How to Create a Culture of Courage: Twelve Steps to a High-Impact Culture of Courage

Creating a Culture of Courage

High impact organizations intentionally create cultures of courage. These elite organizations are unafraid of employees who think boldly. In fact, they thrive on a workforce that is unafraid to speak up and question norms. Organizations that can create a culture of courage are the innovators. In contrast, mediocre organizations, rely on a select few to contribute bold thinking.

Devining a Culture of Courage

Culture is the tacit social order of an organization: It shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive

The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2018

There are three parts to this definition of organizational culture:

  1. Acceptable and unacceptable attitudes and behaviors.
  2. Power of a shared purpose.
  3. Driver of organizational performance (capacity to thrive).

Application to creating a culture of courage

Therefore, we can conclude that a culture of courage is a culture where employees and managers:

  1. Are free to hold each other accountable for acceptable attitudes and behaviors.
  2. Understand that personal power is subordinate to meeting the purpose or mission of the organization.
  3. Creating a culture where employees enjoy the freedom to speak up, to question established norms, and/or to take initiative to improve work processes will drive performance and customer value.

Why Traditional HR Solutions Do Not Create Courage Among Employees

Teddy Roosevelt

Books, seminars, and workshops abound about courageous Leadership. Quotes of Theodore Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” are abundant. Similarly, Winston Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” speech is standard fodder for inspirational speeches. But do books and passionate rhetoric alone lead to the creation of a culture where employees are brave enough to speak up and disagree? Doubtful. This article will focus on how high-impact organizations intentionally design courage into their cultures.

What Needs to Change?

I don’t mean to be overly critical, but I think the following story highlights what so many organizations are ignoring. Beth Comstock is the former Vice-Chair of General Electric. During a corporate shakeup, she left in 2017 and wrote a book titled, Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change. It is essentially an autobiography of her rise to corporate stardom. She has been highly successful. Several organizations rank her as one of the world’s most influential executives. Forbes’ has listed her as “100 Most Powerful Women.”

Did GE Create a Culture of Fear Or a Culture Courage?

Jack Welch was the highly successful and long-term CEO of GE. In 1999 Fortune Magazine labeled him the “CEO of the Century.” However, during his tenure, he is famous for his belief that every business owned and operated by GE had to be number 1 or number 2 in the world. His nickname was “Neutron Jack,” a reference to the neutron bomb which killed people but left the buildings intact. Symbolic “public hangings” of managers who failed to meet expectations were commonplace.

In an interview with Business Insider, to promote her book, she spoke of the most common mistake she saw managers make, “the feeling that people have to get permission to make things happen.” Really? In spite of teaching courses in management and leadership at the famous GE training facility, GE still had a culture where the most common mistake managers were the feeling that they had to ask permission to take a risk.

Breaking Down the “Most Common Mistake”

  1. Here is a highly accomplished executive. One who does not accept excuses, stating that the most common mistake managers make is a feeling.
  2. Ms. Comstock is one of the most influential executives in one of the world’s most iconic organizations. She has actively trained managers. Still, she says the number one mistake her trainees make is a “feeling that people need to get permission….”
  3. She then turns around and blames those feelings on the managers themselves. Ms. Comstock states, “We look for alibis: ‘My boss won’t let me.’ ‘I don’t have enough budget.'”
  4. Then she offered her solution to this systemic problem—permission slips. Forgive me if I say cute. Grossly naive. Ms. Comstock was one of the most powerful women in one of the world’s most influential organizations. Yet her solution to managers’ number one problem is to pass out permission slips.

Conclusion of “the most common mistake”

Blame the manager for the culture of fear that executive Leadership created. Let me be clear. If all managers make the same mistake, they are not making a mistake. It is the equivalent of getting a traffic ticket for turning right, when the detour sign says, “turn right.” There is something in the system that requires them to make this mistake. Jack Welch, was the long-time CEO of GE and widely regarded as one of the world’s most capable leaders. However, his nickname “Neutron Jack” refers to the neutron bomb. This bomb kills people but leaves buildings intact. In retrospect, instead of creating a culture of courage, Jack had created a culture of fear.

