How to stop wasting people's courage

How to Stop Wasting People’s Courage

Eliminate courage sinkholes to energize your team.

When you think about inspiring courage at work, what comes to mind?

Encouraging your team to …

  • Speak their truth in meetings?
  • Challenge your thinking?
  • Share new ideas?
  • Question the way we’ve always done it?
  • Find a creative solution to a customer’s problem?
  • Push back on an antiquated rule?
  • Confront a co-worker’s destructive behavior?

You need as many of these business-transforming behaviors as you can get – and for most people, even these seemingly small acts of courage, require real effort.

Until your team is certain that it’s safe to speak up, they’ll worry about rejection or career repercussions. And, that worry makes even small efforts feel big.

So how do you ensure your team has the courageous energy for creative solutions?

First, do everything you can to make speaking up the norm.

Even if you’re the most encouraging boss ever, assume your team members have picked up some scar tissue along the way, that makes safe silence the default.

Next, check carefully for these caustic energy drains.

Where Does Courage Show Up?

In every Courageous Culture keynote and workshop, we ask, “What’s the most courageous act you’ve ever done at work?

Consistently, an alarming number of responses involve overcoming a pretty toxic scene.

  • “A doctor was trying to do an experimental procedure I knew could hurt a child (and was against the parent’s consent), so I blocked the door.”
  • “I challenged a chronically passive-aggressive co-worker.”
  • “My boss was exaggerating the numbers to our leadership team. I held fast to the truth. ”
  • “I stood up to a boss who was trying to bully me.”
  • “I called ethics because I was tired of all the screaming.”
  • “And then,  I got retaliated against for calling ethics.”
  • “They asked me to tell the truth about the CEO’s behavior. I did. And, he was fired.”
  • “My integrity clashed with the executive team’s direction, so I quit.”

Sobering answers, aren’t they?

When people spend their courage reserves just getting past the bad stuff, there’s no energy left for the courage your business needs most—creative problem solving and micro-innovation.

Limited Supply

For most people, innovation takes energy and courage—the courage to be vulnerable, to risk rejection from peers, or invite uncertainty.

Your people can only make that effort a limited number of times before they’re done. The more courage they use to address injustice, toxic leadership, needless politics, or poor decision-making, the less effort they’ll have to spend on what really matters.

If it takes heroic effort to fight against a caustic culture, you won’t get any of the courage you need to serve your customer or build your business.

How to Stop Wasting People’s Courage

You can build a culture that leverages and amplifies every act of courage from every team member. Start with a foundation of safety and clarity:

  1. Don’t tolerate harassment or bullying – from anyone, but especially from anyone in a management or leadership role (even if they’re otherwise rock star performers). If it takes a week’s supply of courage for an employee just to show up for another day, you’re wasting money and talent.
  2. Examine your systems and infrastructure for injustice or unintended consequences that prevent people from focusing on the work that matters most.
  3. Get out and really listen to what your frontline employees are experiencing every day. Ask questions that give them an opportunity to tell you what’s really going on.
  4. Take those comments in your employee surveys seriously. For every employee that spoke up, there’s likely another who blew it off or stayed silent.
  5. Clarify your MITs (Most Important Thing) and make sure every decision and action contributes to those objectives. Check in at every level of the business to ensure that everyone’s got it – and does it. Lack of clarity, chaos, and poor decision-making sap people’s courage. But—when everyone knows where they’re going and how they’ll get there, it energizes the team.

Now on to Changing the Game

Once you’ve addressed these foundational issues, the game is on. Now you can focus on the positive culture shifts that encourage your team to contribute.

You’ve probably been at a conference or meeting where the facilitator asks the audience to share a thought. There is an uncomfortable silence as people think about their answer and weigh the risk of saying something against the safety of staying silent.

Finally, one person raises their hand and offers their thoughts. Soon another follows, then another, and before long there’s a robust conversation.

What happened?

The culture in the room shifted from safe silence to contribution. By the end of the meeting, everyone knew they could trust one another. That their thoughts belonged in the conversation. That there was value to taking part.

