Jim Detert discusses how to build your courage to stand out and influence.
- Why acting courageously is easier than you think
- The four fears that keep us from acting courageously
- The most effective way to get others to listen to you
Jim Detert (PhD, Harvard) is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Detert’s research focuses on employee voice and other forms of workplace courage, experiential leadership development, and ethical decision-making and behavior. His research has won several academic best-paper awards, and his teaching and curriculum development have also won multiple awards at UVA and Cornell.
- Jim’s book: Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work
- Jim’s article: “Words and Phrases to Avoid in a Difficult Conversation”
- Jim’s LinkedIn: Jim Detert
- Jim’s website: JimDetert.com
- Study: Milgram Experiment
- Study: Asch Conformity Experiments
- Book: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
- Book: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Book: Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality by Anthony De Mello
- Book: Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott
- Personality: Chris Argyris
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Jim, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
It’s great to be with you.
Well, I’m excited to be chatting about courage at work. And I’d love to hear from you upfront, what was a time you really had to muster up some courage at work?
Well, as a tenured professor, it’s actually kind of laughable perhaps to talk about courage at work. I have a real privilege of a type of job security most people don’t have. So, I would say, most of the times I’ve had to muster up courage at work in the spirit of challenging long-standing tradition. We’re pretty slow to change.
And so, when I was dean, for example, of our executive MBA program, I found myself repeatedly responding to statements that we can’t do something, with statements of, “By ‘I can’t do something’ do you mean it’s illegal or immoral, or simply that we haven’t done it in the past and prefer not to?” Those, frankly, are so numerous that I won’t bore listeners with all the specific examples of that.
Okay. Well, that is a nice helpful distinction to put front and center there. Cool. All right. Well, so that’s your personal experience. And how about your research, any particularly counterintuitive or surprising discoveries you’ve made about courage at work over your research career?
Well, I think a few insights that have emerged that might seem counterintuitive, or at least they’re counter to the narrative. So, for example, I think we have a myth, in fact, I know we have a myth that courage is some kind of in-born trait or capacity that a few possess but most don’t. And having studied, literally, thousands of individual actors and acts of courage, I can tell you that there is no magic gene, there is no magic personality trait, background experience. People who step up and do the right thing at work, when they could and should, very tremendously in every dimension you and I can name. So, one sort of insight or sort of myth-busting for me has been it is not about a personal type. It is about a personal choice.
I think related to that is that people talk about courageous action as if these folks were sort of born ready or it was easy but, in fact, when you study folks, when they’re talking about John Lewis, for example, in the political realm or so many people I’ve studied in more regular kinds of workplaces, what you realize is that actually what looks like this natural confidence comes from hard work, years of practice, years of trying things, learning how to be more effective. So, that’s a second takeaway, is that this is like any skill. It’s developed through practice and commitment.
Maybe one insight or aha about the process itself is we think a lot about the moment when somebody speaks up or steps up. That’s the thing we remember and tend to pass on through narrative. But it turns out that what seems to make a difference in many cases for how those moments go is the preparation work and the things people do before those acts, and then, maybe most surprisingly, what they do after. So, skillful actors don’t just manage the moment well. They’re really good about after the fact, following up when things seem to have gone well, getting commitments, securing resources.
And when things didn’t go so well, they’re courageous enough to go have yet another difficult conversation, and say, “Hey, you look upset or angry or your body language suggests that you weren’t onboard. Can we talk about that?” And I think that follow-up is something we don’t think much at all about because we’re so focused on that big-bang moment itself.
Intriguing, yes. So, you’re right, in terms of as we just think about being courageous, like what comes to mind is exactly that, those moments of stepping up, saying something unpopular, or challenging the status quo in some way. And so, that’s a good thought in terms of there really is some private work going on either internally in their own brains or sort of afterwards one-on-one in the mix. Well, thanks for those. And maybe zooming out a bit, so your book Choosing Courage, what’s the central thesis here?
The central thesis, I guess, going back to where we started, is really that courage is a personal choice and it’s a responsibility, and it helps to think not about courage as if it’s some sort of property. I often say, if you do an autopsy of somebody, you won’t find some stock of courage somewhere in the body. There is no such thing. So, it helps to think about courageous action.
