UVA Darden Professor Unveils Keys to Workplace Courage in New Book

By Dave Hendrick

In his new book, Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021), University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Jim Detert draws on two decades of research to offer clear, practical strategies for acting courageously at work.

According to Detert’s research, the ability to speak up or stand out in the workplace — by having a tough conversation with a manager, peer or client, or by taking bold or innovative action — is not a trait reserved for the privileged few at the top. Rather, everyone has the potential and responsibility to develop the relevant behavioral skills for competent courage. We all have the ability to act courageously in ways that influence positive change while mitigating negative consequences.

“If you want to make things better at work, for yourself and for others, the only thing you control with certainty is your own willingness to take action,” said Detert, who teaches in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior area at Darden. “Choosing Courage is about education, inspiration and perspiration. It educates by describing the nature of courageous acts, the reasons we don’t see enough of them, and the myths that get in the way. It inspires by sharing the stories of people of every gender, race, personality, work role and level who refused to wait for someone else or some other time, and instead chose to act courageously when the opportunity arose. It provides dozens of tools and techniques for preparing to act, choosing when to act, how to act skillfully in the moment and how to follow up after.”

Detert defines workplace courage as work domain-relevant acts done for a worthy cause despite significant risks perceivable by the actor — or more plainly, taking action at work because it feels right and important to stand for a principle despite the potential for repercussions.

Detert’s research, based in part on the collection of thousands of real-life examples, led him to develop what he calls the Workplace Courage Acts Index, a free assessment that has respondents evaluate how frequently 35 behaviors critical to individual well-being and organizational effectiveness are done when the opportunities arise, and how courageous they are deemed to be in the respondent’s work environment.

While the acts often involve “speaking truth to power,” Detert, who peppers the book with real-life examples of courageous acts by both well-known and ordinary people, documents and describes many other types of courageous action, including taking on stretch assignments, helming bold initiatives and leading innovation efforts. Practicing these everyday acts of courage is how individuals climb their personal courage ladder, thereby enabling personal and organizational growth.

Detert, who joined the Darden faculty in 2016 after nearly a decade at Cornell’s Johnson School of Management, teaches in the MBA and Executive MBA program. His popular “Defining Moments” course places students in high-pressure role-playing scenarios to help them learn to respond with competent courage in the moment.

Read the first chapter of Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work on Detert’s website and read more of his work on Darden Ideas to Action.

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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