“This was probably one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made.” Josh smiled as he presented during our weekly all-hands meeting. “It turned out to be completely wrong.” This is how Josh opened our decision log review a couple of weeks ago. He could’ve done a lot to sweep his bad decision under the rug. Instead, he reveled in it. In fact, by starting with a terrible idea, we ended up with some pretty good information.
Yet it’s not very common for the CEO and co-founder of a company to get up in front of everybody and say, “Not only was I completely wrong, but I’m happier for it,” which is too bad. What this does is it normalizes being wrong. If the CEO can be wrong, then anybody can.
It’s common for leaders to march on without acknowledging setbacks. There’s a strong misperception that to be vulnerable might undermine authority. But in today’s networked workplaces that are both open and connected, the opposite is true: Vulnerability increases authority. It demonstrates the willingness and courage to show up and be seen, despite uncertain outcomes.
You can’t really innovate without the potential for risk and uncertainty. “If you’ve created a work culture where vulnerability isn’t okay, you’ve also created a culture where innovation and creativity aren’t okay,” says Brené Brown, a research professor, and bestselling author.
According to Brené’s research, all transformational leaders have one thing in common: the capacity for difficult conversations. If you’re going to risk being vulnerable, “you’re going to get your ass kicked,” says Brené. In this way, resilience, courage, and vulnerability are intertwined.
Teaching vulnerability to your team isn’t always going to be easy, but it is achievable. Here are a few practical ways to get it started.
Lead by example
It often falls on the leaders in an organization to model this kind of behavior. In doing so, they demonstrate through action that the company values vulnerability and boldness. So just as you want to build a culture that doesn’t punish failure, embrace the flip side of that equation. You’re going to need to ask for help sometimes. You don’t have to do everything yourself. Be authentic, caring, and vulnerable. This makes people comfortable with you, which in turn will help them open up.
Treat missteps with warmth
Nobody likes to make mistakes. They can cause pain, disappointment, and even sadness. Screwing up takes the wind out of our sails. Being vulnerable doesn’t change that. But you can change how failures serve you and your team. Brown says, “The goal is not to close yourself off from ever feeling pain. That’s how you lose your capacity to take it all in.”
Your team is only going to be able to have original, creative ideas by being authentic. This naturally requires vulnerability. If you emphasize doing the same thing that you’ve always done, you are also discouraging innovation. On this point, Brown says, “Your level of vulnerability completely predicts the originality of your work.”
Make a daily commitment to vulnerability
The more you practice being vulnerable, the better you will become at it. Vulnerability is a muscle that can be trained. At first, you may feel exposed and uncomfortable. But when you make it a habit to expose yourself, after a while, you won’t even feel vulnerable any longer. You’ll just be open and authentic.
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