people who bring developmental information to leaders are seen as complainers or malcontents. They are often ignored, diminished or marginalized themselves. These are the people who must be socially rewarded for speaking truth to power before there is any threat of public embarrassment or legal action. Employees know when an organization and its leaders are genuinely invested in improving, and they will rally to support the success of that type of organization.

Silence that pervades an organization is a result of fear — fear that discussing sensitive issues is dangerous. The only way to create a culture of courage is for leadership, beginning with the CEO, to authentically communicate that employees who speak out will be protected from any adverse consequence.

I’d love to hear your questions or comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Keep cultivating your culture!