Coward or Madman?

In the context of people speaking out about things at work ‘The Testing Point’ focuses quite a lot on courage – or, more accurately perhaps, on the lack of it. One problem with this conversation is that we are programmed to think in binary terms – people are either ‘brave’ or ‘cowardly’.

‘The Testing Point’ prefers Aristotle’s view – virtues like courage aren’t absolute, they are relative. Being brave doesn’t mean that someone feels no fear, but that they have an appropriate balance of courage and fear.

The person with too little courage (‘the coward’) runs from every shadow, whilst the person with too much (‘the madman’) rashly charges into situations where no good can come of it.

In locating the appropriate ‘balancing point’ between being ‘too cowardly’ or ‘too brave’ Aristotle says all the circumstances of the case need to be taken into account, including the individual’s own personal situation. This makes intuitive sense to us – a single mother, critically dependent on her admin assistants’s salary of £25k pa to bring up her two young children, shouldn’t be expected to be as ‘brave’ in speaking out at work as her head of department, who is paid £450k pa in his role as General Counsel & Company Secretary. (You can meet Tracy Turner and Charles Campbell in some of our ‘post movie’ material.)

And, equally, an ‘independent’ non-executive director (part time but being paid £50-100k pa specifically to provide the organisation with ‘robust challenge’ is required to be braver than either Tracy or Charles.

Imagine a colour spectrum reflecting relative cowardice or bravery, with the x-axis running from 0 (no courage/all fear) to 100 (no fear/all courage). Starting at the left-hand end, one third is yellow (cowardly – a deficiency of courage). At the right hand end another third is red (dangerously foolhardy – an excess of courage). And in between the yellow and the red zones, the final third (‘the zone of balance’) is orange.

Within the orange zone, Tracy Turner’s appropriate ‘point of balance’ is somewhat to the left; Charles Campbell’s is fairly central and the independent NED’s is to the right.

Viewed in this way, we could say that the job of a leader is to create conditions (a sense of ‘safety’) in which the appropriate point of balance for everyone in the organisation (how brave they should be expected to be) shifts to the right. Meaning everyone in the organisation feels able to act more courageously and speak more freely about what’s going on.

And how might you do this? Well not by ordering people to ‘be braver’.

And not by requiring everyone to do ‘bravery training’. If you could create a twenty-minute on-line training programme on how to be brave (and indeed whether and when being ‘brave’ is the right thing to be) we’d have made it. But you can’t, so we made a film.

How about watching it with your team and inviting them to talk about how brave or cowardly some of the fictitious characters in the film are?

Of course, you could try talking about these issues in the context of your own organisation. How brave do people think you are in representing your team? How truthful are they in telling you things they don’t think you want to hear? But our experience suggests you should be very cautious with whatever answers you get to these sorts of questions. One problem with hierarchical systems (a bit like quantum physics apparently) is that you can’t measure anything without changing it.

We know that you don’t think you’re a scary boss but as Holly Thomas says to Richard Moss in her resignation letter (you can read it after you’ve watched the film) You may not mean to intimidate people but that doesn’t mean they aren’t scared of you.

But if you think the people who work for you are going to tell you that, you probably need to think again. Bluntly, if you are the person who has the power to make me work a bad shift; or grant me or deny me the promotion or pay-rise I want; or the over-time I need to pay for the family holiday next summer – in what way are you a person I’m not going to be wary of? You know you’re a ‘nice person’ but (spoiler alert) how you see yourself is a very poor guide to how other people see you.

Despite the fact that we heard many homilies from bosses over the years telling us they really wanted us to tell it like it is guys, none of us ever spoke entirely frankly to our bosses nor did we ever meet anyone else who did. Yet, despite that, we regularly meet chief executives who tell us they get complete candour from ‘their people’ – because ‘they know I won’t tolerate anything less.’

As Aristotle might have said, ‘Yeh right mate’.