And once you say it’s about whether you do something in those critical moments, you then can assume personal responsibility. And, in a sense, the thesis is that we don’t allow ourselves to say that any other virtue is just a responsibility of some, or that we should do some of the time. If you think about fairness or moderation or kindness, so many other principal or cardinal virtues, those aren’t just the responsibility of one of my ten coworkers, or myself, one of ten opportunities.
“I’m not really an honest person, Jim. You know that. I leave that to the other guys. They’re often honest. That’s good enough for me.”
The question, right, is, “Why have we allowed that?” We wouldn’t say that about any of these other traits, these virtues, so why do we allow that in the realm of courage? Frankly, I think we let ourselves off the hook too frequently. And part of it is because we’re afraid, and so the book talks a lot about how to address fears, and part of it is because we’re not very skilled, and so we see so many screw ups in ourself and others when people do try to behave courageously, that we conclude, “It’s just too dangerous.”
And so, the book is fundamentally about saying, “Hey, you got to choose your moments, but then you have to be willing to take on some risks and you have to be willing to do the work to increase your competency.”
Well, so, Jim, it’s interesting, we’re talking about virtue, and I’m thinking about Aristotle and how the pursuit of the good life is good in and of itself, and brings about happiness and such. But just to get mercenary for a second, is it in professionals’ best interest to choose courage? Will that help them be more awesome and advance their jobs? Or is it better to play it safe? How do you think about that?
So, I think there’s basically two answers to that question. First of all, it depends on your goals. If your goals are basically to just get ahead, potentially as quickly as possible, then, frankly, you and I know there are lots of organizations where the definition of being awesome at your job is keeping your head down, doing what you’re told, and just delivering. And in that regard, you could say choosing courage in the short run, not a great idea.
On the other hand, if you say, “I want to live of life where I felt I had agency, where I was authentic, I was true to myself, l lived my values,” then, hell, yeah, it’s the right choice to make. Another way to think about it is, “Over what time horizon?” So, if you’re talking about whether, “Choosing courage will necessarily put me in line first for the next promotion,” well, maybe, maybe not. But when you start to look at a longer-time horizon, like, “Will I be proud of the legacy I’m creating? Will others really remember me and want to stand with me? Will I have long-term regrets or not?” that’s when this choice is so critical.
If you look at the regret literature, for example, it’s pretty well-established that people, by a large margin, tend to regret inactions, things they think they should’ve done and didn’t than actions they took that didn’t go well. This is true even in people who suffer pretty big consequences – whistleblowers, for example. Almost none of them say they regret doing it.
So, what I would say to listeners is it depends. If you’re talking about how to be most popular or get ahead tomorrow, well, sticking your neck out is not always the best approach. If you’re talking about living what you or I or Aristotle or anybody else would call the good life, then I’d say, yeah, you got to choose courage sometimes.
And I’d imagine, with sort of any measure of prudent risk-taking and say, “I’m going to take on this big project or responsibility or duty or opportunity where the outcome is uncertain,” I think that a level of that is essential for a career to advance, otherwise you don’t seem that special, it’s like, “Okay, you did your job within the realm of ordinary responsibilities. You didn’t deliver near really cool sort of noteworthy improvements, so.”
Yeah. Okay, I would say if we’re really honest there, a few paths probably to eventually standing up. One, of course, is to be the absolutely best political player. Attach yourself to the most important people and play their game and you’ll get ahead to some degree. Now, for those of us who find that approach distasteful in a variety of ways, I think you’re right, you have to stand out eventually and with some consistency in other ways. And that’s where there’s such a difference between just being courageous and being competently courageous.
My book is titled Choosing Courage. It many respects, it should’ve been titled Choosing Competent Courage because, indeed, the route to success is not just speaking up or speaking out, pushing back against every possible thing you could in offensive language or with terrible emotional valence. It’s about doing those things in ways, to your point, to help you stand out positively. Because not just did you point out a problem, a path forward, a way to expand a market, a creative idea, but you did it in a way that those above you could hear, that they weren’t offended by. Because, at the end of the day, you can stand out in positive or negative ways. And what you’re referring to is how to stand out in positive ways, and that’s about skills when you behave courageously.
