Culture club #3: our series on organisational culture looks at the second of BOOST&Co’s seven tenets – bravery, and how regular doses of fear can have positive effects

Stressful though it can be, we know that finance isn’t firefighting; employees may experience periods of high pressure, but there is no need for them to race into burning buildings in the name of carrying out their role. Why, then, do successful businesses need their staff to be brave – and how can they give their employees the confidence to show courage in the workplace?

Heather Bingham, organisational psychologist at BOOST&Co, was asked by partners Lance Mysyrowicz and Sonia Powar to record the positive traits shared by their staff, with the aim of preserving these in the company’s culture as the business grew. Her work crystallised into seven words that described everyone in the team: authentic, self-motivated, curious, smart, interested, interesting – and brave.

“I discovered some amazing positives, but I experienced fear myself, when the words ‘scared’ and ‘anxiety’ cropped up enough times to warrant my attention,” Bingham says. “I didn’t want to have to say to Lance and Sonia: ‘Thank you for bringing me in to do this work. I’ve mapped out the culture and, basically, you frighten people…!’”

Bingham went on to consider whether there is a place for fear and anxiety at BOOST&Co. “Strangely, I found that there is,” she says. “Facing anxious moments at work is how we accelerate our learning. Being brave repeatedly is like breaking down muscle, forming new muscle strands and building bulk.”

If small, safe episodes of fear and anxiety are the equivalent of the small tears to muscle tissue that take place during exercise, then “our mentoring and coaching are equivalent to a protein shake that enables accelerated repair and growth”, Bingham says.

The courage to say “I don’t know”

In business, being brave can be particularly difficult for people in specific roles. For example, BOOST&Co often hires chartered accountants – who, Bingham says, “sometimes become uncomfortably anxious at the thought of being asked a question they cannot answer”. Employees who have learned through their training and experience to deliver certainty can find it unnerving to be asked to handle ambiguity.

(Bingham previously worked for the global consulting firm McKinsey, which assesses potential employees on their ability to deal with ambiguity; test yourself using the sample questions here.)

Of course, being brave can be hard for everyone. Asking what may seem to be a silly question carries the fear of ridicule, while it can be intimidating to challenge others, particularly those in positions of authority. So how do businesses create a culture in which employees feel confident enough to show courage?

At BOOST&Co, the necessary bedrock for bravery takes the form of psychological safety. W.A. Kahn, a professor of organisational behaviour at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, who is known as the “father of employee engagement”, defines this as “being able to show one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”. Bingham says: “I go one further and say that it is being able to ask a silly question and not get an impatient or even sillier answer.”

Five ways to help your staff be brave

Here, Bingham explains some key methods that she uses to create psychological safety, laying the foundations for employees to show courage in the workplace.

• Set your expectations in clear English. To avoid any doubt over deadlines, for example, say to a colleague: “You must complete this work for me today,” rather than “I’d like you to finish this today”. Bingham says: “People shy away from the direct approach, but it creates safety by ensuring that everyone has the same expectation.”

• Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Those in senior positions are normally able to remember how they felt in the early stages of their career, but it is important for everyone to develop genuine empathy. “At BOOST&Co, our people processes help us to learn a lot about each other professionally, so this is the best way to use that knowledge,” she says.

• Welcome curiosity and promote discussion. We all know the feeling of being so busy that there seems to be no time to encourage colleagues to take a more active role, but this can boost others’ confidence as well as helping you. Bingham says: “The best use of time is to train others to do work that you can do easily yourself, so that you can spend time gaining a new skill.”

• Keep your sense of humour. All employees encounter periods of high pressure, but humour is a useful way to defuse stressful situations. “What’s the difference between a loan and a psychologist? The loan eventually matures,” she jokes. “What’s the difference between a venture debt loan and a psychologist? Feel free to submit a revised punchline and then ask me how I feel about it.”

• Force yourself to maintain trust. If members of staff fall below expectations, employers should take a pragmatic approach to identifying what needs to be done to improve their performance. “It’s easy to lose your faith in someone when they make a mistake, but we trust that we hire the right people for BOOST&Co, so we take responsibility for their development,” Bingham says.

Creating a culture in which people can contribute without fear of reprisals or ridicule is key to their happiness and professional development – and this, in turn, maximises a company’s potential for success. The lesson is clear: encourage courage, and remember that a little fear can do a lot of good.

• To find out more about Heather Bingham’s culture map, get in touch via heather@boostandco.com

• Further reading: an introduction to W.A. Kahn’s work on employee engagement

• Like the sound of BOOST&Co? Visit our Careers page here

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