The answer is yes.
Like any skill, there are levels of excellence.
I can learn to play football, make a tune out of an instrument, or practice how to drive a car. However, just because I have the basic skills that doesn’t make me an international footballer, a virtuoso or a Formula One racing driver. However, I can practice with my son, pick up areas of improvement in my daughter’s singing and then drive them both to their respective performances!
The attainment of any skill is a combination of desire (or drive), practice, application and the elusive X factor (apologies to Mr S Cowell).
Let’s look at each of that combination of factors in more detail.
In the same way that I am more interested in football than in music and that is reflected in my competence in both skills, the more interested we are in being courageous, the more likely we are to be better at it than others. Where does that interest come from?
Partly from others – my father played a lot of sport and my friends played football but I didn’t know anyone who played a musical instrument. It felt natural when I was young to play football. In the same way, when employees see their managers and leaders displaying courage, talking about their principles and values, and rewarding those around them for doing the same thing, it is more likely that employees will value that skill. In other words, the more encouragement I get from people, the more likely it is that I will development a specific skill.
Desire can also come from within. While I never learnt to play an instrument, very early in her life my daughter displayed great skills towards music and I developed a desire to understand and share her musical journey. In the same way, people can make personal decisions regarding courage. While this journey is much harder, the role of ethical frameworks e.g. religious or cultural, can give important support to such employees.
Practice makes perfect! I was an okay footballer when I was at school but 25 years later, it took my son’s passion and desire for continuous practicing to make me an even better one (although not quite as fit). Practice at any skill takes it from a learned response to an ingrained response. As any expert will tell you, excellence comes training your body and mind to respond to any situation without conscious thought.
When learning courage, practice is also important. Courage provokes both physiological reactions i.e. fight or flight, and psychological feelings e.g. potential loss or fear of rejection. Continual practice allows us to both understand those natural feelings and learn how to deal with the consequences. As ‘performers’ will tell you – those feelings you get before you perform (on a stage, in front of an audience etc.) never go away but you learn to use them to your advantage (and sometimes even enjoy them!).
What does this mean for employees? To develop a culture that rewards employee’s for speaking out, organizations need to provide opportunities for employees to try out those skills. Whether that’s in the training room, part of the formal interactions of a team e.g. meetings, between a manager and their employee or in informal settings; employees need to practice giving their opinions and views
Without application, practice can become tedious and unfocused. If I didn’t have a match to go to, or didn’t get encouragement from scoring goals or had some other sort of very clear feedback for the effort I’d put in, then my desire to continue practicing started to diminish.
Organizations are no different. Unless courage has a purpose, it can easily become meaningless. The great news is that the courage to speak out is a stepping stone to increased innovation and higher employee engagement, both of which are linked to improved profits, higher customer satisfaction and so on.
In the short-term, rewarding courage can come through recognition (formal and informal) and financial compensation. In the long-term, courage develops a culture that becomes a reward for those that work in it.
Courage is a competency that drives organizational long-term success.
Without any doubt, there are some individuals that have the elusive X factor that takes them to another level of excellence. Tiger Woods, Bjorn Borg and Mozart are all examples of excellence in their chosen field and while they all practiced very hard, they all display that elusive X factor as well.
This will happen in organizations. While there will always be some employees who are more willing to speak out (you know who they are!) than others, by raising the overall levels of courage, not only are you increasing the overall acceptance of such behaviour but you are sharing the benefits of such behaviour to a wider group of employees.
In addition, even those who are more likely to speak out learn how to do so in a much more acceptable and productive way.
In summary, courage can be taught. While not everyone will reach the highest levels of this skill, by raising the average level of speaking out the organization can begin the journey towards higher levels of innovation and employee engagement.