One of my executive coaching clients represents a minority presence in his organization, and he is passionate about bringing more diversity into his workplace. He has so much energy around this that in every conversation we have, he mentions how he wants to say more and do more to enable a more heterogeneous workplace culture. And in every conversation he expresses the same concerns: are others going to receive this poorly? Will I be seen as rocking the boat? Is my organization ready for this to be an open topic of discussion? He is caught between his beliefs and his fears, with no easy answers on how to reconcile the two. So it was perfect timing for me to read (and share with him) the recent Harvard Business Review article, Cultivating Everyday Courage.
The author, James Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, has been investigating workplace courage. He offers, “Courage is about taking worthy actions despite the potential risk” that can result “when people challenge authorities, norms, and institutions”. He found that those who were less successful in creating positive change were proud of standing up for what they believed in but wish they had approached it more skillfully. He outlines these principles to improve the odds of success when taking courageous actions.
Choose wisely. Those who were most successful in enabling positive change had asked themselves two things: Is this really important, and is this the right time? The first question is not about values but instead, what is the best use of your effort in influencing change? Is your cause better enabled by focusing on smaller activities or successes? Or will there be more impact from influencing a bigger, broader initiative? And timing can include things like waiting until you have fostered key supporting relationships, or understanding upcoming organizational, structural, or staffing changes that may provide more opportunity for change.
Be prepared. Frame your issue in a way that makes sense to the audience, and make effective use of data. For example, if you are making the case for more women in your workplace, you might say to senior management, “We all want to increase company value.” Then refer to the research that shows that companies with more gender diversity have better financial performance. And Mary Gentile, author of Giving Voice To Values, says that people who effectively act on their values practice their conversations in advance and rehearse different scenarios, just like professional athletes build “muscle memory.” She asks the questions, “If I were going to act on my values, what would I say and do? How could I be most effective?”
Practice your pitch. The one piece of advice Detert says he consistently offers is to attempt smaller acts before proceeding to more challenging ones. Try out your perspective and viewpoints with a trusted colleague before taking them to your possibly-less-receptive supervisor. Test out something new with your team before proposing a department- or organization-wide initiative. See what you learn along the way and how you might adjust moving forward. And as you take actions of any size, Detert reminds us, “Above all, keep your values front and center. You’ll have a stronger sense of self-respect through any setbacks you face, and you’ll be less likely to regret your actions, no matter how things turn out.”
We all face the question of how do we bring our truest selves and our values into our workplace (or any environment). There is no easy answer, and it is more challenging if we face resistance. Try these approaches, combined with your courage, to help translate your beliefs into tangible impact.