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How and Why to Cultivate True Vulnerability With Your Team

Corey Blake April 6, 2018

My belly felt like a simmering kettle ready to erupt into a full boil. I played with my hands, as if that might prevent my toxic emotion from leaching into the conversation. During a meeting with one of my creative teams, an old and unwelcome friend had come to visit — blame.

As the team discussed client feedback about an important project, it was clear the deliverable had missed its mark and a client was disappointed. When I looked at what was submitted, the poor quality socked me in the gut. The old me would have interpreted the information my body was giving me as, “we are in trouble,” which would have opened the floodgates to anger. “The team dropped the ball. The team doesn’t care about the client. The team has to change!”

I had such faith in and respect for these deeply insightful and talented writers and editors, each of whom had the capacity to bring brilliance to the work. Somehow, though, not only did the work fail to meet our standards, but our system also failed to flag it and the draft found its way into the hands of the client. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What’s happening to my business?”

I couldn’t help but wonder, “What’s happening to my business?”

A few days later, without yet having the chance to talk to the team about why the deliverable was off or what they were going to do about it, we found ourselves in Cleveland at a leadership retreat with 12 of our staff, two of whom were members of the creative team. It was our third trip that year to a rickety old house in University Circle where what emerges is something one of our writers described as a “black belt in empathy.” We were there to work on the business, without talking about the business; instead, we took aspects of life that were figuratively wrestling each of us to the ground, and we threw them into the center of the room. With the guidance of master facilitators, we then hit the mat to wrestle with them right there, in front of one another, and often with one another’s support.

Over those two days, I learned that many of our team members’ emotional backpacks — filled with life’s troubles, challenges, disappointments, fears, and concerns — were bulging more than usual. What’s more, so was mine.

We all carry emotional loads

We carry these invisible backpacks with us to work every day, often unzipping them to toss in more pain and uncertainty. The packs grow heavier until, as my team discovered, it becomes difficult to lift something for a client when you’re already toppling over in your own life.

In sharing the contents of our backpacks, many of us realized we were carrying around weight that no longer served our lives. Some of us hadn’t grieved occurrences where grief was needed, so our group made space for tears. For some, it was anger where anger was appropriate, so we made space to hit things. For some, it was a simple need for nurturing, so we made space for affection. With each piece of work, a backpack lightened, empathy heightened, and respect and appreciation for one another deepened.

In sharing these moments, my body didn’t bubble with toxicity. Instead, I felt my heart open as I saw myself surrounded by heroes in the form of teammates braving out life’s challenges. Even at a place like Round Table Companies, where we’ve created a workplace culture that invites these conversations and champions vulnerability, most of us still curtail vulnerability when life becomes toughest. Yet there we were, making space to meet it head-on.

How sharing changes what’s possible

After the retreat, I sat down with those two creative team members to discuss how we were going to approach the work at hand. Because of what we’d just been through, I had no desire to make them wrong, or to blame them, or to tell them to figure it out. Instead of my fingers working the skin, muscles, and knuckles of each opposing hand as they tried to keep me contained, I found myself calm, supportive, challenging where appropriate, but primarily able to show up as their coach. A week later, they delivered one of the most incredible pieces of writing I’ve ever seen our company produce.

In our world today, despite what some consider a culture of oversharing on social media, we’re just as likely to believe that our personal lives are our own damn business. Especially at work, we’re expected to shed who we are in service of the job, the client, or the project. We leave life at home when we step into our work persona, but that also means we are only bringing part of ourselves to the job at hand.

There is a desperate need for vulnerability in the workplace. Vulnerability can open the portal to our best work because vulnerability allows us to reclaim our wholeness. I rarely see brilliance from people who feel forced to compartmentalize, while I see it frequently from those who bring their full, authentic selves to their roles. If we protect the world from our darkness, we deprive the world of our light.

If we protect the world from our darkness, we deprive the world of our light.

In business, we often pronounce ourselves happy with what we consider “good” or “great” results, but this mindset is the enemy of our best work. At our company, we like to say, “vulnerability is sexy,” because we’ve seen the power of vulnerability in unlocking the magic of brilliance.

How to bring vulnerability to your team

Thankfully, other business leaders are now wondering how to invite vulnerability into their culture. It can be challenging at first. If you’re interested in exploring vulnerability with your team for the first time, these five simple methods can guide you through the awkwardness and into a place of deeper understanding.

