Speak Out Successfully

(Content Originally Published by the Harvard Business Review on November 27, 2018) Link to Original Article: https://hbr.org/ideacast/2018/11/speak-out-successfully 

James Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, studies acts of courage in the workplace. His most surprising finding? Most people describe everyday actions — not big whistleblower scandals — when they cite courageous (or gutless) acts they’ve seen coworkers and leaders take. Detert shares the proven behaviors of employees who succeed at speaking out and suffer fewer negative consequences for it. He’s the author of the HBR article “Cultivating Everyday Courage.”

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.


Valentine’s Day 2002. A congressional subcommittee was investigating a corporate scandal.

U.S. REPRESENTATIVE JOHN DINGELL: Today I look forward to hearing from an extraordinarily courageous woman who has been a bright spot in an otherwise sorry and outrageous saga.

CURT NICKISCH: The “sorry and outrageous saga” was the collapse of Enron, the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history at the time. The “extraordinarily courageous woman” was former executive Sherron Watkins. She had dared to question the company’s accounting practices.

SHERRON WATKINS: And I was shocked that people could explain this to me with no concern in their voice. Like there was some magic structure that Enron and [Arthur] Andersen had come up with to make this work.

CURT NICKISCH: Watkins had written memos warning of an impending company disaster.

SHERRON WATKINS: I was highly concerned that not only had the Titanic hit the iceberg, but we were already tilting.

CURT NICKISCH: Watkins had spoken up when others did not, and it took real courage to do so. But our guest today says acts of workplace courage can be much smaller and less dramatic than this and still be quite effective and important.

Jim Detert is a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and he’s the author of the article “Cultivating Everyday Courage.” It’s in the November-December 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review. Jim, thanks for coming on the show.

JIM DETERT: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.

CURT NICKISCH: What go you interested in this idea of everyday courage? It seems almost anti-climactic. I don’t know.

JIM DETERT: No, I think certainly it’s right that when I began studying workplace courage, I also had the image of the whistleblower, you know, that makes the front page of the Wall Street Journal or the Times, or the organizational martyr who gets fired for some kind of action. What I found though, is when I started to ask hundreds of people, you know, give me an instance of courageous behavior at work. What you and I and many other people would say are, you know, relatively mundane, in-roll, required behaviors of a manager – things like giving difficult feedback to a subordinate; speaking against the grain of shared opinion just among colleagues, peers at the same level.

We have lots and lots of workplaces where things far short of, you know, the physical risk or the career-ending confrontation are labeled as courageous or seen as requiring courage and that really was quite a surprise to me. You know, call it what you might, but, but maybe the low threshold for some of the things that are seen as requiring courage.

CURT NICKISCH: It seems like a lot of the things that you talk about as taking everyday courage – just giving negative feedback… speaking up when you think that your group or your organization is on the wrong path – shouldn’t be behaviors that are frightened out of organizations in the first place.

JIM DETERT: Yeah. I think in your and mine and a lot of people’s ideal world, that’s true. One reason I think is we have some probably hardwired evolutionary bases for fear. I mean, if you think about challenging those with more power than us, the reality is the vast, vast majority of people around the world, including in America, are wage dependent. We need our jobs. We need them not just for income. We need them for healthcare. We need them for retirement accounts, we need them for child college accounts.

Despite sort of what we think about American freedom and individual orientation, the U.S. system has tethered many of the most important benefits and basic social safety net factors to employment, and that makes people just have, you know, pretty fundamental fears of challenging authority.

CURT NICKISCH: You also spent a lot of time there. So you’re going to live with however you feel for some time too.

JIM DETERT: That’s right. Some have argued that humans fear social isolation as much or more than physical. So there, there are actually a lot of very real reasons that people feel afraid at work and then there are sets of reasons that we probably overestimate based on a survival instinct, the level of threat that actually exists.

CURT NICKISCH: And it sounds like you’re saying this is also a problem for organizations because they’re basically hamstringing themselves by not letting people speak up?

JIM DETERT: Yeah. What’s at stake when people who are closest to customers, who or who know most about the underlying technologies, what’s at stake actually when, when they don’t tell you why customers aren’t going to like something or why a product isn’t going to work? You know, you actually don’t have to work that hard to estimate why it really does matter in a dollars-and-cents way. And not just the costs of, you know, the Wells Fargo type, you know, multibillion-dollar settlements. There are lots and lots of other costs.

CURT NICKISCH: What for you is just a good example of everyday courage that you came across it in your research that you marveled that a little bit just because of its ordinariness and that made you want to figure out how people did that well?