IN 2018, General Electric was de-listed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average after more than a century.

Common Fears in the Workplace

Way back in 1756, William Burk observed the hard reality of fear when he stated, “no passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” Recently, Google discovered the hard reality of this statement.

Project Aristotle – Discovering the Need to Create a Culture of Courage

In a project to discover what made the perfect team, Google uncovered the power of psychological safety. It was called project Aristotle. The name was based on his statement that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Their objective was to learn why some teams consistently perform at a very high level while other teams always struggled. The belief was that the brightest and most talented people would make up the best teams. Their perception was to gather as many MBA’s and Ph.D.’s affordable. Then put them into a room, and watch the magic happen. They were dead wrong.

How to Create a Culture of Courage by Extracting Fear

As it turned out, psychological safety was the most critical factor in team performance. What they discovered was that the high performing teams felt that they could express thoughts, ideas, and even feelings without fear of ridicule, sarcasm, or cynicism. So, team performance had little to do with raw intellectual talent. It had everything to do with team leaders creating an environment where team members could operate without fear.

Three common fears in the workplace

The fear of ridicule

I doubt that anyone who graduated from elementary school got out without experiencing ridicule. Maybe it was on the playground or being embarrassed in a reading group. Whatever it was, it hurt. Hurts have a way of staying with us. As humans, we will do almost anything to avoid pain. Consequently, working adults will withhold a great idea to avoid the potential of pain. In a knowledge-based economy, this is a killer.

The fear of uncertainty

Organizations are full of uncertainty. For example, the average tenure of a CEO in 2500 of the largest corporations is less than five years. Becker’s Hospital Review reports that the average tenure of a hospital CEO is 3.5 years. Becker also notes that 56% of them leave involuntarily. Furthermore, when the CEO leaves, half the COOs, CFOs, and CIO’s leave as well. This kind of turnover from C-Suite executives does nothing to remove fear from the workplace. It only adds to it.

The Fear of Isolation

Despite the technology that connects us 24/7, loneliness and social isolation are mounting problems. For example, I heard a young technology executive confess, “because of social media, I know everyone, but no one knows me.” As I write this, we are experiencing the COVID 19 pandemic. Organizations of all kinds have sent their workers home. They believe workers can work just as effectively in the isolation of a spare bedroom or kitchen table. Many companies believe that video conferencing can replace face to face human interaction. My own prediction is that this will last for a while, but eventually, it will reverse course. Keeping knowledge workers working in isolation for long periods will lower innovation and change.

True Story of a Courageous Culture

An excerpt from, Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance

“An interesting story tests Virginia Mason’s core value of respect. One day, a nurse was prepping a cancer patient for chemotherapy. She noticed two required tests had not yet been completed and told her directing physician, who told her to proceed anyway. She had to choose between orders and doing what she thought was right for the patient. Respect dictated that the patient was her highest priority, so she called the chief of cancer services, who, in turn, called the physician to tell him the two tests must be done before delivering the chemotherapy.

Furious, the physician let loose on the nurse, verbally abusing her. She again called the chief of cancer services, who pulled a Patient Safety Alert (PSA), the equivalent of a Toyota worker pulling the stop cord,
bringing production to a halt so an error does not get passed on. The chief of cancer services called the physician again, this time telling him his conduct was unprofessional, abusive, and in violation of Virginia
Mason’s value of respect. He was sidelined until a formal investigation could be completed. At Virginia Mason, respect is sacred, and it starts with their leadership system.”

12 Steps to Create a Culture of Courage

12 Steps to Create a Culture of Courage

  1. Focus on leadership

    According to Gallup, 70% of the engagement of the workforce is directly tied to leadership. Therefore, if employees are to function in a culture without fear, the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of leadership

  2. Design a system of leadership

    According to Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University, relying on the goodwill of an individual leader to look out for her employees is, “an ineffective and risky way to ensure leaders will take care of anyone other than themselves.” As I note in my book, Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, the solution is to design the system of leadership. Only a system can scale the values, behaviors, rules, and routines to create a culture of courage. Basic structure of a leadership system

  3. Link core values with foundational behaviors

    Most organizations have a list of core values posted on a website. However, high impact organizations realize this is not enough. These elite align them to specific behaviors required of their leaders. For example, if a core value is respect, then leaders must demonstrate respectfulness for their staff.

