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.