6 Tips For Mastering Workplace Courage

Have you ever been in a situation where you were afraid to share a difficult, but truthful statement? Was “the obvious” in the room the whole time, but no one would speak up and talk about it? If so, then the time has come for your organization’s leadership to embrace the importance of workplace courage.

Organizations that appear Agile and responsive on the outside usually have inspiring leadership dynamics on the inside. One essential behavior is when senior leaders support the role of courageous communicators. These emerging workplace leaders bring a mastery of skills and emotions to bear when circumstances are difficult and will surface the “hard truth” that is necessary for the success (or perhaps survival) of the organization.

For a culture of courage to thrive, however, an organization’s senior leadership must be supportive of open and honest behavior in the workplace.

What do you think of this courageous situation?

What if a software company ships a broken feature to your smartphone prematurely and it causes you (the customer) a big headache. Application Developers might have known that the quality was suspect, but perhaps they felt management pressure to ship it because of a competitive threat or a customer obligation. Or even worse, maybe the Developers have a financial bonus that will only be awarded if they ship the feature immediately.

If you were a Team Member in this situation, consider the answers to these questions:

How would this management pressure make you feel?

How would your fellow Team members feel about all of this?

What is important to both the Team *and* Management in this situation?

How can you be truthful to management without getting in trouble, losing your bonus, or getting fired?

This situation can be avoided with Courageous Communication. Perhaps someone would respectfully and calmly step up to senior management and say something like:

I feel like the management approach is forcing us to do something that could be damaging to our customers and our company’s reputation. This feature doesn’t meet our mutually-agreed standards of quality and completeness. If it isn’t “done”, what will happen if we ship it now?

What is Courage?

Courage is a profound value of great leadership, but it requires skillful communication, emotional awareness and a degree of professional safety to be effective in the workplace. Let’s use an abbreviated definition from Wikipedia to dive a bit deeper:

Courage – the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, uncertainty or intimidation.

I’ve seen many great moments of courage unfold in the workplace, especially in organizations that experience a breakthrough moment in the pursuit of higher performance. Someone steps up and makes a truthful (and possibly painful) statement, but at the same time, this person fosters alignment from everyone and creates a better outcome for all. Have you ever seen this play out in your organization?

Try practicing with this situation

Okay — let’s try this one out:

Imagine you’re invited by a Team to observe a critical lessons-learned meeting at the end of a 3-week software delivery effort. This meeting, called a Retrospective, is part of The Scrum Framework – it’s where a Scrum Team inspects its own ‘ways of working’ and examines its performance for improvement opportunities. It can be a powerful learning event if the conditions are healthy, but sometimes, it becomes another wasteful meeting where nothing is accomplished. In a productive Retrospective, Courageous Communication is critical.

As you are observing as a fly-on-the-wall, the servant-leader of the group (called a Scrum Master) intentionally breaks (or bends?) an important rule of this event & invites senior technology managers to participate, so that the Team’s performance can be “evaluated”. You sense that the environment is uncomfortable for the Team, so when it’s time for the Team to examine its own challenges, the room becomes eerily silent – you could drop a pin on the floor. The managers break the silence with feedback: “We have evaluated each Developer’s performance and here’s where you all can improve ….”

<silence gripping the room>

Now what? Where’s the real leadership in the room?

Out of nowhere, a leadership moment emerges from one of the Team Members that sounds like:

I feel like we all understand the importance of this work and the impact it will have on our company’s success. However, I am afraid to admit that none of us understands how The Scrum Framework is really supposed to work. To be successful, we must acknowledge this and commit to a better understanding of Scrum and how we can all work together for a great outcome.

This person goes on to share the issues with an individual-driven performance evaluation process and how it is putting the Team on the defensive. Suddenly, the other Team members come out of their shells and nod their heads in agreement. This person even admitted a fear of being fired right on the spot for honesty, but felt that it was the right thing to do for the organization.

Wow … I mean … Whoa.

