When I wax nostalgic about the historical ‘business-man’ archetype, I envision a steely-eyed gentleman in a pressed 3 piece suit, the brim of his fedora tilted downward over his forehead. With cigar in hand, he stares at the camera as if it were his enemy. He does not smile or exhibit any emotion whatsoever (except maybe contempt).
When I think of that image I don’t see strength, I see fear.
A leadership belief that prevailed for generations was to show zero positive emotion around those who look up to you, to be a pillar of stoicism. This false, outward projection of perfection is either self-delusion or an attempt to fool others, and only exists to cover up the ever-present fear of being vulnerable. Freedom from this fear will allow you and your employees to connect and grow, so that everyone can perform their best and most creative work.
Vulnerability is defined as being susceptible to physical or emotional attack, and is often misperceived as a sign of weakness. Certainly there are cut-throats who are looking for a way to exploit weakness to their advantage. I am not saying that you should be completely transparent at all times, it is always wise to be discerning and have boundaries. But true strength manifests in open authentic communication and even sometimes as a smile.
Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston and the author of several books including Daring Greatly, where she encourages others to be vulnerable. Dr. Brown believes that the greatest leaders are willing to bare themselves to others, and told Inc Magazine that “the biggest myth about vulnerability is that it is weakness…it is the greatest measure of courage”.
In her Ted Talk, Brown details her decade-long research study to deconstruct shame and vulnerability. After reading thousands of stories, she discovered 2 common threads:
1) “Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives”.
2) Shame is the fear of disconnection. People are not vulnerable because they think, “is there something about me, that if other people hear it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”
There are two groups of people, those who have a sense of belonging and people who always wonder if they are good enough. The courageous ones feel worthy and desire to tell the story of who they are with their whole heart. The courage to be imperfect is what allows people to face their demons, to be vulnerable, and to grow into better versions of themselves.
Consider your last annual performance review from your manager. You hopefully received a litany of accolades for a job well done and only one or two opportunities for growth. Which do you continue to focus on, your triumphs or failures?
Think of a past triumph. The hazy details have probably faded into the background of your memory. Now think of a failure from years prior, every detail is probably still readily available.
When we take a mental picture of our triumphs, we capture a jpeg, a small file with limited information. When we experience a failure, we mentally capture all the details of that moment in RAW format — a huge file filled with every detail from the temperature outside to the look of confusion or disappointment on people’s faces. Why the discrepancy?
Our greatest fears involve shame. That is why public speaking is the #1 fear for humans, surpassing even death. Why is standing in front of people, even those who know and respect you, more fear inducing than the greatest mystery of mankind? Because deep inside we all say, I am not good enough, or smart enough or [insert anything] enough. We are afraid to be judged, to be hurt and to lose that which we have worked so hard to build — our personal connections or maybe our business.
But when we have the courage to be vulnerable, something shifts. We are no-longer driven by the fear of what we don’t want (i.e. exposure) and we are driven to communicate openly about what we want, and the obstacles that stand in the way.
The greatest weapon against fear in the workplace is the question. So during our quarterly strategy retreat in Sedona in January, I asked the entire team this question: “What is something that you want others to know about you, and what is something that you don’t want anyone to know?” Some people had just joined the company, and I watched their faces go pale at the prospect of having to disclose such vulnerable information to people they had just met.
Two powerful things happened: 1) Managers, directors and even the CEO courageously shared stories that exposed their true selves, inviting others to do so. 2) It worked! Other team-members were emboldened, some even shared a fear of lack of confidence around the fundamental duties of their jobs.
People shared their greatest gifts as well as their shortcomings. Leadership responded with advice, a plan, or kept the conversation going by asking, “How can I help?” Now, three months later, everyone who confessed lack of confidence at the retreat has evolved into more efficient, creative or productive versions of their former selves.
Many of today’s companies have open-work spaces and open-door policies, but what good is that when we are closed off from others or even ourselves? People who never face their fears are unable to move through them. They can’t ask for help because they are being dishonest with themselves. When we create cultures that value authenticity, we remove fear from the equation. People will ask for help, and give you the opportunity to guide them through the challenges towards their greatest contributions.
That is the power of vulnerability.
Shane Metcalf is Director of Customer Success at 15Five, where he aids our clients in exceeding their goals by streamlining communication and feedback through our software’s lightweight internal reporting process. With 15Five the most important information flows seamlessly throughout each organization, great ideas are discovered, and issues surface before they become problems. Shane has also been coaching CEO’s and their teams for the past 6 years around organizational health, leadership and culture.
Photo Credit: Shaun Merritt
Is vulnerability a sign of weakness or courage? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
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