The reality is that everyone is subjected to pressure from above to stay under the radar once they reach a certain level. That won’t be stated explicitly, mind you. You’ll hear things like, “It’s political,” or “Pick your battles,” or my personal favorite, “That’s not the hill to die on.” – Mary Faulkner

The American workplace is a funny thing.

We love to reward people who take a risk, who challenge the status quo, who “disrupt.” We claim to want rule breakers who can come in and help the organization find a new vision. Employees who buck tradition and cut through red tape tend to find a way up the corporate ladder. Companies like to seem “edgy” and “on the bleeding edge” so naturally it’s important to promote these rebels to the top ranks.

These employees also seem to like their jobs better. After all, employees want their work to have meaning. And past engagement data would suggest that the higher you rise in an organization, the more engaged you are in your work. On face value, this seems to make sense – the more agency you have over your work and greater visibility to the strategic direction, the more likely you are to feel connected to your work.

But here’s where things get tricky. All that innovation, risk taking and rule-breaking seem to disappear once a person reaches a certain level. Bucking tradition doesn’t seem quite as sexy when your newly gained power and influence is at stake. Fighting The Man is harder when you are The Man. The Man has privileges. The Man gets perks. The Man likes to be The Man and wants to stay The Man. That means not rocking the boat and maintaining the status quo.

This behavior seems to start in upper middle management. The newly minted general manager feels empowered to flex her muscle and keep going on the new initiatives that got her in the position. The new initiative ruffles the feathers of an EVP in another department. The newly minted general manager gets a stern talking to by her VP because her VP got yelled at by their EVP because that other EVP is too important to make mad.

So what lesson do you think was taught here? You’ve got it – keep your mouth shut, your head down, and be grateful you are where you are.

The reality is that everyone is subjected to pressure from above to stay under the radar once they reach a certain level. That won’t be stated explicitly, mind you. You’ll hear things like, “It’s political,” or “Pick your battles,” or my personal favorite, “That’s not the hill to die on.” The problem with that is NO hill appears to be the one to die on. And really, let’s unpack that statement, shall we? There are precious few businesses in which innovation results in death. You’re not “dying” – you’re trying to do something different. It’s not a “battle” – it’s an exchange of ideas.

How did we get to this state? I honestly don’t know. It’s a mix of several factors – rewarding sycophants, intolerance of failure at higher levels, lack of meaningful feedback to executives, the past economic downturns resulting in RIFs, a misguided belief that no visibility is better than bad visibility, feeling threatened by an up and coming high potential – it could be anything. I do think it starts at the top and how the CEO treats his or her staff. If the CEO encourages and rewards risk taking, that behavior is supported through teams. On the other hand, if the CEO reacts negatively to healthy conflict and overreacts to failures made in the pursuit of innovation, a culture of fear permeates the organization and no one is willing to take a stand. Employees lose faith in leadership because they never see anyone at the top fighting the good fight. Business stagnates. The culture settles somewhere in the command-and-control range. Turnover increases and morale drops.

Whew – good thing you didn’t die on that hill.

All hope is not lost, though. Leaders who practice managerial courage can still make a difference if they remember the following:

  • Innovation doesn’t come from being meek: Change happens because someone stands on a desk – metaphorically or otherwise – and yells they are MAD AS HELL AND AREN’T GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE. Courage means sometimes you have to do something unpopular to move forward.
  • Feisty managers can instill pride in a team: Employees know BS when they see it. Teams like a manager who stands up for what’s “right” – whatever that looks like.
  • Speaking out can foster healthy conflict: Not enough organizations know how to fight. Managerial courage requires leaders to accept the momentary discomfort of conflict and start an exchange of ideas, which leads to better decisions because people have learned to talked about the issue and not each other.
  • You learn how to fail: Not every episode of managerial courage will end with you draped in glory. In fact, you’ll most likely fail more often than not – especially early on. Each time you will refine your timing, target your message, and fine tune your approach. The powers that be will start listening, and even if you don’t change their minds this time, you’re depositing influence for a later discussion. It’s kind of like when a star player argues a foul call or a called strike. They know they won’t reverse the call…but it just might get the ref to lean towards their point of view the next time.

Loss aversion is a real thing – people make stupid choices all the time simply to avoid loss (have you ever watched a professor auction off a $20 bill?). It’s enough to make any leader freeze. Unfortunately, leaders are freezing at exactly the time when they are in a position to take risks, rock the boat, and move the business forward. And if your CEO isn’t okay with that, find one who is.

It’s time for leaders at all levels to finally take a stand. Step up to the plate and display your courage. You’ll energize yourself. You’ll energize your team. You’ll energize your organization.

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