That incredible moment of courage shattered the current reality for the managers, but it opened the door for a shared understanding of the real problem (judging individuals), so they could move forward in the right way (empowering and trusting the Team). It changed everything for this Scrum Team’s performance and the relationship with senior management.


6 Tips For Mastering Workplace Courage

This type of communication isn’t easy, but with practice, you can elevate your own leadership ability and exemplify courage to benefit yourself and others around you. Here are a few tips to consider as you examine your own capacity for courage:

1 – Establish a mutual purpose with everyone.

When you’re presented with a fearful situation, first communicate the purpose or goal that’s driving your need for honesty. For example, if we all care about delivering an outstanding customer experience, then we should be willing to accept your thoughts and views (no matter how difficult the truth might be to accept). In addition, if you confirm mutual purpose with an open-ended question, then it encourages open dialogue from others. Silence can also be quite telling, because it could mean that someone does not share the same purpose that you do (e.g., someone’s upcoming job promotion might be more important to them than delivering quality Product to customers).

I’ll sometimes start a difficult conversation with something like: “Since the quality of the Product is of urgency to us and our customers, then I feel that I must share the <reality>. How do others see this?”.

2 – Be open and honest about your own fears.

Courage requires a leader to be vulnerable in front of others. If there is something about the situation that scares you, be honest and say it — respectfully. If you do this, you will help others feel safe to speak their own views in an honest and open manner.

3 – Do not judge.

Read through the example above (again). Notice that the person did not point fingers or verbally attack anyone. Rather, this individual took a non-judgmental stance and did not blame the stakeholders. Point a finger at an issue and not at a person. If it’s a sensitive conversation with your manager, point a finger at your fears and the behaviors that are making you feel that way. Then, seek a common purpose between both of you (see Tip #1), so you can open the door to a fruitful dialogue.

4 – Stay calm.

Don’t let emotions get the best of you. I have seen many situations where someone tried to show courage in the workplace, but emotions were out of control and everyone tuned out. A Courageous Communicator can state “the obvious” in a calm and seasoned manner that helps everyone accept the reality and move forward.

5 – Don’t wait.

The worst thing you can do is go silent and wait until later. If a situation has escalated and the “hard truth” needs to be understood by all, then a great leader will step in on the spot and communicate the truth and foster alignment. The time is now, not later. Just make sure your skills and emotions are in check first.

6 – Encourage and celebrate moments of courage from others.

Courageous Communicators are influential leaders that live in all levels of an organization. Be on the lookout for well-timed and skilled moments of courage, and if you witness courage in action, show some appreciation and praise it! This is a demonstration of your own leadership when you celebrate and encourage others to be courageous in the right way.


Are you a senior leader who just read this post?

If so, then Courageous Communication starts with your willingness to lead by example. If you embody this value within your organization, then you will encourage a healthy environment of professional safety where people are completely comfortable to be open and honest when it matters most. If you don’t, then you will hear what you want to hear, but it might not be the truth that you need to make effective business decisions. Agile leaders constantly reflect the mirror on themselves in an effort to continuously learn & improve. Are *you* a Courageous Communicator? Are you fostering a culture where courage is valued?

Have you witnessed Courageous Communication in action recently? What was it like? I invite you to share your experience in the comments section below.


If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.

What Does The Volkswagen Scandal Mean to Agile?

As a new week emerges in our global workplaces, we continue to discover more revelations behind Volkswagen’s emissions testing scandal.

As reported in the New York Times last weekend, internal investigators have been challenged to unearth the truth due to an organizational culture of “fear” where employees are afraid to deliver bad news to their superiors – despite the fact that Bad News Doesn’t Get Better With Time. Fortunately, under the organization’s new management, employees are feeling more comfortable speaking out.

One thing is for sure – Agile organizations must promote workplace courage. It’s the only way a company can make informed decisions to effectively compete in the marketplace. How do you feel about this?

Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver. ~ Brené Brown

Why is workplace courage so important in Agile?

