The Three Buckets of Courage

Understanding and influencing courageous behavior is an important part of effective leadership and organizational development. When it comes to influencing courage in the workplace, it’s essential to recognize and appreciate the different dimensions that individuals navigate when their courage is activated. This understanding lays the foundation for a concept articulated as the “Three Buckets of Courage.” Each bucket represents a distinct facet of courage – TRY Courage, TRUST Courage, and TELL Courage.


The most recognizable form of courage, TRY Courage is the courage of first attempts—trying something for the very first time Think back, for example, to your first day of school, or your first kiss, or the first time you drove a car. At the time, these firsts were, for you, pioneering events, thresholds that you had to cross over to ensure your advancement as a member of the human community. While such firsts look ordinary now, when you were actually contending with them, you were probably desperately nervous. Managers contend with “trying firsts” all the time.

Remember, for example, when you first moved into a management role? Or when you first became responsible for the performance of an employee? Or when your boss asked you to lead a pioneering initiative for your division? All of those things required TRY Courage on your part. Similarly, your direct reports contend with trying situations when they struggle to learn a new and more sophisticated software system, uproot their families and relocate to a different geographic area, or become responsible for a project of their own for the first time. Such situations are ripe for the development of TRY Courage.


The act of trusting often requires letting go of our need to control. This includes outcomes or people, our defense mechanisms, and our preconceptions about what is “right.” For hard-driving controlling types, such as the coffee-clutching professionals who make up much of today’s workforce, this goes against the grain of everything they stand for. Trust runs counter to the take-charge ethos that typifies today’s business world.

In many companies, the most valued employees are those who, when encountering challenging situations, control chaos, force order, and take decisive action. As the Roman poet Virgil said, “Fortune favors the bold.” TRUST Courage, for managers, is a tricky thing. On the one hand, you need your employees to trust you so that they follow your direction enthusiastically. On the other hand, you have to monitor their performance, which, if done too closely, often feels distrustful. Plus many managers work in companies layered with systems that are inherently distrustful. It is more difficult to fill workers’ TRUST buckets if you’re an extension of a system that doesn’t trust them.


The average employee does not get to vote on which senior management decisions he or she will endorse. As one-party systems, most organizations more closely resemble authoritarian regimes than they do free and open societies. Employees aren’t “citizens,” and the ability to influence companywide decisions is restricted to those in the upper echelons. So regardless of how open a company considers itself to be, the risks of voicing an opinion that runs counter to the directives of the senior team are so high that
most employees keep quiet.

In TELL Courage, the risk is voicing your true opinion. It may result in being set aside as an outcast from the established social order. The risk that comes with TELL Courage is the risk of social banishment. Having worked with thousands of employees over the years, I have come to believe that the TELL Courage bucket is the one most in need of filling. Employees are quite skilled at biting their tongues. Rather than outwardly disagree with company changes—and risk being viewed as mavericks or outsiders—they “go along to get along.” But just because employees actively nod their heads “yes” doesn’t mean they aren’t passively behaving according to “no.”

You have the responsibility to equip each team member with courage, resilience, and a shared purpose.

Many company initiatives are dead on arrival because the senior executives misjudged the lack of true commitment to the initiative that lower-level employees had in the first place. They had surface-level yes, but no commitment level. The lack of TELL Courage demonstrated by employees is directly related to the behavior of managers. Specifically, when managers use intimidation to get things done. This leads to employees learning that speaking up is the best way to get thrown out.

Filling Your Three Buckets of Courage

the three buckets of courage

Understanding the profound impact of TRY, TRUST, and TELL Courage is pivotal. As leaders, you are the architects of an environment where these courage buckets are either replenished or drained. Your role extends beyond steering the ship. It encompasses shaping a culture where your team can confidently face challenges rather than succumb to fear.

Leadership is a continuous act of nurturing and replenishing these courage buckets. Recognize that the mindset of your team is shaped by the contents of TRY, TRUST, and TELL Courage. Your intentional actions, communication strategies, and commitment to growth are the keys to creating an environment where confidence prevails over fear.

You have the responsibility to equip each team member with courage, resilience, and a shared purpose. Lead with the understanding that filled courage buckets not only empower individuals but also cultivate a collective strength that propels your team towards success.

How will you actively nurture and replenish the TRY, TRUST, and TELL Courage buckets within your team to create an environment where confidence prevails over fear?

This post is based on an excerpt from Courage Goes to Work: How to Build Backbones, Boost Performance, and Get Results.

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