JIM DETERT: All of us have sat in meetings where somebody speaks up and everybody knows that the basic issue being pointed out is very legitimate. Most of us have witnessed the difference between somebody doing that and being absolutely right about the issue itself and getting absolutely nowhere because of the way they went about the issue. You know, whether that’s, they did not have what we might call idiosyncrasy credits – they didn’t have the goodwill built up about sort of their competence and their intentions. Or they’re seen as, you know, the boy or girl who cries wolf all the time and therefore people start to roll their eyes when they do it.

Versus the person who is pointing out something just as problematic, egregious and somehow manages to get people to not only listen in the moment without being defensive but is able to sort of spearhead subsequent, you know, commitment of resources and action.

CURT NICKISCH: And often even elevate themselves by doing so – that’s what sometimes surprising.

JIM DETERT: Yeah, that’s right. And I think that’s also something I’ve learned is that you know, sure, people say they want courageous, you know, naysayers, or courageous folks at the senior level. But then look at the senior team, you know, it’s a bunch of sheep. It’s a bunch of followers, or “yes men” or women.

But I think if you look more closely, you can often find examples of the opposite too. You can find examples of the people who are in important senior roles actually are very vocal, they’re very outspoken, they’re very willing to take a difficult stance and give difficult feedback.

So clearly while it can be the kiss of death for a career, it’s not always. And really what I found myself more and more drawn to is this idea that simply relying on external social activism or you know, martyrs who blow the whistle on the way out is probably not a very effective way to get consistent organizational improvement. Then we better start figuring out how it is that people can manage the state inside the organization and be effective change agents.

CURT NICKISCH: In your research, you were able to identify habits, practices, that successful commonly courageous people had that helped them sort of reach that success. So let’s go through those things. What did you find are the habits or practices of these successful commonly courageous people?

JIM DETERT: Really the first set of steps are about establishing one’s I guess “right” to act or to speak and to be heard. You know, that’s things developing trust with the actual people who you’re going to need to listen or garner support from. It’s about being seen as highly competent so people can’t just, you know, dismiss you as the, you know, the dissatisfied low-performer.

It’s about things like being seen as fair and even-handed. You know, one of the profiles I’ve written, there was a woman championing gender equity and inclusiveness issues and some of the women I talked to her about her said, “You know, as much as she is absolutely our champion, she’s also the person who will carefully look at and study the data.

Let’s say about, you know, somebody’s pay or title in a given region of the country, you know, she’s the person who would study it and say, you know, that dog doesn’t bark. There’s no ‘there’ there. You are not actually underpaid relative to your male colleagues when we look at it closely.”

And so there’s sort of a fairness and even-handedness, having an ability to not be easily dismissed and for people to be willing to sort of trust that you have not just, let’s say a given person or set of individuals’ interests at heart, but you have the organization’s well-being at heart.

CURT NICKISCH: It sounds like she was very strategic and knew which case to bring forward. How much do patience and timing have to do with success at everyday courage?

JIM DETERT: You know, timing is against you if you’re too new or inexperienced in the organization because you haven’t yet built up, you know, that source of credibility and reputation for fairness, etc. Timing, conversely, if you’re on the way out the door is not your friend anymore because people no longer believe sort of you have the right motive, nor do they believe you’re going to stay around and help carry the water, you know, for the change itself.

So one part of the timing is just are you at the right level of, let’s say, credibility and potential influence? But timing also is affected by things occurring elsewhere in the organization and elsewhere beyond the organization. So you may have the best idea or an absolutely valid critique of something happening, let’s say, you know, with a global expansion strategy or a new product idea. But if that issue is not currently on the agenda or radar or priority list of senior people, you’re simply less likely to get action or traction around the issue.

So I talk in the article about, you know, Tachi Yamada who was, has been R&D chairman at a couple of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and he was incredibly skillful at using key opportunities like the merger of two major pharma companies as the window of opportunity to be bold about a structural reorganization of the entire R&D function.

I think people who tend to be successful over time, you know, behaving courageously and actually seen an effect, are pretty skilled at knowing which issues are both most fundamental to their own value system, and critical to act on versus let’s say, just things that emotionally triggered them in a given moment. And pretty skillful about estimating is this a battle or is this the war? You know, if I fight this one, if I take this one on, even if I win, do I undermine my broader objective.

So, you know, these adage is like standing for everything ultimately means you stand for or achieve nothing. These I think turned out to be true.

CURT NICKISCH: So a lot of this sounds like being opportunistic. You know, that sounds bad, but opportunistic or strategic about when to be courageous. You’ve talked about laying the groundwork and then choosing your battles. But then what happens when you do it? Do you notice patterns of success for people who’ve been able to lower the risk of acting when it’s in the moment? What do they do differently?

