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October 2019
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robert biswas-diener

Courage in Women and Entrepreneurs (Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, Part 2)

Posted by: Alex Linley


To mark the UK release of his latest fascinating book, The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver, I caught up again with the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology”, long time friend and Capp collaborator, Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener. In this second interview, we focused our attention on how courage manifests, and what might be different about it, in both women and entrepreneurs. See below for what Robert has to say about the findings from his research for The Courage Quotient:


AL: In your research on courage, did you find differences in the courage expressed by men and women?


RBD: I think that most people tend to believe that courage – at least stereotypically- is largely the domain of men. Fables, myths and modern movies all favour a fairly macho action-hero style of bravery. But movies such as Erin Brokovich, about a determined whistleblower, suggests that there is a place at the table for women as well. While researching The Courage Quotient I found a number of studies that suggest that women perform bravery as well as – and sometimes better than - their male counterparts. For instance, women are more likely to donate organs and are more likely to serve in risky overseas volunteer positions. It may be that men are placed more frequently in positions that require physical bravery – indeed, men overwhelmingly outnumber women in the military, police forces and in fire departments - but women do well with moral and social forms of bravery. [AL notes: We know from our work with the Fire Service that part of this difference is a result of different physical requirements in the role, which can be difficult, but not impossible, to surmount.]


AL: Why do you think this is? What impact does this have on male and female stereotypes in society do you think?


RBD: Men, because of their larger average size and access to testosterone, have long been at the centre of action especially when that action has been physical. In addition, wars and other physical feats tend to make for good narratives, so stories ranging from epic poems to modern movies tend to lionize the stereotypical form of male bravery. We tend to overlook that women have long been brave, but that women’s bravery has historically been outside of the battlefield. Women have spoken up as courageous advocates and often been the defenders of values. You see modern examples ranging from Benazir Bhutto to Mother Theresa to Maria Montessori. But it is more common that we overlook female forms of bravery because either 1) we do not agree with the values they espouse, or 2) their actions are often less “flashy” than those on the battlefield; taking the form of discussion, passing laws, and pioneering new fields.


AL: What about courage in organisations? Do you think that women need to use courage differently to men in order to succeed in organisational leadership?


RBD: I think that women – especially those in leadership – need to start thinking about themselves as courageous. I am not sure that it matters that their courage is similar to or different from male courage. What I really think matters is that female leaders truly accept the mantle of bravery. In many ways, women have an additional burden in the workplace. It is no secret that women shoulder a disproportionate amount of household and childcare responsibilities, that women are more likely to take time off following childbirth and that women in leadership work against the grain of a traditionally male-centric position. This means, in many ways, that women have to be able to advocate for themselves, speak boldly, and take risks. They will be scrutinized differently and are more prone to have life outside of work interfere with work. At every turn, I see potential for women leaders to bring bravery to the table.


AL: How about courage and entrepreneurship? Did you find that entrepreneurs demonstrate a particular type of courage?


RBD: I am particularly fascinated by entrepreneurship.  I have a hunch that those who have an entrepreneurial spirit are actually genetically wired a bit different and are more prone to be extroverted and risk taking. To make the leap into starting up a business, I believe that people also have to be possessed of a certain degree of optimism and self-confidence. It is an interesting case where multiple strengths might converge to create a new meta-strength (let’s just label it “entrepreneurialism”). I think we can learn much from small business owners and those who jump from start-up to start-up. They likely have a very high tolerance for uncertainty and a very high level of confidence that they can handle new situations and even small mistakes and failures. I think the entrepreneurial mindset is a terrific test case for courage.


AL: Based on your findings, do you think anyone can develop the courage to be an entrepreneur?


RBD: I would like to be able to say “yes, anyone can develop courage.” Even the sub-title of my book is “How science can make you braver.” I do believe that - that people have the ability to overcome personal limitations and learn skills around emotion management and other techniques that can make one braver. I might stop short at claiming we can turn someone into an entrepreneur though. Entrepreneurs happen to have a values-based mission that makes taking a risk seem worthwhile. They tend to have an optimistic disposition such that they believe that their idea will become a success. Finally, they have a huge tolerance for uncertainty and can thrive in an anxious state that causes other people to freeze up. Rather than trying to radically transform someone into an entrepreneur I would recommend the strengths strategy that I have often heard from Capp: collaboration and complementary strengths partnerships. If a person is weak in one area, I believe they can counteract this weakness by collaborating with someone for whom it is a natural strength. That is, generally speaking, a good message about courage. Courage need not be an individual phenomenon. We tend to be a little braver and a little less inhibited when we are in groups and when we get support.


AL: Finally, a big question for us to conclude with, what would you like to see people achieve with courage in the 21st century?


RBD: I love this question! I think of courage as being the shortest route to the good life. I think a full and engaged life includes risks and even occasional small failures. In the coming years we will collectively be faced with a number of challenges related to the environment, the structure of capitalism, and ethnic, religious and political conflicts. I believe that it is courage that allows individuals, groups and communities to stand up and demand change, to work for reform, and to make the big changes. I think the courageous leaders of successful movements, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., are terrific examples of how we have to be willing to take personal risks to make worthwhile change.