You can create that same dynamic in your organization when you make contribution the default.

Imagine a team culture where everyone knows that if there is a perspective that hasn’t been heard, and that it can improve the project or avoid catastrophe, they can count on their colleague to share it. AND, that everyone will listen, consider it with care, and value it as they make decisions.

Because that’s what we do.

Once you build that culture, your people don’t have to spend courage on solving problems, speaking up, or challenging one another’s thinking. It’s just what we do.

Here are a few ways to get started:

Your Turn

We’d love to hear from you:  What is your most courageous act at work? How do you ensure your team’s courage doesn’t go to waste?

Do you know what scares your team?

How to Know What Scares Your Team Right Now

Do you know what scares your team the most right now?

Your job is to reduce ambiguity and build courage and hope. So you’re doing the best you can to ensure everyone feels safe. But it’s not easy. Because if you’re like most leaders, you’re at least a little bit scared too. But who likes to talk about that?

But you know the truth? It’s when we’re afraid to talk about what scares us, that things get really mucked up.

Try this easy exercise to get underneath your team’s hopes and fears and engage in productive dialogue.

The other day I was leading an Own the U.G.L.Y. exercise as part of a strategic planning executive off-site. I had a hunch that we weren’t getting to the heart of the issue.

The strategic initiative they were considering would require an exponential increase in collaboration across departments. People who were geographically dispersed, who seldom worked together and had competing objectives. I worried if they didn’t acknowledge and talk about that, their carefully crafted plans wouldn’t stand a chance.

So I gave every leader an index card, with the letter H on the front and the letter F on the back.

I asked everyone to write one H- hope they had for this initiative on the front and one F- fear they had on the back.

I collected the cards and sorted them into themes.

The hopes gathered easily into a few categories. They hoped the strategy would lead to increased revenue, improve the customer experience and improve the brand. They were united in the vision of why this was important. Great. That’s a vital start.

But what was really interesting were the fears, or should I say THE fear.

There was no sorting necessary. Every single person in the room was scared of EXACTLY the same thing: Could they count on the other people in the room to execute this strategy well?

But no one was bringing it up.

After I read 2/3 of the cards out loud the point was made. Yikes. If the senior team was this worried about one another’s ability to execute, how would they convince their teams to take those risks?

Before they did anything else, they needed to get real and talk about their perceptions and concerns.

What happened next was pure magic.

How can you make it simple and safe to talk about what scares your team? What difference would that make?

Your turn. What are your best practices to encourage people to surface and talk about their fears?

how to be a more courageous manager

How to Be a More Courageous Manager

Being a courageous manager isn’t always about big risks, scary decisions, and confrontation. In fact, Most moments of managerial courage come down to the micro-decisions you make when you’re just a little bit scared, and the stakes really aren’t that high.

In this article, I share a bit about my own experience with courage, share six ways to show up as a more courageous manager, and then share insights from our new research on how to build more managerial courage in yourself and more courage in your teams.

Managerial Courage or Stupidity?

I will never forget this ironically courageous, closed-door conversation, which sealed my belief that managerial courage is one of the most challenging leadership competencies to find and develop. Even powerful, seemingly confident people often fear the consequences of doing what’s right.

My boss said:

Karin, the difference between you and me is that you are willing to stick to your values no matter what, even if it might jeaoporadize your career trajectory.

How do you respond to a statement like that?

We both stood there in awkward silence for what seemed like an hour but was probably a minute and a half.

I knew what she was really saying. “Karin if I were you, I would let this one go. It’s not worth the political capital to fight this. But I’m not you, you’re you, and I know you’re not going to back down, and I kind of admire your courage, sister.”

Of course, there are lots of times when backing down is exactly the right thing to do. Many battles are worth losing.

There’s a serious difference between courage and stupidity.

But not this time. I had to stay the course. And as it turns out, she showed up and had my back.

Courageous is often contagious.

And here’s the good news. Most of the time you’re not going to be faced with some big career challenging position.

Most moments of managerial courage come down to the micro-decisions you make when you’re just a little bit scared, and the stakes aren’t really that high.