And so, we’re talking a lot about courage and standing up, standing out, taking risks, speaking up. Could you make it all the more real for us in terms of some examples of common places where courageous acts make all the difference at work, or where people often shy away? Kind of what specific kinds of moments are we talking about here?
So, there are a few sorts of prototypical types of acts that if you sample thousands of people, as I have, say, 75% or more will say, “Yeah, unfortunately, these behaviors are moderately courageous or more.” The most obvious type of behavior, set of behaviors, are what I call truth to power behaviors. So, these are challenging your boss, or skip-level bosses. It could be about policies or practices. It could be about interpersonal behaviors that are offensive or hurtful. It could be about actually illegal or unethical things. It can be about going to bat for your own subordinates to people above you. So, lots of truth to power behaviors.
Somewhat surprising, going back to that conversation, I was surprised to the degree to which when I just asked people, “Tell me about a behavior at work that would be courageous,” I expected that everybody would say truth to power type behaviors. What I wasn’t prepared for was the frequency of people talking about how hard it was to have honest conversations with peers or even have honest conversations or give difficult feedback to subordinates. And the reason I think that was originally surprising to me is I was thinking primarily of risks in terms of economic or career consequences, “If it doesn’t go well, my promotion, my pay, my future here is at stake.”
It turns out, people have a few fundamental fears, and that’s only one of them. People are also highly afraid of social consequences. If you think about it, it makes sense. We’ve evolved in small clans, bands, tribes, and our daily tasks was survival. And if you got ostracized from your group, you were going to die, and you were going to die in short order. And so, it’s not illogical that even though that’s not our environment today, evolutionarily, we’re still programmed to be hugely afraid of being ostracized, to have social consequences.
We also hate psychological risks. We say, “Why don’t people step up and try a new task or take a new job or be more innovative?” The answer there is often they don’t want to look stupid. They don’t want to feel embarrassed. They don’t want to see self-doubt creep in. And so, there’s actually this huge range of behaviors that’s not just about challenging power. It’s about difficult interpersonal situations with peers, subordinates, external partners. It’s about being innovative.
I developed an index of the most common behaviors I heard about from thousands of people, and there’s 35 different behaviors. And many of them, you would probably say, “Gosh, for a professional or a manager, isn’t that just doing your job?” And I’d say, “Yeah, it is, but these things have been surprisingly infrequently.”
Okay. Well, I love this. So, categories of fears: economic risk, “Might lose my job or money or promotion”; social risk, “Folks will not like me, shun me, ostracize me”; psychological risk, “I might feel stupid or embarrassed if I screw this up and look real dumb.” Are those kinds of the three categories or are there some more there?
Well, the fourth one, which is real in many contexts I didn’t mention, is physical. If you go back 2,000 years of courage-writing, the vast history of courage-writing was about military contexts. And sure enough, there are still, in military, firefighting, police work, plenty of other settings that come to mind, they’re so physical risks. And even, frankly, I was surprised the degree to which folks who work in any sort of service occupation – bartenders, waiters, customer service – actually report cases of being physically assaulted, accosted, threatened with a weapon, so there’s physical risks also that some people face.
Okay. And these 35 behaviors, can you tell us what sort of tops the list in terms of like one, two, three?
So, in terms of level of courageousness, not surprisingly, those physical risks. So, jumping into the middle of imminent physical risks or harm is number one. What’s surprising, though, is that there are several other behaviors that are statistically no different in terms of how courageous they’re seen as being. These are things like being willing to challenge bosses or skip-level bosses about unethical or illegal behaviors, quitting a job on principle. There are actually several, more available to all of us, kinds of jobs that are actually seen as just as courageous as these physical risks.
Okay. All right. So, that’s the lay of the land. Now, Jim, tell us, if we think we want or need or should do something, and we feel scared about doing it, walk us through it, how do we go about choosing competent courage?
So, let’s talk just briefly about what you would do before you would take that specific action, then sort of the moment itself, and then what you would do after. So, before. Some people say, “Hey, I’m not ready to take this specific act,” and I say, “That’s fine but you can still work on it every day.” And they say, “What does that mean?”
