3 steps to unlocking courage in the workplace

Korn Ferry’s Margie Warrell and Amelia Haynes dive deep into the neuroscience of courage to help companies create more courageous cultures amid disruption.

Amelia Haynes

Associate Researcher, Korn Ferry Institute

In the fast-paced world of business, where disruption is the new norm, courage stands as the defining quality that sets apart exceptional leaders and employees. But more often than not, courage remains uncommon in the workplace. 

Scientists have found that courage is linked to a dissociation between what we think and what we feel. When these factors are congruent, we can either feel overwhelming indifference or overwhelming fear. But when they’re skewed, courage comes through. Their interplay is key to activating courage, showing that it neither denies our thoughts nor feelings, but is rather something unique and meaningful.

Yet, our decisions are often driven by emotions, and cognitive biases like "loss aversion" make us more afraid of potential losses than excited about potential gains. This fear of loss, combined with the prioritization of short-term safety over long-term growth, curtails courageous action.

This explains, in part, why courage is a rare commodity at work. Our brains prioritize safety, and company cultures often promote conformity. Hierarchical structures and competitive environments can discourage dissenting voices and promote risk aversion, while our instinct to maintain the status quo can contribute to overly cautious decisions.

Although our brains naturally shield us from discomfort, we do have the capacity to cultivate courage through practice and experience. Having a "growth mindset”—which embraces challenges, learning, and effort—can encourage us to be brave and take courageous action. But we also need to feel safe and empowered to express opinions and take interpersonal risks on the job. As research shows, when employees feel psychologically safe at work, they are more willing to share ideas and collaborate, resulting in high-performing teams and organizational trust.

Today’s enterprise leaders face the challenge of balancing these internal and external factors. Embracing a “courage mindset”—that is, being willing to go above and beyond—is necessary for executives to achieve short-term success and long-term transformation. Backed by a clear purpose, this mindset empowers leaders to make holistic decisions that benefit the entire ecosystem and drive progress. 

What’s more, learning how to be courageous may open the door for people at all levels to operate from an enterprise mindset, boosting outcomes for all stakeholders. To create a culture of courage, here are three steps to consider:

  1. Start on the inside: Act with purpose, train for bravery, and consult your "future self" to reframe your perspective.
  2. Work from the outside in: Reward courageous actions, respond well to bad news, and share "failure stories" to destigmatize mistakes.
  3. Influence the system: Create feedback mechanisms that challenge the status quo, communicate a bold vision with a greater purpose, and model the way by exemplifying courage.

As we stand on the cusp of an AI-driven workforce revolution, courage is the key to unlocking human creativity and seizing the opportunities disruption always holds. Leaders must role model the courage they wish to instill in their organizations, willing to be decisive amid the unknowns and forge new ground despite the uncertainty. It's a critical moment for organizations to sow the seeds of courageous behavior, enabling their employees to bring bold thinking to the challenges at hand.

So, what would you do today if you were courageous? The answer could hold the key to transforming your workplace and unlocking untapped potential.

Discover how you can create a culture of courage by clicking the image to download our paper.

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