Show up with just a bit more courage when it would be easier not to, day after day, week after week, and watch what happens to your influence and impact.

So how do you show up courageous?

6 Ways to Show Up as a More Courageous Manager

most moments of managerial courage1. Address Performance Issues

Nothing drives high performers crazier than a boss who looks the other way and lets slackers slide. Have the courage to provide consistent performance feedback and address performance issues head on. If you do this early and often, the chances of you having to deal with a really tough issue (like having to fire the guy) reduce significantly. If you don’t know where to start, here’s how to start team accountability when you never have before.

2. Give Credit

Have you ever worked for a boss who took credit for your work? What do you think they were afraid of? You know what they should be afraid of? Karma. The other shoe almost always drops on people like this, and they end up with exactly what they feared—diminished credibility and trust. Have the courage to lift other people up early and often.

Start small. How can you show up with just a bit more courage this week? Pick one area you wrestle with and start there.

3. Advocate for Your Team

Often when employees complain that “My boss is a wuss,” it’s because their boss lacks the courage to advocate for the team’s ideas or needs. The minute their boss or a peer asks for more clarification or challenges an idea, they back down. Or they find it easier to just lay low and not challenge the status quo than to raise a concern. If you can’t influence others, your team may begin to wonder why they need you. If this is tricky for you, start small, and find little ways to advocate for your team.

4. Be Willing to Experiment

Another huge complaint I hear from employees who say their boss lacks courage is their unwillingness to experiment with new ideas or approaches. If “It ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is your favorite mantra, learning the art of a well-run pilot can go a long way in upping your courage while managing your stress.

5. Show a Bit of Vulnerability

This was one of the hardest for me to learn.HR Storytellers: Karin Hurt Employees want to know they’re working for another human being. Having the courage to let people see a bit more about who you really are, and to admit when you’re wrong or don’t have all the answers, can go a long way in building trust and connection. Here’s the story (see video) of how I learned this.

6. Make Timely Decisions

No one wants to work for a waffler. Have the courage to make decisions and stick to them. If you struggle with this, get your team to help you.

See Also: How to Change Your Mind (and Not Lose Their Trust and Support)

Courageous Cultures Research Karin Hurt and David DyeAnd Why It’s Hard: What Sabotages Courage–According to the Research

We recently conducted extensive quantitative and qualitative research in collaboration with the University of North Colorado Social Research lab to understand what sabotages managerial and employee courage, and how to build a more courageous culture.

As it turns out, the ideas employees are holding back are not trivial like kombucha in the breakrooms or remote team taco day.

When we asked employees what that idea they were holding back would accomplish, the top three answers were: an idea to improve the customer experience;  the employee experience; or productivity in a process.

You can learn more about our research in our recent article in Training Magazine: Build Teams that Speak Up and Solve Problems

Or in our Fast Company Article: The Main Reasons Employees Don’t Speak Their Mind at Work

An Easy Way to Get Started

One of the biggest findings of our research was that managers and employees at all levels of the business lacked the confidence to share their ideas (40%). And, another big issue was that people were concerned that their ideas wouldn’t be taken seriously (50%).

As we dug underneath those findings, what we learned is that sometimes employees weren’t positioning their ideas as effectively as they could.

One tool that’s really resonating in our leadership development programs is the I.D.E.A. model for positioning your ideas.

Start with an opening like this:

“I really care about our company and the work our team is doing, and I’ve got an idea that I really think will ____ (insert business outcome here).

Then use the I.D.E.A. Model to position your idea.


Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results improve from this idea (e.g. customer experience, employee retention, efficiency)?

D- Doable

Is this idea something we could actually do? How would we make it happen? What would make it easier or more difficult?

E- Engaging

Who would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?


What are the most important actions needed to try this? How would we start?

More Support to Help You Be a More Courageous Manager

Courageous CulturesWe’ve written a new book on being a more courageous leader, building courageous cultures, and fostering courage and innovation in your team.

You can download a FREE chapter of the book and the foreword by Dr. Amy Edmonson or order it from Amazon here.

Your turn. What’s your best advice for showing up as a more courageous manager?