Continuous Transformation Calls for a Courageous Culture

Courage has many definitions, including “opposing or branching out from the status quo.”[1]

Why does this matter for the 21st century business? Because the pace of change in today’s market landscape is faster than ever, and employees who demonstrate courage by taking action, speaking up, and challenging entrenched ways of working help businesses continuously transform and push beyond the status quo to keep up.[2]

While individuals can be courageous, the onus is on organizations to create environments where courage is a core value and a rewarded behavior. When courage becomes part of an organization’s culture, it’s a key enabler of change and innovation. With courage, employees are likely to push through ambiguity to further a compelling shared purpose, “rather than clinging to the way things have always been done.”[3]

Organizations can engage in a sequence of connected activities to foster a courageous culture that drives continuous transformation:

Have the courage to ask. Employees will demonstrate courage in the workplace when they feel empowered, with the right guardrails in place. To spur courage among your workforce, create opportunities for employees to share feedback and ideas in an environment of psychological safety, one where they are comfortable expressing and being themselves without fear of punishment or embarrassment.[4] This may take the form of a firmwide survey or a town hall. You might also consider collecting written feedback to ensure that all personality types are heard, not just those willing to speak up in a brainstorming session, for example. Regardless of the forum, “when a work environment has reasonably high psychological safety…potentially game-changing ideas for innovation are shared. [It is] a crucial source of value creation in an organization operating in a complex, changing environment.”[5]

Intentionally seeking input and inquiring about employees’ priorities builds a culture of trust in the workplace, stimulates a growth mindset that inspires continuous learning, and encourages employees to push the status quo to discover new solutions. It gives your workforce an opportunity to help set the tone for what success looks like. This approach also enables leaders to define a clear purpose for transformation and create actionable programs that align with employees’ priorities. It isn’t always easy to relinquish some of your control to your workforce by asking for input. It requires you to be vulnerable and open to change. It demands humility by way of listening and gaining new perspectives. By asking, you are acknowledging that there are alternatives to the way things have always been done, which sets the stage for growth.

Have the courage to take a stand. As a business leader, it’s important to lead by example in demonstrating courage. After all, the contagious nature of courage inspires possibility and action in others, and “observing courage tends to cause it to spread among the observers.”[6] Whether it’s taking a position on a social issue or making tough strategic decisions to propel your organization forward, leaders must step out and do something different to model courage to their workforce.

In recent years, we have seen organizations take positions on social issues to help set the agenda and shape the path forward. It’s more important than ever before to create a culture that you and your workforce are proud of: One where employees can show up entirely as themselves and where customers want to do business. The courage to take a stand also requires you to be decisive about your strategy even when the path forward is unclear. In organizations where there’s courage to take a stand, employees show conviction in collaborating, strategizing, and decision-making, even when the next steps may be uncertain.

Have the courage to invest. Once you’ve set your strategic priorities—with input from your workforce (see #1) and the mandate for differentiation in mind (see #2) —you must invest resources into learning and development. For your employees to have the confidence and courage to drive strategic initiatives forward—thereby allowing you to continuously transform and improve—they must first develop the knowledge and capability to carry out new ways of working. As a start, your investment in learning and development might include coaching, care, proofs of concept, and leadership guidance. Making the appropriate investment in programs and resources that support change demonstrates your dedication to continuous evolution and bold ways of working. More importantly, it shows employees that their input matters and that you’re committed to taking action to address their priorities.

Have the courage to try and fail. When carrying out strategic initiatives to drive change, investing in your workforce’s skills and expertise is an important place to start. But stopping there will lead to stagnation. Once you have built the capability among your workforce, you must work to create an environment of psychological safety that promotes calculated risk-taking and recognizes failure as a normal part of growth. Normalizing failure eliminates the stigma and promotes innovation, risk-taking, and growth as values of your organization. As a start, you might consider establishing a “Wall of Failures” like consumer goods company Proctor & Gamble. The initiative highlights lessons learned from unsuccessful products and is intended to normalize failure while encouraging innovation. You might also introduce something like Google’s “Courageous Penguin Award,” which recognizes employees who demonstrate conviction when the path forward may feel new or not yet fully defined. Like Google does, it’s important to visibly recognize and encourage courageous actions, and capture and tell stories about those who have exhibited conviction in the workplace. Recognition influences employees’ sense of belonging within an organization. It reinforces positive individual efforts and creates opportunities to set an example for others by demonstrating courage.

Have the courage to continually grow. From both a leadership and employee standpoint, it takes courage to accept the challenge of continuous transformation. That’s because it’s a process of measuring progress and taking action that is never really “over” or complete. Just as much as it’s an actionable process, it’s also a mindset shift—one that values fluid, adaptive operating models that are built to change, rather than built to last. And while it takes courage to embrace the concept of continuous improvement and never resting on past successes, it’s well worth it. The organizations that do are positioned to excel in today’s rapidly changing environment.

There is not one single approach or prescriptive solution for creating a courageous culture that drives continuous transformation. One thing is certain, however. While it may start at the top, courage extends beyond leadership. It must become part of the cultural DNA of an organization to drive meaningful change. Transformation happens when every member of an organization is empowered to act courageously—to challenge the status quo and to contribute from a place of courageous commitment to the future. This future is one where employees take charge of change as a sure path to growth.

[1] Detert, James R. and Bruno, Evan A., Workplace Courage: Review, Synthesis, and Future Agenda for a Complex Construct, March 15, 2017.

[2] Lerner, Harriet Ph.D., The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear, and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self, May 3, 2005.

[3] Ibid

[4] Edmondson, Amy C., The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, November 13, 2018.

[5] Ibid

[6] Detert, James R. and Bruno, Evan A., Workplace Courage: Review, Synthesis, and Future Agenda for a Complex Construct, March 15, 2017.