Sometimes Doing the Right Thing Involves Risk

by | Jan 11, 2024 | I-O Psychology, Leadership, Workplace, Workplace Culture | 0 comments

Leaders striving for a better workplace may suffer consequences

In a recent post on LinkedIn from the Business & Management Consultants open group, a contributor posted, “A manager who challenges the boss and stands up for their team, despite risking their own career, is a true leader.” Here’s the link:

I could not help but to reflect on my personal experience in my last executive role where I needed to stand up to a bully boss.

I attended a meeting led by the VP of construction for a company for which I was the VP of marketing. I joined the meeting virtually from another part of the building via Microsoft Teams. The president of the company sat beside the VP in the same room.

The VP went around the room and berated people individually and then the entire group collectively because the company had experienced many setbacks. This individual has a history of swearing and losing his temper. Office workers stated explicitly that he made them feel unsafe. The CEO of that company, who wasn’t present at this meeting, praised this behavior because he felt this was how football coaches find success (the VP came from an athletic coaching background), going so far as to express his admiration within an email to the rest of the company in a previous month. The president did nothing to stop the yelling.

When my turn came to address the group and deliver my reports, in answer to the question posed by the VP, “Why aren’t any of you speaking up in this meeting?” I told the VP that they weren’t talking because of the way he treated them angrily. The VP answered that we hadn’t even begun to see him angry.

After the meeting, he called me back into the conference room. He began to yell at me for correcting him in front of the team, who expressed their appreciation that I short-circuited further bad behavior, which the president did nothing to resolve. He threatened me and said that he was “the devil” and that he goes into a blind rage when people cross him. After he calmed down, he extended his hand and we shook. However, in the end, while we maintained clasped hands, he patted his pocket where he concealed his pistol and said his “piece” keeps him calm. The organzation has a no-firearm policy in the emplyee manual.

I submitted the report to the internal legal counsel because the organization does not have a human resource department. The outcome: the president and CEO, plus the internal legal counsel, recommended that both the VP and I attend 16 hours of anger management class on our own time. I complied; he didn’t. Subsequently, he was terminated within a month, during which time his behavior continued to affect workers, resulting in many of the staff resigning to take positions with other competing firms. Within a few months, despite receiving a letter of recommendation, citing budget constraints, I found myself laid off.

Regrets to Leadership Risks?

Do I regret standing up to that bully? No. I would do it again. Leaders empathize with those who struggle. I understand that the VP had a tremendous amount of stress and pressure on him because of the performance of the company and the laissez-faire attitudes of the principals. However, I also “felt with” the frightened people in the room and read that the situation in that conference room led to a psychologically unsafe situation for the rest of the team. Despite putting my own psychological safety at risk over Teams and physical safety at risk later meeting in person with an executive who refers to himself as “the devil” and a “scary dude” and who wields a pistol in the office, I feel I did the ethical thing:

  1. It prevented harm to others.
  2. It sought to make things better.
  3. It respected the workers and even offered respect to the organization and the outraged VP.
  4. It promoted fairness by ending coercive behavior and balancing power.
  5. It was done out of a sense of love for the well-being of the members of the team (Weinstein, 2020).

Do I recommend risking your job or your safety? Not necessarily. However, in leadership, I feel we always risk something. A colleague of mine, Myles Rickerd, introduced me to stoicism by way of the author Ryan Holiday of The Daily Stoic. I believe that leaders must:

  • Face the obstacles to success for their group (Holiday, 2014)
  • Have the courage to do the right thing (Holiday, 2021)
  • Possess the discipline to see their way through doing the right thing (Holiday, 2022)
  • Remove their own ego from the equation. (Holiday, 2016)

By these stoic virtues exercised by great historical figures throughout history, managers go beyond management to more adequately deliver results and reduce counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs).

Am I vilifying business owners and executives? Absolutely not! My affinity for working with business owners and executives stands as one of the main reasons why I chose to study Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Purdue and to make consulting, organizational development, and change management hallmarks of my career. After all, I have been there — I owned and operated a storefront business and served as an executive for organizations of various types throughout my career. I feel a kindred connection with those who own or operate organizations. Therefore, I champion these business leaders and strongly urge them to take action to stand up to those who may weaken the company from within or threaten the welfare of the organization and its people outside of the company.

Stand Up for What’s Right at Work

Whether you hold the position of a business owner, executive, manager, or specialist, you have the power to do the right thing, challenge the norms that produce CBWs, and ultimately contribute to the success of the organization. Owners and executives who advocate for leadership training, shared decision-making, an inclusive environment, and perceived organizational support can facilitate belongingness, creating competent workers who can attain self-efficacy and their full potential in their careers (Randel et al, 2018). Will you need always to risk your career, safety, or life? No. However, you may need to summon courage to stop the bad and change the situation for the betterment of the people involved.

I’ve written some articles already about some related topics:

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Holiday, R. (2014). The Obstacle Is the Way. Portfolio.

Holiday R. (2016). Ego Is the Enemy. Portfolio.

Holiday R. (2021). Courage Is Calling. Portfolio.

Holiday R. (2022). Discipline Is Destiny. Portfolio.

Randel, A., Galvin, B., Shore, L., Ehrhart, K., Chung, B., Dean, M., & Kedharnath, U. (2018). Inclusive leadership: Realizing positive outcomes through belongingness and being valued for uniqueness. Human Resource Management Review, 28(2), 190–203.

Weinstein, B. (2018). Ethical Intelligence: Five Principles for Untangling Your Toughest Problems at Work and Beyond. Gildan Media.

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