Excerpted with permission from "Angels in the Workplace" by Melissa Giovagnoli, with permission of Jossey-Bass, John Wiley & Sons.

"I have found that the greatest help in meeting any problem with decency and self-respect and whatever courage is demanded is to know where you yourself stand. That is, to have in words what you believe and are acting from."
- William Faulkner

Courage is a matter of choice. As obvious as that concept might be intellectually, it is difficult to grasp emotionally. Faced with an ogre of a boss, the threat of losing one's job, a lawsuit, missing an important deadline, or countless other real and imagined workplace terrors, we do not feel as though we have the choice to be courageous. In addition, the current work environment makes many of us feel like victims. Because of the pace of change, we feel helpless and put upon. If downsizing does not get us, transfer to some outpost on the other side of the globe will. It is hard enough to find courage within ourselves. How then can we transcend our fears and help others in turn find their own courage?

If we take a moment to reflect on the reality of the workplace today, we realize that we are more empowered than ever before. In many organizations, empowerment is not just a word but a growing part of the culture. More people than ever are included in the decision-making processes and allowed to use their ingenuity and leadership on cross-functional teams. Even more significant, however, is self-empowerment; I have observed it in people who work in every conceivable industry and at every level. As our society becomes more open and as individuals raise their consciousness through the spirituality movement, therapy, Internet communities, and in other ways, individuals feel a surge of personal power. They are much more willing to take risks, fight city hall, or take on scary issues than they were in the past.

I know this from my interviewing. As you will see from the stories that I share with you, there are many angels out there with the courage of their convictions. These people have chosen to be courageous. They could just as easily have chosen to be victims. To paraphrase Rene Descartes's famous saying: I choose, therefore I am. Each of us has the choice to be courageous in our workplace, and it does not matter if that workplace is as totalitarian and unspiritual as a former communist regime or a command-and-control corporation of the old style.

When I was 12, I chose to be courageous. Growing up in a very dysfunctional home, I took the role of martyr until I reached the cusp of adolescence and declared to my mother, "You aren't going to hit me anymore." I realized that some victims of physical abuse find that words do not stop the beatings, but for me, they worked. From that time on, my mother no longer slapped me as she had done daily since I was little.

Looking back on the 30 years since that incident, I still wish I had stood up for myself sooner. I am guilty as anyone of forgetting that it is a choice we can make at any time. Customer service representatives often forget they have a choice. They put up with an unreasonable amount of abuse and are terrified of confronting awful customers. But it can be done. As one customer service person at the safety equipment company First Alert once said, "When someone calls me who is obnoxiously rude and abusive, I say, 'I'm sorry, sir, but you cannot talk to me that way. Please talk to me nicely or this conversation will end soon.'"

Of course, there are situations where your only choice—and the most courageous one—is to leave. I have helped some people make just that choice. Some are takers and continue to take from you and give nothing back in return for as long as you let them. It is up to you to walk away from the relationship and not blame yourself. Saying "I quit" takes courage when you do it on principle, when you stand up for what you believe. Before concluding that leaving is your only choice, however, read through this chapter and see if you discover other options.

Workplace angels who tap into their courage do so at a price. Some even go through "the dark night of the soul." But they emerge stronger and more certain of themselves. Their acts not only inspire others but send a clear message that these are people not to be trifled with. They earn tremendous respect, which carries them forward in their jobs and their careers. They achieve a spiritual freedom that helps them rise above the fear that sometimes entraps us.

The Other Side of Courage
Sometimes we are needlessly afraid of being fired. Other times, we are realistically afraid of getting the ax. Both fears exert equal force on our actions and attitudes. Both cause many people who work to be cautious, meek, anxiety-ridden, secretly cynical, and silent. When fears rule your workplace and your life, existence is meaningless and unfulfilling.

Here are some of the most common fears:

  • Ridicule
  • Job loss
  • New job responsibilities
  • Poor performance review
  • Conflict and confrontation
  • Loss of income (pay cuts, withheld bonuses, etc.)
  • Boss or bully
  • Dealing with problematic subordinates
  • Changes in company culture
As you have seen, the people profiled in this book manage first to be courageous in the face of these fears and then to pass on their courage to others with whom they work. Angels who espouse courage in the workplace are usually selfless role models for others. All of us have this capacity for courage. People who act bravely and heroically, however, are able to draw on inner resources that triumph over external villains. They draw strength from their beliefs; they trust their instincts; they define and adhere to their values. The stories that follow show varying aspects of forceful belief.

Anyone can be courageous in a work setting. Courage is a skill set that can be learned and deeply embedded in our response systems. Much more like endurance than beauty, courage is something anyone can develop and sustain. Most people, however, simply stop short of fully growing and realizing their courage.

As children, we saw a variety of courage tests and response patterns demonstrated by those around us. We learned and assimilated certain facets of those patterns to develop our own personal pattern. The good news is, if you learned deep messages about resilience, fortitude, optimism, and courage, you probably have a ready trigger for accessing those subconscious patterns when the need arises. If you were taught other, less rewarding patterns, your brain is blindly hardwired with the same amazing precision, but in a different direction. Yet even if your pattern makes you shy away from courageous acts, you can rewire your brain. The workplace angels I've interviewed all "feel" the courage within themselves. Whether or not this is a conscious process, they are able to reach down and find the confidence and conviction necessary to act upon their most noble thoughts.

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