“I am manager of the Trust Department in a branch of a small, Midwest bank. Our newly appointed Regional Manager has changed the bank’s money-management strategy, getting clients into vehicles which generate large fees for the bank at the client’s expense. This is plain wrong, but everyone, including myself, is afraid to speak-up.
“I think this will get us in trouble if it continues, but we all have families to support, and frankly no one, me included, has the courage to say a word. You have written about lawyers in the same situation. Do you have any recommendations, anything that will help me raise these issues and not get fired? Thanks, Shirley.”
Finding the Path to Courage
Shirley’s email arrived at the perfect time as I had just finished reading “Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work,” by Professor Jim Detert, who teaches Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.
If ever in our country’s history there was a time for this book, then it is now. We have seen fear in the highest places of business and government - fear to speak up - becoming its own pandemic.
Just look at how the people in management at Wells Fargo and Volkswagen sat idly by as their companies ripped off the public. Or, following Jan. 6 2021, the many elected officials who refused to condemn what took place.
On a personal level, the author of Choosing Courage shows us how we can make our feelings heard, be it on the job or in the world of politics. He gives us a path, a guide to developing intestinal fortitude–the guts–to speak up. That’s what makes this book so relevant today.
“People who demonstrate acts of courage often say they were just doing their job and do not consider themselves courageous,” he observes, adding, “and they are driven by an internal sense of moral responsibility. They say, “I did it because it was the right thing to do.”
“Choosing Courage” enables readers to do the right thing.
How We Reveal Ourselves as Weak, Lacking Courage
I asked him to list the behaviors and things we say which tell the world, “I am a wimp! I do not have the courage to speak up about important things,” and the consequences of these behaviors:
1 - Come with your list of rationalizations for inaction: “I am not going to rock the boat because everyone does the same thing.”
Consequences: You will have told everyone that you are not bothered by dishonesty and will lose their trust.
By pointing to the frequency with which it happens, right and wrong no longer matter. You justify the wrong by thinking, for example, “Everyone cheats on their taxes.” This does not make cheating morally correct.
2 - Find someone above you to blame for your own inaction. Say, the boss made me do this. It was his idea. I was following orders.”
Consequences: When the full scope of what happened is eventually revealed, you, not the higher power person will take the fall. You may think you are putting loyalty to your organization first, but those above you trying to save themselves will not reciprocate.
3 - Distort and minimize the harm done. “It’s really no big deal, these are rich people anyway.” Throw in a nice dose of “blame the victim.” Say, “Clients know this can happen when they leave their money with us. It is their fault.”
Consequence: You will show yourself to be morally bankrupt. You do not get a free pass to harm your clients. It is a distortion of thinking that the magnitude of the wrong somehow minimizes the moral wrong. It does not.
4 - Keep quiet when your organization is about to violate the law.
Consequences: You will suffer long term regret. Most of the benefits of silence are in the here and now. You feel saver now. You feel that you have prevented a crisis for yourself or your organization by not speaking up. Conversely, when things go south, the result of having been party to this problem are going to be much more grave for you, your employer and possibly your family.
At the extreme, if you have participated in a crime and go to jail, you will have a hard time supporting your family thereafter.
Detert wants the reader to not ever think:
“I gave so much of myself to something where in the end I gave too much to the organization and not enough to the people or relationships where I was truly irreplaceable. I wish I had courage to live more true to those priorities which should have come first.”
“Choosing Courage” should be required reading by all business majors and MBA students.