As a cross-cultural strategist, I predominantly work with multinational corporations, providing their global teams with tools and training to help them optimize the collaboration they must have across cultures. While some of what I do lies in cross-cultural awareness, a large part of my job is dedicated to helping develop employee and leadership courage. After all, what good are ideas if no one has the courage to act, develop, test, and try? Last month, I talked about the importance of removing fear from the multicultural workforce and what workplace courage looks like in its various forms. Developing this courage is often more easily said than done, which is why I wanted to dedicate this article to the employees wishing to flex their brave muscles.
1. Learn the definition of employee courage.
I like Bruce Weinstein's take on employee courage. "Courageous employees have a profound commitment to justice," said Weinstein in his Fortune Magazine article, Courageous Employees: The Key To Avoiding Amazon's PR Problem. He goes onto add they also have "the willingness to take action to correct an injustice."
Sometimes correcting an injustice is as extensive as reporting internal sabotage, and sometimes it's about leveling the playing field so that everyone can participate fairly. The motivation behind the courage isn't solely self-advancement or an altruistic approach to company success. In fact, the best case situation for courage is when an employee and a business work and grow together for mutual benefit.
2. Play to your strengths.
It's hard to take risks in an environment where you feel weak and unassured. To give yourself a courageous jumpstart, you need to know what drives you and for what you are best suited. The more aware you are of your abilities and career goals, the more easily you can position yourself to perform from a place of confidence, which increases the chances of your risks paying off for the benefit of your career and the company's bottom line.
Too often companies award excellent performance with promotions to management, even if the employee clearly lacks supervisory interest or experience. We see this with high-performing engineers who go from thriving in a data-rich environment to fumbling in a people-rich one. Nothing cools a trailblazer faster than forcing him or her to run backward on a brand new path. If this sounds like you, it's in your best interest to be aware of your strengths and speak up. A waste of talent benefits no one.
On the other hand, if you are craving solid leadership, it may be time to "be the change you want to see." While it may be up for debate whether leaders are born or made, the most effective ones are the people who envision a better way, are compelled to take action, and who engage others with an open mind and inclusive spirit. If this sounds like you, step up. The world could use you.
3. Break down barriers.
Employees from Western cultures are often guilty of plowing into a new environment with big ideas and sweeping change, using loud voices and constant chatter as a way to bolster their
confidence. It takes courage to resist that impulse. When you engage as an active listener and learner, you provide the space for others to participate, which continues the cycle of courage.
The development of trust in this step is of vital importance. It is what allows the barriers to grind away from both sides, particularly in cross-cultural environments where there is so much dependence on each other for success. Don't take it for granted. All the effort that goes into barrier breaking is not worthwhile if there is no one on the other side when you are finished.
4. Dig deep to see what's holding you back.
If you are the wait-and-see type of employee, challenge yourself to change your inner dialogue from protective to proactive. If the situation is irreversible, what steps are you taking to move the discussion forward?
In my experience, this is where cross-cultural strategists can have a profound impact on the success of an individual employee and the global teams they participate in. Being able to understand what both drives and scares you is an important asset. It enables you to develop the skills you need to make the most of your current environment, and capitalize on the strengths you might not have known you had. Raising this self-awareness is a strong starting point; it's what increases understanding, business agility, and relationship development.
Every corporate environment provides ample opportunities to manage change effectively. Are you using them?
5. Challenge the status quo by encouraging constructive feedback and push-back.
As I often see in my business, when a company is on new cultural terrain, it's even more important to establish clear accountability standards and communication practices. And here comes the importance of trust, again. Trust is built on this foundation of managed expectations; the stronger that trust, the more courageous (and productive and happy) employees tend to be.
If you are an employee struggling with your own workplace courage, it may be time to take the initiative and seek feedback about your performance from your peers and superiors. You may find that the key to finding job satisfaction is in clarifying your role or increasing your engagement with the company as a whole.
As much as it may be hard to admit, you won't always have all the answers, and global companies that stretch into new markets can attest to this. Real, sustained growth is only possible for the brave, those who lead with an open mind, business flexibility, and inclusive collaboration practices. Workplace courage is essentially modeling the good business behavior you want from leadership: accountability, engagement, trustworthiness, active self-awareness and candid communication. But it's not enough to want it. You have to have the courage to try.
Where will you start?