When you think about courage, what images come to mind? Firefighters? Wonder Woman? People who punched through the glass ceiling or fought for social change? These images undoubtedly evoke courage, but they offer a narrow glimpse of this highly valued personal trait. What if we expanded our lens and started recognizing the daily acts of courage that occur all around us? What if we started focusing on professional courage, and the many ways it contributes to success?
The truth is courage comes in many forms. It takes courage to step in front of a room and give a presentation. It takes guts to spearhead an initiative. Or engage in a difficult conversation. Or say “No” when too many people are asking for your time or attention. These daily acts of professional courage go largely unnoticed, but they are absolutely vital for leadership success and, as an extension, team success.
As a leader, your professional courage can have a direct impact on the wellbeing, enthusiasm, and productivity of your team and, in particular, the women on your team. How?
Let’s explore 3 ways courageous leadership can lead to team success…
1. Being an Advocate
The quickest way to create a team of disgruntled, do-the-bare-minimum employees is to ignore their voices and their needs. When people feel like they’re not heard (as is far too often the case for women), they shut down. When they feel as though their basic needs are not met, they start exploring other avenues of employment. What women workers often need is an advocate — someone to stand up for their ideas and support their needs. According to Gallup, “Fifty-two percent of exiting employees say that their manager or organization could have done something to prevent them from leaving their job.” That’s the power of empathetic managers who make an effort to engage with and stand up for their team.
Being empathetic and supportive of your team’s needs shows courageous leadership.
But being an advocate isn’t always easy.
It takes a good deal of courage to stick up for employees who may want significant changes. A common example today has to do with working from home. If your company is intent on bringing everyone back to the workplace, but your team enjoys the flexibility of working at home (at least part of the time), what do you do? Do you acquiesce to the company and end up with an unhappy team? Or do you make a case to company leadership on behalf of your team?
In some ways, it’s easier to go along with the company’s decision and say, “Sorry, that’s just the way it is.” The long-term effects of this decision, however, can lead to a batch of discontented employees who have little faith in their leadership to stand up for them.
If you, as a leader, believe your team will be happier and more effective if they have the opportunity to occasionally work from home, you’ll likely have to engage in some difficult or uncomfortable conversations with other company leaders. Your advocacy could be seen as “rocking the boat” or even insubordination. But if you are in tune with your team’s needs and believe in their worth, you’ll rise to the occasion and take that risk.
2. Facilitating Major Changes
Sometimes, long-time systems and long-held beliefs become outdated and no longer serve us. Maybe the status quo is inefficient or ineffective in some way. Or maybe a program is geared toward people who fall into a certain demographic and tends to exclude others (a common problem for women, and especially women of color). Or, perhaps, the system for giving and receiving feedback is antiquated and desperately needs an update.
Whatever the case, facilitating major changes can be difficult and often requires a good dose of courage and stamina. People may resist the proposed changes by saying things like, “But we’ve always done it this way” or “Do we really need to spend money on this.” Frankly, these reactions are unsurprising.
Why? Because change is hard! The path of least resistance is to not change and keep doing things the “same old way.” The reason change can feel so overwhelming and difficult is tied to neuroscience.
Human beings are predisposed to be suspicious of change. Our brains find comfort in familiar patterns and stability and (as eloquently written in this Laserfiche article), “If the brain decides the change is, in fact, threatening, then it will resist or avoid the change as much as possible.” This all links back to our amygdala, which kicks our “fight or flight” reaction into high gear.
Because resistance to change is baked into our DNA, leaders must endeavor to have a little extra mental fortitude and empathy to facilitate the change.
3. Making Meaningful Investments
Today, we are part of an ever-shifting work landscape in an uncertain world. Circumstances can change in an instant, and companies have had to be nimble and more adaptable than ever. This uncertainty can make workplaces nervous about spending money, especially when those expenditures seem superfluous. Sure, a company can get on board with purchasing a new copy machine or upgrading its desks, but what about investing in employees?
That’s where things become less concrete, and company leadership begins to waffle. They worry about the return on their potential investment. Is it worth it to shell out several thousand dollars, when the results aren’t guaranteed?
We can say without a shadow of a doubt, investing in your work team is one of the most important investments a company can make. Companies who invest in “employee experience” are four times as likely to be profitable, have higher stock prices, and experience lower turnover than companies that do not make such investments. The results may be clear, but it still takes courage to suggest spending money when the company does not see the value of investing in its people. As a leader, you’ll have to dare to stand up and state your case.
But exercise caution! Not all programs are created equally, especially if your goal is to focus on the growth and development of your female team members.
When searching for growth opportunities for your team, it’s usually best to avoid programs that are “one size fits all,” short-term, and/or lack concrete results. Instead, opt for programs that are personalized to your team (and women-focused), collaborative, backed by science and tangible results, and have a long-term impact. At The Disruptive Element, we have found that these are some of the core features of an effective cohort program for teams. Quick, one-off training sessions usually don’t produce lasting results. It’s much better to invest in a program that’s more sustainable, science-based and customized to fit the unique needs of your team.
This all boils down to one key point: If you’re going to go out on a limb and advocate for making a sizable investment in your team, do your research and find a program that works.
Professional courage is a critical leadership trait that we often ignore. When a leader dares to advocate for their team, endorse major changes, or make meaningful investments in their female superstars, that takes a good deal of courage and determination. It’s not easy to engage in difficult conversations, spearhead innovative initiatives, or disagree with fellow company leaders, but sometimes that’s what it takes to do right by your team.