According to this recent survey, almost 70% of organizations are now using the Scrum Framework (or a form of Scrum with XP) for delivering software to customers. This popular framework is based on the three pillars of empirical process control (inspection, adaptation, transparency). When Scrum Teams operate in a healthy corporate culture, then they can exemplify the courage to be fully transparent about their progress and issues, which allows for the changes (i.e., adaptations) needed to deliver valuable business outcomes. Without courage, then there is little (if any) transparency – and when that happens, the organization makes business decisions that often result in poor business outcomes.

What does this latest news mean to your organization?

Today, I invite everyone to ask some tough questions within your organizations. This latest VW news is fresh and full of coffee shop chatter. A few questions come to my mind, like:

What does this mean to our organization’s pursuit toward lasting Agility?

What are the lessons that can be learned and applied in our company?

How can our organization uphold Agile values?


What does this mean to your organization’s Agile journey? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, so we can all learn from each other.



If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.

Image Credit: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Are you a Scrum Master or a Project Manager?

Do you hold the job title of Scrum Master in your organization? In most big companies today, this oddly-named title is still misrepresented as a Project Manager, which is hindering the pursuit of Organizational Agility and hurting the professionals who are genuinely attempting to make this challenging job change. If you are one of these people, then it might be time for you to make a change.


As we enter one of my darker posts, allow me the opportunity to take you back into my prior career, and my childhood for a moment.

A number of years ago, I made a professional and emotional transition and I quit my job of software development Project Manager and shifted paradigms into the foreign role of ‘Scrum Master’. Or is it ‘ScrumMaster’ without a space? At the beginning of this transition, I confused it with a role I played in my childhood. Do you remember the epic role-playing game called Dungeons & Dragons? As an appointed “Dungeon Master” by my friends in elementary school, I was considered the master of all, mysterious, wise, and the one who largely controlled the fate of Teams.

However, it didn’t take me long to realize that the supposed “master of Scrum” is actually a very different role – it’s one of service-first to others, commitment & sacrifice to a purpose larger than our own, and the wielding of unspeakable power through positive influence, persuasion and genuine appreciation rather than control and coercion. If the role (job?) is fully embraced in the C-suite, then a real Scrum Master emerges as one of inspirational and disciplined leadership that guides an organization to outstanding levels of workplace performance. Sounds magical, doesn’t it?

If you’re someone who has Scrum Master in your job title, consider investing a few minutes into these reflective questions to reveal if this is the right job for you, or even more important, let’s discover if your organization truly understands and embraces this important role:


Does your organization reward Scrum Masters for “driving results”?

Does your organization discourage failure and experimentation in the workplace?

Do you refer to Teams as “my” Teams? Does the organization assign you to Teams to make them improve?

Do you start sentences with phrases like: “What I would like to see from you all…” or “Please help me understand why…”?

Do you feel an urge to assign work to Teams or solve a Team’s problems to keep it on track?

Are you responsible for judging the performance of Team Members and removing poor performers?

Is ‘Scrum Master’ considered a pay-grade job title in the organization that is commensurate with a Project Manager?


Did you answer YES to most of these questions? Then your job title and workplace reality are probably different. It could be time for a job change.

I’ll offer yet one more question in the spirit of this post’s theme:

Is a Scrum Master role really a JOB?

If the answers to these questions feel uncomfortable to you, then your current job is possibly confusing, or even painful. If so, then you might be on a career path that is not right for you and something needs to change. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to leave your organization, but you might need to exemplify courage and “quit-your-job”, but in the right way that involves positive learning moments for you, your peers, your manager and your organization. Positive communication will fuel connections rather than burn bridges – which (hint hint) is an attribute of the Scrum Master role.

Is this post connecting with you and your professional goals?

If so, then consider these two pieces of advice for (1) leaving your Project Management job behind and fully embracing the Scrum Master role, or (2) returning back to your previous job as a Project Manager and guiding the organization to remove Scrum Master from your job title. You owe it to your own professional sanity to get this right:


1. Change your mindset and job behavior from Project Manager to Scrum Master. This can be extremely challenging for those who have been Project Managers for a long time, but it requires you to dig deep into your mind & soul and engage in a personal transformation that changes the way you think about ….. well, most everything. Then, go forth into the organization and positively influence your senior leadership on the value of this critical servant-leadership presence, how it enables higher levels of performance in the workplace, and what is means to you personally and professionally to pursue this path in a fruitful and ethical manner. Garner support for this transition. If you aren’t able to gain this support, then perhaps it’s time to take your service-first leadership potential to another organization where you can fulfill your professional purpose.

