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My car was broken into last week and while nothing valuable was taken, the annoyance of arranging to get the window fixed, paying the insurance excess and getting a new Kindle led me to think about cowardice.

Cowardice is the absence of courage – it is thinking only of oneself and not of the impact of our actions on others, operating against the norms of the group (or society) or blaming others for our actions.  Cowards avoid confrontation, don’t take personal responsibility, struggle to make decisions in ambiguous situations, default to ‘what has been done before’ and always seeks consensus.  There is a place and time for all of these traits but cowards live by them.

I’m sure many of you, like me, have come across cowards in your professional life.  I still have memories of a previous manager that made such an impact on me, that whenever I am uncertain about the best direction to take in a professional situation, I ask myself “what would X do?” and then do the opposite.

But what impact do these individuals have in the workplace?  In the absence of a strong organisational set of values (or ethics!), cowardly managers can become role models for those around them – especially when there is a perception that such behaviour is rewarded. 

In the longer term, cowardly managers attract like-minded people, employees who, as my ex-manager used to frequently say, ‘cover their a**’, don’t step outside their role descriptions and only ‘go by the book’.

Cowardly managers also repel those individuals who want to do the right thing.  When such employees constantly meet a lack of support or whose ideas are blocked, they tend to leave or worse, stay and become cynical and disengaged.  I wonder how many ‘whistleblowers’ are managed by cowards?

Cowardly employees also impact those around them.  How many people do you know or have known in your workplace that are ‘energy takers’?  They’re the ones who are constantly moaning, seeing the worst in things and never seem to be able to help their colleagues.  The chances are high that they’re workplace cowards.

Cowardice can be catching!

So what can you do?  

It depends on who is asking. 

If you’re an employee, sometimes your only defence is awareness – awareness of your manager’s or colleague’s traits and of your own personal values and what is important to you.  Calling someone a coward, however nicely you phrase it, can be career shortening or make for a difficult workplace environment.  Obviously there is the option to move role, either internally or externally, but be careful that your research covers the new workplace environment!

As a manager, the strongest defence against cowardly behaviour is to become a vocal role model of what you expect to see in the workplace.  The more senior you are, the greater the impact you can have in demonstrating to employees the behaviour and language that you find acceptable.  While many companies have sought to introduce or quantify organizational ‘values’, words are meaningless without clear role models of what such words mean in practice.

But culture change is a topic for another day.