JIM DETERT: There’s really two sort of key kinds of behaviors. One is I think really we could summarize as saying it’s about framing how you go about presenting the issue. It’s very common for us to present it from our perspective. What we get wrong in that moment is keeping in our mind that if we had power or control or changing or doing what we wanted, we wouldn’t be acting or speaking up in the first place.

The reason we’re doing that is we need somebody else to get on board. We need somebody else to change. And so what’s really crucial is having the skill of knowing what is the target or targets’ likely reaction and what are they most compelled by.

You might prefer to present an issue or be most compelled by an issue when it’s presented as a threat. If we don’t do this, x will happen. The targets might be much more compelled by this is an opportunity. Look at the exciting upsides.

CURT NICKISCH: We can do an experiment.

JIM DETERT: That’s right. And there’s a whole range of those kinds of considerations.

CURT NICKISCH: There’s a lot of material in here that’s about, you know, emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, getting buy-in. You know, there’s classic competencies that you should have in organizations all at play here. But following up – I’m really interested because I wouldn’t have thought about that on my own. This is another key step that your research shows is important if you want to be successful in doing courageous things competently in the office.

JIM DETERT: Yeah. I agree with you that, you know, if you look at that sort of persuading in the moment set of activities, that’s actually the step that in a lot of ways has been, you know, the most articulated by others who have studied, you know, influence or, or issue selling. What for me also was a much more novel finding was this idea that very few things that are worthy of being called courageous end in the moment.

You know, when things go well, even in those instances, often there are these important next steps of how do you think those who offered their support, how do you thank those and give credit to those who stood with you? How do you make sure you actually go and secure the follow-up steps, the actual resources that were discussed in the moment? How do you basically take the success you had and lock it in?

CURT NICKISCH: Right, and manage the emotions of the people who may be lost or spoke out against you and were decided against?

JIM DETERT: That’s right. And that’s true whether you know it goes well or poorly for you, is that when you’re talking about change, whether it’s you who for whom it doesn’t go that well, or you know, the target, who you need to change, who might be feeling bruised, angry, hurt. How do you skillfully go about, you know, either repairing those relationships, helping people see past, uh, you know, their current anger or hurt or fear and move forward?

What I learned is that there are people who are really skillful at emotion management after these difficult moments. And one part of that emotion management is within the self. There’s a real difference between people who see setbacks as reasons to quit, reasons to conclude they knew it was risky and futile in the first place in order to throw up their hands. And actually just sort of further seal that, you know, that loop that says this is a terrible thing to do.

CURT NICKISCH: My career is over.

JIM DETERT: Yeah, my career is over, you know, that was stupid.

CURT NICKISCH: [LAUGHS] I am such an idiot.

JIM DETERT: Amen. That’s right. But there are others who, who really just view all of that as data. You know, this is a long journey and I learned yesterday what’s not going to work and why. You know, there are lots of issues I’m going to do this about in the future. And I just learned something really important about how I’m not going to behave the next time.

CURT NICKISCH: So you’ve outlined these ways that people can do this more successfully as individuals. But if you are a manager, how can you encourage this and sort of reduce the risk, reduce the friction for people to say things that they think aren’t popular or they can suggest things that would mean big changes but good changes for the organization?

JIM DETERT: Yeah. So I think there’s a symbolic and a structural answer to that. So symbolically you have to really publicly celebrate instances where people were bold and innovative. Where they went beyond, you know, what they were authorized to do on behalf of the organization. Where they pushed or challenged you or somebody else. You have to, you have to celebrate that.

Because you have to change the urban legends. I mean, if you ask most people about, you know, oh, what happens when people courageously do XYZ, what the answer you get is, you know, people got their head chopped off. And so you have to really take actions to symbolically show that it’s different.

Then I think structurally you have to do, you know what Steve Kerr talked about, you know, 40 years ago now, which is you have to sort of address the organizational follies. You have to change the actual reality that you say you want innovative behavior, but your reward system is geared entirely around staying within the lanes.

You have to change the reality that you say you’re going to pay and promote people who are out of the box thinkers or challenge, but everybody looks around and knows that the way to promotion is through being quiet. So you know what I would say is you have to change both the symbolism around courageous acts and you have to change the reality. People have to actually see that these behaviors get rewarded rather than punished.

CURT NICKISCH: Jim, thanks again so much. This was really insightful.

JIM DETERT: Yeah. My pleasure.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Jim Detert. He’s a professor at Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia and he wrote the article “Cultivating Everyday Courage.” It’s in the November-December 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review and you can also find it at www.hbr.org. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buckholtz is our audio product manager.

Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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