  4. Design the routines

    A daily huddle, rally, rounding, or the Genba are all examples of team-building routines. These routines create institutional muscle memory. An example during a daily huddle, ask if anyone observed another member of the team speak up with courage. I have seen the same idea to work with core values and behaviors. The recognization gives positive feedback for courageous behavior.

  5. Write the rules

    Some rules are written. Rules that govern basic conduct in the workplace. Others are unwritten and unseen. There are too many of these and most should be tossed into the garbage. Alan Mulally, during his time as the CEO of Ford, discovered a time-honored rule. In order to see his boss, William Clay Ford, Jr. he needed to make an appointment through his secretary. He thought it was silly for the CEO of Ford Motor to make an appointment to see the Chairman of Ford. So one day he marched right past Ford’s admin assisted. Though she was not happy, no harm was done and a silly rule was broken.

  6. Write the charter

    In my research, I found many high impact organizations utilize a charter that outlines how the team will work together. They detail key behaviors, rules, and routines of employee interaction. The secret to these is not what they are, but who makes them. When the team makes them, if anyone chooses not to behave according to the charter, they take themselves off the team. Makes the job of the manager a lot easier.

  7. Design the experience of the workforce

    The first step in designing the system of leadership is to identify the experience of the workforce. In my book, I document how high impact manufacturing, healthcare, education, and even the U.S. Military work hard to give their employees a transcendent experience. It is this experience that gives them the best opportunity to be successful. For example, for a manufacturing industrial firm, it was employee safety. For a school it was collaboration. For a Native American Healthcare organization, it was a relationship and story. For another healthcare organization, it was respect.

  8. Change the narrative

    In his book, Creativity Inc, author and co-founder of Pixar, Ed Catmull wrote of “uncoupling fear and failure.” Often this means changing the narrative about failure. All too often errors and failures are blamed on a person, leading to fear of retribution. However, putting the focus on a breakdown in the process directs the responsibility to a better source.
    As a career management consultant, I would agree with this assessment.

  9. Develop self-confident employees

    It is astonishing how many organizations will invest in technical training, but invest nothing into developing self-confident employees. One example I found was a high-impact healthcare organization. They coach and train public speaking for their employees. They realize that public speaking is one of the most frightening activities of humanity. Therefore, by encouraging public speaking they develop a workforce with greater confidence.

  10. Use visual communication tools

    Sometimes the best way to brainstorm and discuss new ideas is to use tools that will allow workers to speak their minds anonymously. By developing new ideas visually rather than by discussion, those who are reticent about speaking can do so without fear of ridicule.

  11. Reward intelligent risk

    A manufacturing company wants to engage every employee to identify and eliminate waste in their production processes. Therefore, they reward every employee with Paid Time Off, (PTO) for every idea they can create and implement. Furthermore, because they want kaizen to be so natural they provide PTO if the kaizen is strictly personal. The result is that employees find savings every year to the equivalent of 4%-5% of gross sales.

  12. Measure the courage

    Many healthcare organizations have systems that will allow employees to report on errors and near misses. While some organizations pay little attention to these systems, other see them as a way of measuring courage and fear in their workplace. The more fear there is, the lower the number of errors reported. The more courage in the workplace, the more workers will report their errors.

In Conclusion – How to Create a Culture of Courage?

Creating a culture can be a dynamic process. As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Many organizations invest significant resources in developing their strategy. Yet they spend very little on their culture. When it comes to employees, they just dump them off to the HR Department. High impact organizations reverse this. They invest significant resources in their culture. The result is unparalleled business outcomes. Yet at the same time, they are also recreating the world of work. One of the most significant parts of creating a culture of courage is the leadership system. Only a system of leadership can scale these twelve steps across the entire organization.

About the Author

Dan Edds is the author of Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance. He has spent the last twenty-five years as a practicing management consultant. He invites your comments to this blog and if you want, you are free to call his personal phone, (425) 269-8854