Well, what it means is the reception you’re going to get to that challenge you issue is, in part, based on the content of the issue. Is that a highly sensitive threatening issue to the boss? But it’s also going to depend on the impression that boss has already formed of you. Does that boss think you’re benevolent? In other words, is the reason you’re speaking up because you actually care about him and others in the organization, or is it because you’re self-interested and just trying to get ahead?
And the boss is also going to ask himself or herself, implicitly, “Hey, if I listen to Jim or Pete, and give them resources or take action they’re suggesting, are they competent, can they do it? Can they make good use of these resources?” And so, every day, we are creating in others, perceptions of whether we’re warm and competent, and that’s really sort of setting the stage, showing people we are fair, we’re emotionally intelligent, on a regular basis sets the stage. So, those things you can be doing every day.
Another thing is the question of, “Is this really the right issue? And is it really the right battle and the right time?” So, if you work in an organization, any organization I’ve ever studied, you could pick something to speak up about every single day but most of them are not truly important to you and don’t make a huge difference. And so, having the skill to sort of suss out what are critical to your core values and to your objectives, and which are sort of tertiary issues, that’s really important.
A woman I work with, Tawana Burnett at Facebook, African-American female leader, really a spectacular leader, and she’s one of the first 20 black females at Facebook, and she said, “Look, if I was going to speak up every single time somebody said something that was inappropriate or insensitive based on race or gender, I’d be doing it every day, but I also would quickly become ineffective because people would stop listening to me.”
And so, she said, “Look, my core value, my core objective is that we have to get more black females into leadership roles, senior leadership roles, because only then will things really change.” So, her rule is, “When things offend me, I ask myself, ‘Is this about the hiring, evaluation, or promotion of black females?’ And if it is, I speak up because we’re not going to get where we need to go if I don’t. If it’s about other things, I may choose to let it go.” So, it’s really about sort of choosing wisely.
Then there’s the moment itself. That’s about what you say, where you say it, how you say it, with what emotional tone, and I’ll give just one specific sort of general piece of advice here. All of us, when asked or when thinking about, like, “I’m going to go for it on this issue,” our first instinct is going to be to say the matter, present the issue, try to give the persuasive remarks from the perspective that’s compelling to us. After all, it’s our brain in which we’re concocting the story, the argument, the pitch, and so our tendency is going to be to frame it in a way that works for us. Often, that’s exactly wrong because if you already control the behavior of the other person or the resources the other person controls, you don’t need to do this anyway.
And so, imagine, for example, that I work for you or with you, and you are really compelled by things that affect us economically, that hit the bottom line, and you really are sensitive to threats or risks to our wellbeing or performance. So, you care about the money and you care about threats. But I come in pitching this great new idea to you, and I’m talking about how it fits with our values and it’s so culturally aligned with who we are, and how it’s such an opportunity, and that opportunity framing and cultural framing doesn’t resonate for you at all because I failed to mention the economic reality or the potential threats if we don’t do this.
And so, people have to remember that it’s the target’s ability to hear and respond well to what you’re saying that makes all the difference. And my book talks about lots and lots of specific strategies for achieving that, but the high-level concept is you got to speak to the target. And then as we started with, I mentioned the importance of following up, whether things have gone well and you’re securing additional resources or timelines, or whether they haven’t gone so well and you’re trying to mend fences, that’s really important, too.
And so then, when it comes to the framing, I would like to hear some of the specific tidbits there. So, do you have some archetypes or categories of frames, so values, economic? Those sounded nice in terms of, yeah, those have very different flavors to them. Any others that come to mind?
So, there are some other sort of broader frames. For example, I versus we, or sort of win-win versus win-loss. I think what we often fail to remember, we know this but we fail to remember it in the moment, is that when you’re telling somebody why they should do something differently, or you’re pitching your idea, part of what they’re hearing is, as the recipient is, “Oh, you’re saying I’m bad, or my idea or current practice is inferior,” or, “Oh, you want to do this,” or, “You look good and I look like a fool.” And so, framing that helps people understand, “I don’t want to replace or win at your expense. I want to take what you’ve done to the next level. I want to be the scout out front who then brings us all along together. I want to expand the pie for everyone.”