2. Work with your organization to shift back into a Project Manager job. Organizations have initiatives that continue to be a great fit for a Project Manager, so it’s worth seeking out those opportunities if the *real* Scrum Master role isn’t the right fit for you. If you have a job title called Scrum Master, but you’re acting as a Project Manager, then once again – use positive communication to educate your manager on the mismatch between the job title and the responsibilities, then respectfully request the switch for reasons that best align with your strengths and career aspirations.


In order to change jobs in the right way, you first have to understand what the change means to you and to the organization.

If you recognize a Scrum Master as that of teacher, servant-leader, mentor and coach, then you’ll find that it’s markedly different than that of a traditional Project Manager. As I continue my travels through organizations small and large, I am finding that many job-titled Scrum Masters are unintentionally acting as Project Managers in disguise. This is the cause of great pain in many organizations right now. This pain is real and evokes a strong emotional response when I have the chance to coach within an organization. The emotions are that of PAIN – to people, teams and organizations. The misunderstanding of this role is literally hurting others, and it’s time to get this right in the interest of workplace humanity.

Am I speaking strongly about this? Yes …. I feel strongly about it.

What are some of the pain points I see in organizations? What are some pain points you’re feeling? Use this pain as an opportunity-creation tool when preparing to hold a job-change dialogue with your manager:


1. It’s painful for those who are trying to change into the role – Because of the stark difference in mindset, these former-Project-Managers-trying-to-become-Servant-Leaders are running into an enormous mismatch in how they think and act in the workplace. To make matters more challenging, oftentimes their job description is still written with the responsibilities of a Project Manager. They might also “report to” a boss who is creating performance bonus structures to drive the behaviors of project management, but within the misunderstood role of Scrum Master. It’s confusing and painful to the person trying to change, especially if the wrong behaviors are being rewarded.

In what way would your job change alleviate this pain for you?

2. It’s painful for Teams that are trying to learn how to self-organize – Project Managers are responsible for planning the work of a Team and essentially assigning that work to individuals. In an Agile environment, the world is supposed to work differently – Teams are galvanized by a shared vision of the future, a business opportunity, or a business problem. These Teams self-organize to decide how best to accomplish their work and meet these business opportunities. For Project Managers who are trying to serve a Scrum Master role, I often find that they revert to the behaviors of project management which is in direct conflict to the self-organizing behavior that they are responsible for promoting. It creates pain within a Team and introduces nasty conflicts and other toxic behaviors that actually make Team performance ‘worse’ rather than ‘better’.

In what way would your job change alleviate this pain for self-organizing, autonomous Teams?

3. It’s painful for the Organizations that have a sense of urgency to change – For organizations that have a critical and urgent need to change, the ultimate long-term survival of the business depends on supportive senior leadership that rebuilds the organization on a foundation of trust, respect and openness – which leads to transparency and more effective and nimble decision-making in the workplace. Crippled by the command & control behaviors of old, some organizations try to “install Agile” by training Project Managers with the expectation that they will walk out of a class as proclaimed Scrum Masters. But without the right mindset of senior leadership, this training is quickly lost and the mindset behind a servant-leader role and self-organizing Teams gives way to previous behavior. In some ways, it makes this change effort worse and reduces the effectiveness of the Organization; all because of the Organization’s lack of understanding and willingness to trust Teams and enable Scrum Masters as true servant-first leaders for the organization. Old-school politics and ego take over and a promising transformation to Agile is dead on arrival.

In what way would your job change enable the pursuit of higher levels of organizational performance that address a critical business problem or opportunity?


Remember – use these painful conditions to create positive opportunity focused conversations with your manager. Your job might depend on it.


