When courage is encouraged on the job
How workplaces can motivate employees to take a stand when trouble brews.
In business, the difference between a fixable mistake and an irreparable disaster sometimes hinges on whether employees dare to take a stand before habits of wrongdoing become ingrained.Skip to next paragraph
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Now experts are casting fresh light on which factors seem to motivate courageous behavior in the workplace. As it turns out, hiring heroes may not be as important as emboldening current employees to raise objections when things don't seem right.
In research published last year, for instance, scholar Janet Near found federal workers privy to wrongdoing were more apt to become "whistle-blowers" (reporters of wrongful practices) when they knew exactly where to go with allegations. They also came forward when they believed colleagues would support them and when they didn't have to confront a supervisor face to face.
In short, ordinary people acted proactively as long as particular circumstances were in place.
Whether someone comes forward "is not so much based on personality or anything that's unique to them," says Dr. Near, an Indiana University management professor and coauthor of "Whistleblowing in Organizations." "Instead, they blow the whistle if: the wrongdoing they have observed is serious; they feel that telling somebody about it will actually make a difference, and they feel they're going to get some support in the organization for doing that."
But fostering workplace courage still remains a challenge. Example: In December, German electronics giant Siemens agreed to pay the largest bribery fine in corporate history ($1.6 billion) after investigators exposed a culture bent on feeding kickbacks to officials around the world. Also last year, bond ratings agencies in the United States admitted to having turned a blind eye to conflicts of interest when lucrative deals were on the line.
In those cases and others, workers kept mum as damaging corporate policies became entrenched. But experts say good management can create conditions to encourage moral stands.
In 2004, Emory University organizational psychologist Monica Worline analyzed 650 narrative accounts of on-the-job courage in high technology companies. Most employees described courageous acts performed by others (not themselves), Dr. Worline says. Yet when managers welcomed challenges from employees as opportunities to make improvements, even silent onlookers grew bolder over time to voice their own protests on the job.
"Being exposed to someone who does those kinds of [courageous] activities actually changes the viewpoint of the person who experiences it," she says. "Over time, that observer becomes more likely to do similar actions."