So, helping people be able to hear what you’re saying because they really think you’re on their side, and that you’re advancing excellence rather than beating something down in a win-loss, that’s a huge element of positive framing. And then, frankly, there are lots of just small things we inadvertently say. We can have sort of a beautiful set of data compiled and we can present evidence and solutions, and in just a couple small words, we can screw things up.
We often follow, for example, into the trap of naïve realism, which is simply this idea that there’s just one reality out there, and it just happens to be, “The one that I see. So, if you don’t see it my way, you’re dumb.” And when we unconsciously operate that way, we’ll say things like, “Well, since it’s so obvious that this is the case,” or, “Since this is so unambiguous,” “Since it’s so clear to everybody,” “Since it’s unquestionably the case.” Well, the effect of words like unambiguous, or so clear, or unquestionably, is essentially to say, “If you have any questions or doubts or see it any differently, you’re a dummy or you’re self-interested.”
So, learning to speak with less certainty, learning to avoid other certain phrases, I call them frequency words. My wife and I still joke, 25 years in, how often we would get distracted from the actual content of what one or the other of us were saying because the person who pointed something out would use the word never or always.
So, for example, if my wife wanted me to actually help with the dishes, she was actually quite correct if she would say, “You don’t help clean up as often as you could or should.” That was a correct statement. But if she would say to me, “You never help with the dishes,” the never would trigger me and I would get into a frequency argument with her, and say, “That’s not true,” and I would pull out my little notepad and say, “On Tuesday, July 30th, I actually put the pizza dishes in the…” And so, we would get derailed into an argument about never or always and away from the underlying issue itself around which she or I would be right.
Also, saying things, for example, like, “Don’t take it personal.” I would submit to listeners that we actually never use that phrase except in situations when we know at some level it’s personal. There’s no reason you would say that if that wasn’t the case. There’s the classic scene from You’ve Got Mail where Tom Hanks has got the big Fox Books store and he’s putting Meg Ryan’s little family independent bookstore out of business, and he says to her, “Why are you so mad at me? It’s not personal. It’s just business.” And, of course, she rightfully says, “What are you talking about? ‘It’s not personal?’ This is my family’s bookstore. This is nothing but personal.”
And so, I think avoiding phrases like, “It’s not personal.” And, listeners, if they want, can easily find a short piece on HBR.org that I wrote just a month or so ago on trap phrases and words to avoid in a conversation that speak to all of these kinds of examples.
Well, I love it when we get specific about precise words to avoid. Any words that you love, key things that find their way into a lot of great communications?
So, if you go back to the great sort of master Chris Argyris, he talked about the idea of cognitive ladders of inference and advocacy and inquiry. And so, for listeners who haven’t heard of this, the basic idea was that most of the time we communicate at what Chris called the top of the ladder, our conclusion. I say, “Hey, Pete, we should do this and we should do it tomorrow.” That’s a conclusion. And Pete says, “That’s crazy. We should stick with what we got.” That’s a conclusion.
What we fail to do is get below those cognitive ladders of inference, that is what’s going on in our head. So, if I’m saying, “Hey, we should do this and we should do it tomorrow,” what I have done actually is I’m drawing on some data, like, “Hey, here’s data on what our competitors are doing. Here’s data internally on how our sales have decreased recently,” or, “Hey, here are some data on us losing some top talent because they’re bored.” And from that, I might reason, “We need to do something new and we need to do it in a way that catches the market’s attention, and, therefore, I reached that conclusion I said to you.”
And, similarly, you’re saying, “Hey, we should stick with it the way it is.” The thing is that you’re looking at other data. You may be looking and saying, “Nobody above me has said we have a problem yet. Most of the industry is still doing what we’re doing.” You might therefore reason, “I think things are fine. Jim is just antsy. They’re ballistic with what we’ve got.”
And so, the specific tool here is advocacy and inquiry. And advocacy isn’t just yelling my conclusion more loudly. It’s helping people see why I came to that conclusion. So, phrases like, “Can I share my data with you?” or, “Can I help you see my reasoning?” things that reveal your ladder, language that reveals your ladder. And then the most powerful thing are inquiry phrases, saying, “Hey, Pete, I heard you say that you think we should stay. Can you help me understand why? Can you help me see where you’re coming from? Can you share your reasoning with me?”
