GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Keeping Fear at Bay: Aligning Vital Courage and Moral Courage by Tom Rieger, author of "Breaking the Fear Barrier: How Fear Destroys Companies from the Inside Out, and What to Do About It"
The recession may be over, but the anxiety and fear that has spread has firmly rooted itself in “the new normal.” In the midst of all of this uncertainty, managers and employees will inevitably feel compelled to build walls to protect themselves, regardless of the impact on the overall company.. If left unchecked, this attitude can pit the good of the individual against the greater good of the organization—spelling death for companies.
What people need most at this critical juncture is the courage to master their fear before it creates widespread harm. Since the days of Aristotle, people have been studying courage, yet few studies have applied these principles to organizations.
Some of the most compelling recent research on the topic was done by Shane Lopez and the late C.R. Snyder. They defined several types of courage. Vital courage is the “inspiration for actions that improve one’s lot in life or that ultimately promote survival.” Moral courage is “the authentic expression of one’s beliefs or values in pursuit of justice or the common good despite power differentials, dissent, disapproval, or rejection.” While vital courage is inwardly focused (survival), moral courage is outwardly focused (ideology). Vital courage is about what’s best for the employee. Moral courage is about what’s best for the organization.
Examples of vital courage include when an employee takes a risk or does something extraordinary to further his own standing in the company. Taking these actions may limit his personal time or cause difficulty in his normal day-to-day routine. But the intent of the courageous activity is “what’s in it for me?” In its benevolent form, vital courage might include working an extra shift, writing a new proposal, or taking night courses to qualify for a raise. Though these actions further an individual goal, they also help the organization accomplish its overall mission. But in its malevolent form, vital courage may lead to gaming a bonus, manipulating data, scheming against colleagues, or stabbing others in the back. Essentially, the difference between the good and bad forms of vital courage is whether the actions benefit the greater purpose of the organization or benefit only individual employees or their departments.
Moral courage manifests in the workplace when an employee takes a risk or goes the extra mile — not necessarily because it benefits him personally, but because it’s best for the organization. The clerk who stops what he’s doing to help an elderly customer around the store even though it will make it more difficult to complete his other tasks on time is showing moral courage. The employee who jumps in to help a coworker, even though it may mean working late to complete her daily responsibilities is displaying moral courage.
In fear-ridden companies, employees may be expected to display moral courage at the expense of vital courage. Unfortunately, vital courage usually wins. Behavioral economist George Loewenstein found that people tend to alter their definitions of right and wrong based on what is personally best for them. Consider the following situations based on real-life examples from a financial services company.
Managers in Company A were evaluated and paid based on the average production per hour of their team members. Once frontline employees met certain internal requirements, they were technically eligible to enter a “development pool” for additional training and eventual assignment as a manager. Assignment to the pool was considered a promotion.
George was a leader in this company, and he was asked to nominate someone to enter the development pool. He nominated his best performer who also had, in George’s opinion, the most management talent. After that person left his group, his team’s average production declined. After all, he’d lost his best performer. As a result, George’s pay declined sharply, and he received a poor performance review.
"Moral courage manifests in the workplace when an employee takes a risk or goes the extra mile — not necessarily because it benefits him personally, but because it’s best for the organization."
Sherry was the leader of a second group and was also asked to nominate someone to enter the development pool. She chose her worst performer who could not even manage himself much less other reps. But, as a result, once that person left the group, Sherry’s pay increased sharply because her average had gone up (now that the poor performer was no longer there to drag the group down), and she received a glowing performance review for improving her numbers.
George decided to display moral courage by doing what was best for the company, even though he suffered as a result. Sherry, on the other hand, chose to exhibit vital courage by looking out for herself, regardless of what was best for the company. Neither scenario is good; both are guaranteed to fail.
Leaders need to make employees feel comfortable and motivated to perform acts of moral courage. The key is to design rewards and performance management in a way that balances and aligns both types of courage. Google retains employees by rewarding them with greater freedom, including the company’s rule that allows engineers and developers to spend 20% of their time working on their own personal projects (many of which have become successful Google products).
In the previous example, if the managers had received a bonus if the person they nominated was successful, then in both cases, the right person would probably have been nominated. Neither George nor Sherry would have suffered as a result. In fact, a different company in the same industry was faced with the same dilemma, and it solved the problem by giving the referring supervisor a bonus if the person nominated for promotion met his or her first-year goals. As a result, only those with strong management talent were promoted, and the referring supervisors were compensated for the temporary decline in their numbers.
Any time an organization introduces a new policy, program, incentive, or bonus scheme, leaders and managers should ask themselves if moral and vital courage align or conflict. When there is conflict between the moral and vital instincts of the employee, failure is sure to follow, and leaders should take immediate action to correct the situation.
Tom Rieger is Senior Practice Expert for Gallup, and author of Breaking the Fear Barrier: How Fear Destroys Companies from the Inside Out, and What to Do About It (Gallup Press; August 2011)