1. Set the stage for success

Vulnerability is inherently risky, but you can mitigate the risks and help people feel safer by engaging in a vulnerability practice with team members on a voluntary basis. Once you’ve assembled, open the experience by asking for a verbal response to these four questions:

Are you each able to be 100 percent present during our time together? One hundred percent present means no checking phones, no opening computers, no multitasking, and no distractions. If anyone has an issue that might require their attention during your sit-down, ask them to voice it. Naming the reality — “I’m waiting on a text from my daughter telling me she got back to college safely,” or “I have an investor crisis that might not be able to wait” — will help others in the room to not take it personally when that person’s attention shifts elsewhere. In the absence of this agreement, when someone is sharing vulnerably (and feeling exposed) and sees someone else in the group appearing distracted, the person sharing can easily feel judged, can close off emotionally to protect themselves, and can move immediately into fight-or-flight mode. Asking for 100 percent presence and creating an opportunity to voice potential distractions will support the likelihood of a more successful outcome.

Are you willing to listen without action? Ask if everyone is willing to focus on listening without acting on the desire to solve each others’ challenges, fix the situation, or provide unsolicited advice. The goal is to be with one another in our vulnerability, not to fix what seems broken in one another.

Can we leave judgement at the door? Ask if everyone is willing to do their best to suspend judgment as they listen to one another. In most areas of life, we work hard to avoid judgment, especially where our reputation matters to us, but vulnerability is inherently open to judgment — that’s what makes it risky. Our willingness to suspend judgment for the very things others worry we will judge them for is a gift we get to choose to give.

Can we keep this between us? An agreement to keep the conversation confidential allows people to share more freely. Outside of the room, people can feel free to share what occurred for them personally as long as it doesn’t infringe on the privacy of others or reveal others’ experiences.

2. Lead by example

As the leader, you set the depth. Be prepared to:

Go first. Your example tells everyone else how deeply they can wade into the water. Not going first is like telling people to dive into a pool without telling them which end is shallow and which is deep.

Scare yourself. If you offer something that makes you sweat when you share it (because you’re risking judgment), others will be more inclined to do the same. If you play it safe at the shallow end of the pool, so will everyone else.

3. Facilitate the experience

Your team will want to know that someone in the room has the capability to safely and kindly grab the reigns if anything goes off the rails. As the leader, you are that person. You must play the role of facilitator and guide your team through what might be a difficult conversation.

Close each individual issue before moving on. As your team learns how to listen to one another in new ways, the process will likely feel messy at times. That can lead to topics popping up at random and the attention of the room feeling like a pinball machine. Remain focused on one person as the primary person doing “the work.” Consider this team member the vulnerable party. Once he or she has shared, offer others a chance to reflect on what they heard and the impact it had on them personally. If someone opens up a new piece of work around themselves during that reflection, acknowledge that something is occurring for them and that the group can return to them later if needed, but first move back to finish the piece of work at hand with the vulnerable party. You want to try your best to avoid people feeling exposed and abandoned when they have offered to get vulnerable.

When you hear someone offer advice or solutions, step in immediately. “I’m hearing some advice being offered. Can I ask you to share what you heard and the impact it had on you?” This kind of interruption is an act of generosity that supports the vulnerable party from being viewed as broken and in need of fixing, while letting everyone else in the room know that if they veer from the intended structure, you will gently guide them back.

Redirect judgment. When someone exhibits judgment toward a vulnerable person during an experience, the typical subtext behind the judgment is likely, “If I were in your shoes and made the same decisions, I would judge myself.” Instead of allowing them to direct their internal judgment at someone already feeling vulnerable, consider the following: “It seems like something has felt triggering for you. I’d like to make sure we support you in exploring what is occurring for you, if you’d like to do that. Can we come back and check in with you once we close out the current piece of work?”

4. Close strong

Be as intentional at the end of a group experience as you were at the beginning.

As you prepare to close, offer a checkout process that gives each person a minute to share something about the experience. People can contribute a single word, name anything that feels unfinished, or speak to something that impacted them during your time together.

Remind the group about their commitment to confidentiality.

Acknowledge that vulnerability hangovers are real. People might feel overly exposed in the coming days. Do what you would do for a hangover — drink lots of water, move your body, and get proper rest and nutrition.

5. Consider professional support

Vulnerability in the workplace is not for the faint of heart. An untrained facilitator can support basic work. If your group moves into intermediate- and advanced-level work together, consider hiring a professional facilitator who can help your people feel as safe as possible amidst work that is ultimately unsafe by design.

In summary

Vulnerability is scary, often messy, and counter to the American mythos of rugged individualism. Know that this work will initially amp up insecurities. Employees might wonder whether they’ll get fired for sharing their messy backpacks. Leaders might worry they’ll lose the respect of their teams if they demonstrate vulnerability that could be perceived as weakness. If you commit to a culture of vulnerability, these insecurities will not only pass, but will be replaced with pride, deep mutual respect, and an excitement to work alongside one another.

Brilliance becomes possible when we risk being vulnerable, and, as a result, we shift from working from survival mode to working from self-actualization. We shift from trying to keep a client to truly honoring them. To do so, we first have to take the time to honor ourselves and one another.

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Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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