Skillful inquiry is perhaps the single best way to sort of build communication bridges I know and have ever read about. And all you got to do, we’re talking about the world of work, but all I got to do is look around the world we’re living in, the divisiveness politically, etc., and you realize we are all constantly screaming at each other from the top of our ladders, and we’re not good at all of helping people see where we’re coming from, or taking perspective by asking people where they’re coming from.
Right. That’s so good. That’s good. And speaking of emotions, what are your top tips on managing the emotions, like, either you’re super scared or you’re super angry when you are prepping to speak up, choose courage?
Yeah, so fear and anger, we sort of all intuitively know, they have the opposite action propensities. So, fear will tend to make you sort of flee or freeze. Fear is an avoidance emotion, whereas, anger is an approach emotion. Anger makes you want to go toward the source. So, the advice has to be quite different. With fear, you have to do things, frankly, often ahead of time. Over longer periods of time, it can be about being in good physical shape, it can be about mindfulness, yoga, anything that sort of helps you sort of change your sort of base physiological response.
People with high fear often find they have to also take specific steps like scripting out in advance things they’re going to say. They may have to practice more and have people sort of shoot back at them so they can practice sort of staying in the moment and not fleeing. Most people don’t physically run out of a room but you’ll see them just shut down and cave. And so, they have to really practice camping down the fear.
Anger, on the other hand, is, in some respects, useful because if you get angry enough about something, you’re actually likely to bring it up and say or do something about it. The problem with anger is you’re likely to be quite unskillful – offensive, for example. And here I’ll tell a story about myself. Most people, I think, in fact, almost everybody who knows me would say, “Jim has no problem choosing courage but at times Jim has had a problem with displaying competent courage.” And in most instances, that would be because I let anger at injustices or problems or whatever get in the way.
And so, part of dealing with anger is what you do in the moment. It turns out these old adages like, “Count to ten,” or, “Take three deep breaths,” these are actually quite useful because what they actually are doing is trying to engage your parasympathetic nervous system to calm down. It’s often a very useful tactic to try to teach yourself, to train yourself, to accept in emergencies not speak in that moment but schedule a follow-up, allow the moment to pass and then schedule after you’ve sort of gotten your emotions back together.
And then, frankly, part of it is knowing who you are and using strategies, sometimes even technologies to be your friend. So, in my case, this was a number of years ago, having made the classic mistake of firing off some emails when I was upset. I’d learned that you can actually set the Outlook timer to basically hold all emails you’ve sent in the outbox for any designated number of minutes or hours. And so, for quite some time, I set my Outlook outgoing mail to hold for 60 minutes because I knew that if I basically didn’t send emails for an hour, there was a very high likelihood I would calm down and revisit that email and have a chance to save it before I couldn’t.
So, learning strategies for both, lessening your anger, and then sort of navigating around it are really important.
All right. Well, Jim, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?
I think, again, the thing to really know is that if you accept the premise that we’ve talked about here today, which is that this is a choice everybody has to make and it’s about skills, then the really important thing to do is to set specific goals. And I guess one thing we haven’t talked about is the reason I think people often don’t engage in courage at work is they think of the very scariest thing that comes to mind first, and then they, rightfully so, conclude one of two things, “I’m not going to do that because it’s too difficult and it’ll go terribly,” or they’ll say, “I tried it, and because it was so incredibly difficult and I wasn’t ready, I totally screwed it up. And that only confirmed for me how stupid choosing courage is.”
I think this is akin to the idea that you decide, you’re not a runner but you decide you’re going to run a 10K. Well, the dumbest thing to do would be to go out and try to run 10K the first day. You’d be so sore with so many injuries, you’d probably never jog again. So, what I encourage people to do is build a personal courage ladder. Yeah, you can put that scariest thing on the top rung but put some sort of moderately difficult things in the middle rungs, and put some things that you’re a little afraid of but you could imagine doing on the lowest rungs, and then choose those to start with.
Because, as with any skill, the way you actually build competence over time is you start small, and you have a little success, and you feel better about yourself, it increases your motivation. So, what we haven’t really, I think, talked about enough is the importance of starting small. That’s how all skills are developed.
