It’s one thing to be courageous when you’re the one who will benefit from your bravery. But what if being courageous meant you might suffer? If a co-worker is being mistreated, for example, do you speak out on his behalf even if it means jeopardizing your job? If your child receives preferential treatment at school because you donate money, do you demand equal consideration for the students of parents who can’t afford to give? On a larger (scarier) scale, would you protect persecuted people at the risk of persecution for yourself?
The type of valor required to say yes to these questions is called moral or ethical courage. Moral courage is doing the right thing in the face of your fears, says Irshad Manji, founder of the Moral Courage Project at New York University. “Moral courage is not just a virtue or an attribute, it’s a skill,” she emphasizes.
It’s not hard to imagine the positive subjective well-being ramifications of doing things that make you feel good about yourself. Start building your moral courage skills today. Here are 4 ways for standing up for what you believe in:
1. What is the greater good?
That’s the first question you should ask yourself when making decisions involving morals — before even thinking about the possible outcomes. If you are clear on what “right” is, it’s time to measure your moral courage. You may decide the consequences of making the “right” decision are not worth it, but at least you have made a conscious choice.
2. Work up to it.
If you know blowing the whistle on your boss could cost you your job, it’s understandable if you want to find another job or save a few months’ worth of salary first. “So few people in societies all over the world demonstrate moral courage, so we have to appreciate it whenever and however it is displayed,” Manji says. “It takes time to develop moral courage.”
3. Beware of “groupthink.”
A behavior researched by psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink is what happens in small and cohesive groups “when critical thinking typically loses to the forces of consensus.” It’s the greatest obstacle to moral courage, Manji says. Groupthink is what’s behind the bystander effect, a natural instinct to ignore public wrongs for a sense of personal safety and belonging. It also accounts for ethical fading, an unconscious process that allows the ethical components of a decision to fade from view as we focus on other aspects of it. Examine and challenge the groupthinking your family, company, religious group, or circle of friends has developed; see how it measures against your own moral compass.
4. Reframe the conflict.
Ann Tenbrunsel, Ph.D., a professor of business ethics at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame and the research director of their Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide, believes acting morally courageous is a simple matter of mindset. In one of her studies, participants were posed with a hypothetical dilemma. But first, half of them were told to think of a business decision, while the other half were told to think of an ethical decision. Then, after an unrelated task to distract them, they were given the opportunity to cheat. The business group was much likelier to lie and cheat than the ethical group. Same option, opposite outcomes — all because of a mindset shift. Try framing your predicaments as ethical ones, too, before considering the other facets.
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