Editor’s Pick: Darden Students Learn to Turn Values Into Workplace Courage

25 October 2017

By Jay Hodgkins

That values create value in business is a core principle of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, and Professor Jim Detert‘s research and courses on what he terms “workplace courage” are a prime example of the principle in practice.

His research on thousands of real “courage stories” and specific aspects of workplace courage shows that those who are “skillfully courageous” — willing to try to change an aspect of their organization for the greater good regardless of potential personal consequences while doing so effectively — effect tremendous change in the workplace.

A profile in the summer 2017 The Darden Report magazine explored Detert’s findings:

Detert realized that creating change from the inside requires a much broader set of skills than does being a whistleblower. He came to believe that helping people develop those skills and understand how to be “competently courageous” within the workplace would help a greater percentage of people than focusing on isolated cases of whistleblowing.

These insights led him to develop what he calls the Competent Courage Framework, which is intended to help people develop the skills to be courageous at work, but also be effective when doing so. This involves everything from the ways people create the conditions for successful action to their behavior in actual courage episodes to how they follow up afterwards.

In helping people use the framework, he often employs the metaphor of “climbing your courage ladder.” He encourages people to write out a list of actions, alongside a ladder image, starting with something that might take a bit of courage but feels doable, and working up to an action that feels important but is almost impossible to contemplate doing right now.

“A big part of the reason why people don’t act courageously is that most people tend to think of things that are near the top of their ladder, and that feels overwhelming,” he said. “You have to help people start by tackling something at the lower rungs of the ladder. They need to be willing to do it, and they need to have a reasonable shot at success to develop some efficacy that will support them as they take actions that require more courage.”

Courage, he says, is like a muscle, and we need to use it regularly to make it stronger and more effective.

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About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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