All right. Thank you. And now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Yeah, I love the quote of George Bernard Shaw. He says, “Reasonable people adapt to the world around themselves. Unreasonable people try to adapt the world to themselves, and that’s why all progress depends on unreasonable people.” I think we give so much advice about sort of fitting in, getting along, and sometimes we forget that, actually, the great change agents, the people who we most admire were okay pushing boundaries and being a little bit unreasonable.
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
So, although these are quite dated, I think, perhaps the most powerful research ever done was the Milgram experiments on deference to authority. Milgram was, essentially, showing that in any reasonable size town in America, he could find people who would be willing to pull the shock lever to pretty high voltage simply because they were instructed to do so by power. And I think the Milgram studies and Asch’s conformity studies, they have shown us, time and again, how powerful the forces towards sort of conformity and deference in hierarchies is. And that is such a potent set of research to remind ourselves why we have to sort of choose courage and change systems.
And a favorite book?
So, I love some of the classic fiction books, like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, these books that you say, “Gosh, 50 years, or however ahead of time, these people, even though writing fiction, really foresaw a world that was going to come into being.” Also, recently, a much more recent favorite, I read a book called Awareness by Anthony De Mello. He was sort of a Buddhist monk who, essentially, in this book is saying, “Stop trying to change everything in yourself and everybody else. The first step is just awareness,” and then has a lot of tips on how to just become more mindful and self-aware.
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
Yeah, I tell you, I was thinking about this notion of tools, and I felt a little bit like a Luddite because I’m not so much of a tools guy. But I will tell you that what I love, actually, are intellectual frameworks. A simple one, very consistent with the conversation we’re having, is Kim Scott’s Radical Candor two-by-two framework where she describes being radically candid as that beautiful combination of telling the truth but also having people understand you care.
And I love her off-quadrant descriptions of ruinous empathy, people who don’t tell the truth because they’re so worried about looking like they care, or people who are obnoxiously aggressive, they tell the truth but nobody thinks they’re doing it for the right reason. And I find that notion of having to move either from ruinous empathy or from obnoxious aggression toward that quadrant of caring honesty just such a compelling reminder when I work with folks.
And a favorite habit?
So, I am a big reader of other folks’ advice on writing. And while people vary across the board – they write in the morning, they write at night, they write with a suit on, they write naked – you name it, there’s huge variance. But one thing that all writers seem to agree on is you got to have butt in seat, that books do not get written, articles do not get written, if you aren’t at the desk, if you aren’t writing.
And so, for me, a really important habit is just butt in seat. I don’t have to feel it, I don’t have to think I’m going to have great wisdom, I just do it. And, in fact, when I wrote Choosing Courage, I set a goal that I was going to write 15 minutes every day, just 15 minutes, I said, “If that’s all I got in me, fine. I’m going to write 15 minutes every single day until it was written.” And I did. And some days, because that was such an easy goal to achieve, I wrote for several hours, but there was no pressure to do just 15. And I think I wrote the first draft of Choosing Courage in 173 days of my 15-minute rule.
Cool. And is there a particular nugget you share that resonates with folks; you’re known for?
So, I think I have said and seen multiple people quote this notion that leadership is not a popularity contest. We grow up thinking, because we see leaders as folks who emerge in the playground or in student council elections, or whatever, we think leadership is a popularity contest but great leadership is much, much harder than that and actually involves a willingness to sort of stand alone and sometimes do unpopular things. So, leadership is not a popularity contest. And then, more recently, I think this notion that competent courage comes from practice not any innate quality or capacity is, I think, something that has resonated with people.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
So, I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. I do a lot of writing and posting on LinkedIn. And I also have a website, simply JimDetert.com where my different projects, writing, curriculum, etc., are all shared.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Build that courage ladder for yourself and commit today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month. Commit today to what you’re going to do. And the particular challenge, beyond just build the ladder and choose something, is lock yourself in. So, if you know you have a hard time following through on things you find sort of difficult or risky, put some stake in the ground. Tell your boss you’re going to do it. Make a pledge that you will give a sizable amount of money to a charity or political party you hate if you don’t take the action by a certain date. Somehow lock yourself in. That’s how people end up doing hard things.
All right. Jim, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in all your courageous choices.
Thank you much. Same to you.