When courage is encouraged on the job

How workplaces can motivate employees to take a stand when trouble brews.

Scott Wallace/Staff

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.

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."

Still, managerial style isn't all that matters in fostering courage, Worline says. Motives matter, too. Her research suggests "people who deeply believe in what their organization is trying to accomplish seem to be much more willing to take risks on its behalf."

Others find courageous action becomes more likely when organizations regard particular values as more important than always maximizing short-term profits. But not just any values will do.

"In a lot of organizations, the set of values that they describe [and] aspire to will be words like 'innovation,' 'dynamism,' 'excitement' or something like that," says Rushworth Kidder, a former Monitor columnist and founder and president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Rockland, Maine. "Organizations need to understand that the core moral values have got to be higher than that.… They really need to be articulating that set of principles that somebody literally could die for, or be willing to die in terms of their own career." Among the higher values he suggests: honesty, respect, and compassion.

Ottawa management consultant Cornelius von Baeyer, who specializes in creating ethical workplaces, agrees it's not effective simply "to put up a sticky note to say, 'we believe in integrity.' " Instead, he urges managers to explain via case studies, training sessions, and newsletters how exactly a value such as integrity or compassion ought to be expressed in their respective industries. Then workers are more likely to take principled stands because they won't need to hesitate or wonder how to live out their values.

The bane of workplace courage, experts say, is intense pressure to deliver short-term results. When quarterly numbers become supremely important, Mr. Kidder says, then workers must sometimes choose between doing what's right in a workplace situation and protecting the career that puts food on the table at home. A better way, he says, is to prevent such dilemmas by empowering workers to prioritize long-term results – and say "no," when necessary, to potential short-term gains.

Scholars add that one of the best ways to reap the fruits of ethical workplace behavior is to reduce the need for courage. When bosses welcome challenges, for instance, the danger involved in raising questions about right and wrong business practice is diminished. When risk is reduced, so also is the need for courage.

But unless workers feel that their actions matter, inaction in the face of wrongdoing is likely to persist.

"When you ask employees who have observed wrongdoing why they don't blow the whistle, what they tell you is not that they're worried about possible retaliation," Near says. "It's that they're pretty sure their organization isn't going to listen to them."

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