Brave

ImageIt’s been said that it’s a fine line between love and hate. I’m not here to debate whether that is true or not, but instead to explore the line between bravery and stupidity, specifically in the workplace and in consideration of the social-media element that is infiltrating the traditional corporate culture.

If a tiger charges you, you make a split-second decision on what to do.  You could run or you could stand your ground and let out the biggest roar you have ever mustered. If the tiger eats you, perhaps your tombstone would say “Here lies Linda. She was stupid.” If the tiger turns tail and runs, you will be considered brave.

When you are making that particular decision, you cannot know the outcome at the point of deciding – it can only be judged in retrospect.

Fortunately, most decisions we make don’t have as much risk or as much urgency.  There are, however, times we cannot accurately predict how something will play out.  Sometimes we spend too much time with these decisions; we weigh options, assess risks, estimate the likelihood of this or that outcome.  We get caught in analysis-paralysis when we might do better to trust our guts. There is no analysis-paralysis when tigers are charging.

The quandary about whether or not to be brave starts when we’re children. We see someone picking on someone else and we have to decide whether to speak up, whether there is personal risk to do so, whether there is offsetting reward either to ourselves or others, whether we are sure enough of the context to speak up with authority. We’re children then, perhaps more timid, still learning about life, building the muscles in our legs and spine to stand straight and strong, the muscles in our vocal cords to speak courageously.

As adults, it should be easier. Right?

Years ago when I was much younger, I was driving friends home very late one evening.  I heard screams and saw what appeared to be a man accosting a woman on the street corner. I slammed on my brakes, rolled down my window, and asked the woman if she was alright. My friends freaked out. “Step on the gas!” they said. “He may have a gun, he may be high on something.” they said. “This is a dangerous neighborhood. Drive to a payphone and call the police.” they said.

The man said he was a cop and displayed something that might have been discernible as a badge at closer range. The woman ceased her struggle and said she was fine. It may have been a domestic altercation, I don’t know. I drove away at my friends’ insistence and found a pay phone to call it in.

Perhaps that is as close to a tiger as I’ve ever come. My gut made me stop and face it; my friends’ reaction caused me to second-guess myself and consider the personal risk and danger and then drive away. I have always wondered what happened after we left.

I like to think I was brave then.

I’m older now and the situations I face now that cause me to question my bravery are very different from the ones above. I like to think I have strong legs, a strong spine, and a strong voice, but that doesn’t mean I don’t stop and do the assessment of a situation before deciding to stay quiet or speak out. To run or roar. To put myself at personal risk for a greater good. To risk harming a relationship or a careful balance to stay true to a principle.

Let’s take a hypothetical for the purpose of this thinking-exercise.

Mary is a mid-level manager at Acme Products Corporation.  She is a single mother, the sole breadwinner for her family.  Mary’s son has diabetes and she relies on the crucial healthcare benefits she receives through her employer.

Mary has become aware of a situation at work that poses an ethical dilemma to her.

Staying silent is ‘safe’ to her personally but leaves her feeling as if she is not using her strong legs and strong voice.  Speaking up, even respectfully, in a public forum poses risk. There may not be overt retribution, and perhaps many would laud her courage. But there could be insidious repercussions to speaking up. It could harm her in any number of ways, opportunities for growth, reputation, security.

She knows speaking up is the right thing to do, but isn’t sure whether her courage would pay off or she would take on too much personal risk. Speaking up to individuals is a good place to start, but what if that gets Mary nowhere? Should she take her quandary to the public forum of the workplace social platform and open it up to broader scrutiny? It’s certainly much more difficult for it to go nowhere, and it could gain momentum and lead to the problem being addressed. It is, after all, a widespread problem.

There are many who feel as Mary does. If they all stay quiet, the situation goes unaddressed and the ethical concerns continue. What if everyone considers their own personal risk and no one speaks up? What if nobody were ever brave, how would things get better?

So… should Mary be brave? Would you?

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