Justice Education

Good Thought
November 2022

Workplace Ethics Require Courage

Arthur Schwartz


According to a recent National Business Ethics Survey (2013), almost one out of two U.S. employees has witnessed wrongdoing in their workplace. Half of them did not report the wrongdoing or take any action. Why do some individuals display courage at work while many of their co-workers — when faced with the same situation — do not?

My own area of research focuses on the antecedents of courage, specifically moral courage. For the past 15 years, I have sought to understand why some people stand up and speak out while others stay silent and look the other way.

Those of us who study courage have come to understand that there are six interrelated factors that “produce” courage. These are: 1) Positive traits. Some of us are born with a predisposition toward courage, whether it’s based on our “openness to experience”, or a high level of empathy or conscientiousness. 2) Positive emotions. Emotions can fuel our courage – emotions such as anger and rage, fairness and love, embarrassment and disgust. 3) Goals and values. Our identity and the roles we assume are critical to the production of courage. Each of us have “role expectations” that exert psychological pressure on us to show concordance with our self-formed identity or convictions (as a professional, parent, or friend). 4) Positive states. The belief “I can do it” makes a difference in the production of courage. So does the belief “I’ve done this before.” 5) Social forces. Courage is a positive contagion, especially when we hold and share with others certain normative beliefs (e.g., “never leave a comrade behind”). 6) Situation and context. We know that situation and context is the critical factor on whether we produce courage or not. There are certain situations when we can easily produce courage and other situations where courageous action is far more difficult. Too often, in these difficult-to-produce courage situations, we succumb to fear, peer pressure, groupthink, or obedience to authority.

Sadly, we know relatively little about workplace courage. What we do know is that courageous action in the workplace is not easy. Most people want to be liked. Many of us have been raised to obey authority. Too many employees are apathetic or alienated at work and respond to any idea with the same refrain: “to get along, go along.”

My own research focuses on whether courage is a learnable, or teachable, skill. Is courage like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise? If so, what would a “courage workout” look like? Are there lessons we can glean from the military, especially the ways it trains soldiers to reduce the emotions that hinder physical courage?

In the National Business Ethics Survey referenced earlier, the most common reason for employees not reporting wrongdoing was fear of retaliation. Treasurer (2008) hit the mark when he suggests “we need to find ways to help people move outside their comfort zone into their courage zone.” I have identified four approaches that organizations of any size or mission could use to cultivate workplace courage:

Create if/then courage scripts

What would it take for organizations to simulate courage “fire drills” that provide opportunities for everyone to enact courageous behaviors? Clearly, it would be difficult for organizations to engineer the requisite fear and danger, but the benefit of this approach is providing opportunities for all employees to internalize (and normalize) the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral “scripts” that will enable them to act with courage when needed.

Focus on professional and personal identity rather than compliance

Organizations need to get beyond a prevention-focused mindset. Constraining wrongdoing does not produce courageous action. Courage demands conviction, not compliance. Organizations needs to find ways to inspire their employees to act in accordance with the ethical codes of their profession.

Provide opportunities for everyone on your team to know and leverage their “courage traits”

Research on the nature of the “courageous mindset” suggests that each of us is born with certain positive traits that help us produce courage. Organizations should provide opportunities for employees to discover their “courage traits.” Knowledge of these traits will provide both leaders and followers with the confidence to act with courage.

Emphasize the power of stories, role models, and exemplars

When researchers ask people to describe an act of courage at work, they almost always tell a story of a colleague who acted with courage. That’s why it’s critical for mentors at work to talk to those they mentor about the different courageous actions they have experienced. Courage stories have the potential to create “positive spirals” within the organization.

Maya Angelou (2008) tells us that “courage is the most important of the virtues because without it, no other virtue can be practiced consistently.” My hope, in the years ahead, is that our colleges and universities will commit to graduating students who have been equipped and inspired to act courageously within their chosen professions.

  1. Angelou, Maya (2008). Cornell University Convocation Address.
  2. National Business Ethics Survey (2013). Ethics and compliance initiative. Washington, D.C.
  3. Treasurer (2008). Courage goes to work. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.