What is your advice to others?

What do you think of this advice? What advice would you offer others who are trying to become a Scrum Master but are still acting as a Project Manager? Please share your insights in the comments section below so we can all learn from each other.


If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.

Does a Job Title Make You a Leader?

Are you working in an organization that includes the word leader in job titles? Perhaps you’re a professional who has this word in your own job title? If you or someone you know uses a position of authority to lead and manage others, then this post is written for you all.

As I reflect on a fulfilling week of coast-to-coast teaching, I am continuing to sense a strong message that has been at the forefront of most of my classes.

This message … from 2008 to the present … feels something like this:

Our leaders need to be here right now.

Our managers don’t understand what a leader is, but they have us in this class anyway.

How can we sell our leaders on everything you’re teaching us?

Our organizations’ politics make it impossible to use what you’re teaching us.

So, for all of the job-titled leaders who send talented professionals to management training classes, I gently offer 3 tips to consider for your own personal leadership development:


1. Leadership is not a job title.

Great leadership is exemplified in how you think and behave in the workplace, and it doesn’t magically happen through a job title. Do you know your people and what’s important to them? Do you understand their emotional triggers and what excites or upsets them? Do you feel a strong sense of empathy toward others? In the Agile world (where I teach & coach), we often refer to these people as Scrum Masters, and their role is very different than that of a job-titled Project Manager. They are emerging leaders who have a strong sense of purpose to bring out the best in everyone and guide their organizations to high levels of performance.

At one point much earlier in my career, I had a job title that required others to follow me, but I did not think and act like a leader. It was painful to others and painful for me. It took me some time to realize this, and once I did, then I felt a strong desire to disconnect from my job title and transform myself into something more worthy of the workplace. It wasn’t easy – I had to face some demons in myself, and you might have to do the same.


2. Leaders enrich others through personal and professional growth opportunities.

I have observed many incredible leadership moments in organizations. Here is an example that might surprise you: imagine a struggling software programmer who is buried into a computer screen and trying to fix a difficult problem. Another (more experienced) programmer senses that person’s struggle and kindly offers to help. When the invitation for help is accepted, powerful mentoring emerges that strengthens the relationship between those two people. At the same time, the struggling programmer experiences a growth moment that helps that fuels improvement in the workplace (both professionally and personally). Lastly, their peers see this behavior in action and feel an urge to act in a similar manner. These are glorious leadership behaviors that are focused, yet humane – and they lead to higher levels of performance in the workplace.

In this case, the person who reached out to help might be considered a peer in the job-title hierarchy and probably doesn’t have any direct reports, but that person is a LEADER in the organization.


3. A great leader is kind, caring and approachable.

Service-first leadership (often called servant-leadership) is a powerful and positive force that will make its way into every big company on the planet — eventually. But we’re not there yet. Many people who lead with an authoritative stance (e.g., I am your boss and I am sending you to a class) often think and act in ways that benefit themselves more than others. If people are forced to follow you because of your job title, then you might be in need of some hard, but much-needed self-reflection to make yourself more approachable to others. Read through some of these leadership tips to see how they feel to you. Consider investing in Robert Greenleaf’s life-changing book on servant-leadership and start with the foreword. It’s written by the legendary Dr. Stephen Covey and eloquently expresses the essence of service-first leadership in a way that no one can deny.

Are you an approachable person in the workplace? Can others be completely open and honest with you about the good, the bad and the ugly? Do you think it’s important for people to like you?

What does this mean to you? What is your next step?

I hope these tips help all of us understand that a job title doesn’t make someone a leader. And if you aren’t in an official position of authority, you can still emerge as a great leader in your organization. As a next step, try changing one small behavior in how you act in the workplace: lighten your tone with others, genuinely ask someone “how is your day going?” and actively listen and show caring from that person’s angle. Extend a token of genuine appreciation to others for trying their best.

What will you do differently to disconnect from your job title and start improving your own leadership presence? I am your biggest fan – let me know what you learn from this post or share your own leadership experiences in the comments section below.



If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.