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The Power and Science Behind Increased Vulnerability in the Time of a Global Crisis

Taking off your workplace armor has never been so necessary and if you haven't already, start now.

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Just this past week, I was in a webcam meeting catching up with a Senior VP and three other colleagues. My legs were propped up on my couch and I was wearing my “Lazy Sunday” outfit – leggings and an old sweatshirt of my alma mater – which has seamlessly transitioned into my workday attire. The Senior VP, also sporting a new casual look was chatting away about her work-from-home challenges in response to COVID-19. All five webcams were turned on.

Now just a month ago, when we last met and our company’s mandatory work-from-home policy was not yet enforced, the ambiance was different. I wouldn’t say our conversations were more structured and professional, but we had our workplace armor on and I felt there were some limitations in what we can talk about given the hierarchy in our positions. Only two webcams were turned on.

With the millions of people facing the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, I noticed my colleagues have become more expressive in the “workplace.” I held webcam meetings with colleagues I’ve worked with in the past year, who now bring their dogs into the webcam to show off the tricks they know. I now know about the personality traits of each of my colleague’s three sons and can probably guess each son’s Myers-Brigg personality type. In short, I learned more about my coworkers in the past two weeks than I have in the past year.

According to Jeff Polzer, a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard, being vulnerable in the workplace gets the static out of the way and lets teams do the jobs together, without worrying or hesitating. This creates the foundation of trust and contributes to the stronger teamwork. Polzer coins this interaction the “vulnerability loop.”

But why is it that when experiencing a global crisis, that people are more inclined to tear down their walls and become more vulnerable? 

Below are two reasons, based on my experience and scientific insight from experts in organizational behavior, as to why more people are taking off their workplace armor and becoming more open during global crisis, and why now is a great time to start if you haven’t already: 

Reason #1: We all know we are collectively going through this

My Experience: Many of my meetings now start off with asking “How are you and your family coping working at home?” or “What have you been doing [during this shelter in place]?” A recent popular conversation starter, this opens the door and gives permission for people to express themselves in a personal manner because everyone is going through a type of collective traumatic experience. 

Research Shows: A research study to examine the link between pain and social bonding was performed on two groups of undergraduate students at the University of Queensland, one group who performed painful tasks and another who performed painless tasks. Researchers found that students who performed the painful tasks showed a greater degree of bonding than did those who performed the pain-free versions, even after the researchers accounted for participant age, gender, and size of group. Shared pain not only increases a sense of solidarity, but also increases levels of actual group cooperation. 

Why You Should Start Now: Using this time to lean into difficult times is the first step towards an authentic and more positive work environment. 

Reason #2: Humans are inherently social beings 

My Experience: With the current global crisis requiring many to work from home if they can, social interaction becomes more limited. By week five of my company’s mandatory work-from-home policy, I began developing cabin fever. Like many of my extroverted friends, I miss going to the office and being in social settings. Surprisingly, my introverted friends feel the hit too. I even had a few friends, who are natural introverts, message me about how they are dying to go to a bar or miss hanging out. 

Research Shows: Humans are highly social beings. To quote Aristotle, “Man is by nature a social animal.” According to social neuroscientists, the outer layer of the human brain, the neocortex, comprises many of the brain areas involved in higher social cognition such as conscious thought and behavioral and emotional regulation. To sum up, we are biologically hard-wired for interacting with others. 

Why You Should Start Now: While the current situation calls for social distancing, using this time to restructure conversations in a more positive light can foster deeper bonds between employees. This repeated interaction can in turn, build cooperation and trust in the workplace. We are endowed with a “social brain” and thus, need that interaction with our colleagues that we see for a majority of the day. You might as well use this time cooped up in your home and schedule a virtual coffee session.   

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