Thank you, Robert. As regular readers of The Capp Blog will be aware, Robert has been a diligent responder to your comments and questions. Please let us know any more by using the Comment box below!

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The Courage Quotient with Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener (Part 1)

Posted by: Alex Linley


I am delighted to announce that Capp friend and collaborator Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener has written a stunning new book, The Courage Quotient, which is released TODAY on and on April 25 on (although the eBook is available now).


I caught up with Robert to find out more about why he has written The Courage Quotient, and what he would like us all to take from it. Here’s what he had to say…


AL:  So, Robert, you have just written a new book on courage, why?


RBD: It is amazing to me how much attention has been devoted to the topic of happiness by scientists, myself included. The shelves of major book retailers are littered with titles on happiness. By contrast, there are no titles on the science of courage and I think this is a conspicuous oversight. I would argue that bravery is an important phenomenon, a vital part of living a full and engaged life, a topic directly relevant to management and business, and a concern that touches literally everyone. As such, I felt an irresistible impulse to contribute to this fascinating topic. Specifically, I hope that readers will come away with new information, practical tools, and perhaps a bit of enjoyment after spending time with this book.


AL: What are the key messages you want to get across to people in the book?


RBD: If I had to boil the book down to only a few main take-home messages they would be these:


First, courage is an everyday occurrence. Many people immediately jump to acts of physical bravery when they think about courage but this is a mistake. Every individual has a personal history of bravery. If you have ever accepted a new job, relocated to a new city, or gotten married, then you have taken a chance and faced some personal fear.


Second, courage can be learned. We tend to think of courage as a trait – and to some extent it is a predisposition toward risk-taking – but courage is also about managing fear and this is a learn-able skill. This is a non-trivial point because it suggests that people can get more of this highly desirable skill. I would even argue that by learning a few techniques for increasing your courage quotient you can have a better life!


AL: What exactly is courage, and why do you think it’s important?


RBD: People have all sorts of definitions of what courage is. I particularly like the way some psychologists think about this topic. Courage, by one attractive definition, is any action that a person engages in when three conditions are present:

  1. There is a perceived threat to you
  2. The outcome of an action is uncertain
  3. You feel fear


Many psychologists view courage as the choice to take action despite the presence of these three conditions. Specifically, courage can take place in any realm of life, ranging from entrepreneurship, to relationships, to investing, to physical heroism.


AL: The title of your book is The Courage Quotient; is a “courage quotient” somehow different from courage?


RBD: Courage is made up of two separable processes: managing fear and the willingness to act. At first glance, these two processes seem to be directly linked, like a see-saw, where when one goes up the other necessarily goes down, and vice versa.


On closer inspection, however, you can see that these two processes are independent of one another. A person could still be willing to act despite experiencing a huge amount of fear, which is to say that the willingness to act must be greater than the experience of fear, for courage to take place. A person’s courage quotient, then, is simply a ratio between these two processes. If they are equal, or if fear is greater, then a person will not act courageously.


AL: What did you find out in doing your interviews with people?


RBD: In researching this book I had the terrific opportunity to interview 50 highly courageous people who came from all walks of life. These included a polar explorer, a cage fighter, a witness to a crime who chose to testify in court, an executive and many others. Among the first, and most interesting, insights I gained through these interviews was that people are largely unaware of their own bravery.


At first I attributed this to simple norms for humility. But it turned out to be more than people simply downplaying their own achievements; they literally seemed oblivious that they were acting in extraordinary ways. Time and again I heard the refrain “I just did what anyone would have.” I call this phenomenon – the tendency to perceive extraordinary personal action as being ordinary – “courage blindness.” When I work with clients on developing a more courageous living style, I often start here with them taking more ownership and gaining more insight into their own past bravery.


AL: What tips could you give to readers of The Capp Blog on how they could develop their own courage?


RBD: I would offer two simple places to start. First, a common problem that holds people back is the fear of the unknown. Uncertainty is a bit anxiety-provoking for most people. I recommend that people try to fill in gaps in their knowledge by making the unknown known. For people who are afraid of public speaking, for example, I recommend that they explore the venue, stand on stage, sit in the audience, and imagine the applause at the end of the talk, rather than the nerve-wracking time on stage. To the extent a person such as this can picture a successful image in detail, the greater their ability to act bravely.


Second, I encourage people to embrace mistakes. Not to tolerate mistakes, mind you, but to embrace them. People who understand mistakes – especially small-stakes mistakes – as unavoidable, and even as an important part of learning and growth, are more likely to take appropriate risks.



Robert will join us again in two weeks’ time for the second part of our interview on courage, this time focusing on courage in women and in entrepreneurship. Watch this space!


In the meantime, if you have a question you’d like to put to Robert about courage, please let us know in the Comment box below, and we’ll do our best to answer them.

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