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What journalists and doctors can teach us about the power of vulnerability at work

The third article in a three-part series about how to team better.

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“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ah, the age-old question. Our five-year-old selves would imagine what life would be like when we grew up to be the adventurous astronaut, the lifesaving doctor or the heroic firefighter. Our future career seemed so exciting and straightforward.

But the truth is, as we grow up and begin our careers, we quickly realize the road to saving a life or executing a great product strategy—while fulfilling—has twists and turns. We must rely on and collaborate with people who think differently from us, and in some cases, people we haven’t worked with or even met in-person before.

After all, working with people who think differently from us is good for business. For example, in many Harvard Business School sections, they design the class to be as diverse as possible. It’s believed that students with different perspectives challenging one another is one of the best ways to deepen understanding of a topic and encourage new ways of thinking.

My team at Microsoft does a lot of research to understand the nuances of great teamwork in these settings. Recently, we embedded with two types of teams in particularly high-pressure environments: veteran conflict reporters stationed in Iran and a group of resident doctors in life-or-death simulation trainings.

Our research confirmed what we saw in Harvard Business School classrooms: the most diverse teams do produce the best results – and that tension is inevitable. But it also showed us that creating an environment where vulnerability is rewarded and trust is prioritized allows teams to see their differences as a constructive path toward finding the best outcomes possible.

I’ve also found this to be true in my own career. When team culture encourages you to bring your full self to work and be vulnerable, even when uncomfortable, tension is more easily navigated and work feels more fulfilling. People feel safe to share their ideas which allows the team to creatively explore all angles when trying to solve a problem or reach a goal. Overtime, these team dynamics create a sense of trust, which in the simplest sense, means knowing you can be vulnerable without repercussions, it’s okay, the team is standing alongside you.

Some real-life examples

Inside the Wall Street Journal’s Baghdad bureau, a team of Americans, Shia Iraqi citizens, and Sunni Iraqi citizens gather to discuss the day’s news. Each of these groups has very different perspectives on the war – on what the fight is really about and who the villains and heroes are. As you can imagine, the team often struggles to abandon the emotional turmoil of war at the office door. The leader of this team, veteran conflict journalist Farnaz Fassihi, told us the most crucial aspect of her job is to somehow break the tension and inspire cohesion so her team can do their work. She decided to do this with a simple morning routine: “I say, ‘Let’s just start the day by telling each other about what happened in your community. What are your concerns? What are your anxieties?’ Farnaz told us that confronting the tension head-on allows her team to “see each other as friends and colleagues rather than rivals and enemies.”

The INOVA medical simulation center helps resident doctors train to handle life-or-death crisis situations, Maybelle Kou, the Program Director, told us these simulations give doctors a place to be vulnerable, an environment where they can learn and make mistakes without fear of repercussions. She told us, in her experience, the best way to learn is without fear. These simulations remove the liability of a real human life and leave room for discussing and admitting things they could have done differently. She also has veteran doctors speak with the residents, sharing vulnerable moments about times they made mistakes. 

Creating vulnerability and trust on your team

This research showed us there are a few key things any team can do to embrace vulnerability and build trust over time.

1. Get to know each other as people, not just colleagues – When you take the time to understand who your teammates are as people in and outside of work, it makes us more understanding when things don’t go as planned. When tension arises, you’re more likely to assume positive intent, and by knowing a bit about their background personally and professionally, you’ll have more context behind their thoughts and opinions. Like the journalists, each morning, rather than putting on headphones and getting straight to work, try making it a habit to engage with your team. Ask them how they’re doing, or if they did anything fun over the weekend. If you have a remote team, make sure you’re proactively making these same watercooler moments in the group chat.

Also, when at all possible, use video during meetings. Our research shows in-person meetings bring people the most happiness. By meeting face-to-face, even digitally, you’re better able to get to know the person on the other side of the call and see the interaction as a moment to connect, versus simply getting through the next meeting on your calendar.

2. Create a team environment where vulnerability is rewarded – Being vulnerable at work is easier said than done. As we all have experienced, sometimes the fear of criticism or rejection is all too real. At the same time, research shows we view vulnerability in others—such as admitting a mistake or trying a new skill—as courage, but in ourselves we see it as weakness. Researchers have coined this phenomenon the “beautiful mess effect” because when we observe someone else doing something vulnerable, we tend to be less risk averse and focus more on the positives. When doing something ourselves, we tend to focus more on the possible negative impact to our reputation or character. It’s a beautiful mess because it comes with big risks and big rewards.

While not all of us can create a fake environment to simulate work experiences like the doctors mentioned above, there are small things you can weave into every day work that make vulnerability feel easier. For example, could you encourage thoughtful discussions about what you learned following a big project, where mistakes are shared and learned from as a group? As a leader, can you share skills you’re trying to improve so your team can do the same? You could also consider opening up when stresses like, a new baby at home, are making work a little more trying for you, so others feel comfortable to do the same. The goal is that over time you’ll create more meaningful relationships and build trust that carries your team through both the good and trying times teams encounter.

3. Embrace and diffuse tension – Tension is inevitable. Like we saw in the journalists, sometimes embracing the tension head-on, rather than pretending it’s not there, can create a mutual understanding that helps the team empathize with others’ points of view. Are there opportunities on your team where you could diffuse tension more directly? For example, rather than going into weekly meetings filled with the same unsaid tension, bring it up. For instance, could you start a meeting by saying, “I know we are all discouraged by the amount of feedback we received in our last design review. I’d love to brainstorm ways we can improve the design for the next review.” Or, rather than ignoring an impossibly fast project timeline, you might start a conversation with something like, “I know we’re all feeling stressed about the timeline for this project. Let’s all pause and think about how we can simplify the plan before moving forward.”

Diversity, from life experience to expertise and temperament, is a powerful ingredient, but it requires their skillful application to turn diversity into a generative force. When teams establish trust and give each other permission to be vulnerable, diversity is honored, and everyone feels safer and more comfortable being themselves and taking risks in service of the team. And perhaps the most importantly, teamwork is better and more fun if we can embrace who we are as people and what makes us different. And who doesn’t want that.

If you’re interested in more tips and resources on teamwork, you can read my other articles in this series. You can also check out the Art of Teamwork toolkit my team created to give all teams the tools they need to team better.

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