Look I’ll say it. I made a mistake. I should have picked up the phone and told you we had a serious problem, but I didn’t. Even as the problem got worse, I just kept my team focused on solving it and never reached out. Now I see how that decision set up the conflict you guys are in now.” Josey was one of the newer members of the senior leadership team and had recently moved into quality assurance. In her first six months there had been three major product quality issues.
“Can you say why you didn’t give us a head’s up?” Tom was VP of Sales and the quality issues and low inventory had resulted in his team missing their bonuses.
“Honestly, I wanted to save face. I was fearful of telling you about the problem, getting an ear full and not yet having a solution.” Again, Josey was frank and transparent.
“Well I guess it is true, we do often fire back when we hear there’s a problem. Look Josey, I appreciate your candid answer. I think we played into the problem as well because we knew there were some inventory issues and we didn’t stop selling or check in.” Tom was not one who usually acknowledged any mistakes.
This all came after a half day of team building and training on the importance of vulnerability-based leadership as a path for getting to healthy conflict, clarity and commitment. Everyone said at the end of the day how powerful the interaction had been, primarily due to Josey setting an example. Oddly though, when it came time to talk about what would be communicated out to the larger organization about the off-site, this is what happened.
“No way am I letting my team know we had any trust issues and, personally, I don’t like using the word “vulnerable” – that is just going to get people concerned.” Tom was clear that vulnerability wasn’t going to be a circulated value.
“I think our people need to know what we talked about. How else are they going to get the okay that acknowledging a mistake an important step.” Josey was the first to counter Tom’s position.
Sue, the conservative voice of the legal department agreed with Tom. “Our people don’t need to think we are having any issues,” Sue added, “Sure we want honest communication but I think our issues stay in this room only.”
It was a bit shocking to hear these same folks that had, moments ago, said how important the frank, open honest communication had been. Now they wanted to put on the armor and padding of confidentiality to make sure no one saw any weakness. Shocking … but not uncommon.
A Definition of Vulnerability
There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance vulnerability. Author Brené Brown in her book, Daring Greatly, is giving vulnerability lots of frontline press, and it is becoming a bit of a buzzword. So what does it mean to be vulnerable? Well first let’s go to the dictionary and pull the standard definition: “To expose oneself to danger, to be revealed.” Not really a great drawing card when you put it like that. Why would anyone be willing expose themselves to danger?
For a long time business has been about strategy and out-playing the competitors. That version of business encourages, holding your cards tight and looking good. There is not much room for revealing or exposing yourself to danger.
Having made a living sitting in boardrooms and executive conference rooms listening to leaders and teams define and clarify their business strategy, I have wrestled with the effectiveness of all the secrecy, importance and politics that often takes place among a group of smart, passionate people supposedly on the same team. The word – vulnerable, if talked about, will often be taken off the communication plan that cascades out to the rest of the organization, as demonstrated in the meeting above. Instead, the messaging usually implies that there was some sort of team huddle where everyone fought the good fight, and produced outcomes that are supercharged new or a refreshed vision and mission. Not much revealed or exposed to danger there.
I once heard a wonderful woman speaker at a women-owned business conference. Her opening line has always stayed with me, she said, “If eleven women were sitting in a room designing something to do, they would have never come up with football.” Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good competitive game, even football, but football is sort of the ultimate example in lacking vulnerability. Pretty much every inch of those guys is covered in protective padding, and oddly, many of the worse type of injuries still occur. There is some truth to the story that all that protection and gear can, and often does, get used to hit harder. I often wonder if there were as many head injuries in football before helmets came along. Often, too much armoring or protection simply invites more problems and attacks.
So What is Vulnerability?
What does it mean to revel oneself or expose oneself to danger? Simply put – it means acknowledging what is really going on. When Josey spoke up and acknowledged her decision to keep the problem quiet, she exposed herself and her team to potential danger. She also opened a door for more open, transparent communication. Acknowledging can be as simple as saying, we/I made a mistake, we’re sorry, we believe we are the best and want you to choose us.
A Women’s Natural Strength
I believe vulnerability-based leadership is quite natural for women. As women we are often told to toughen up if we want to be in business; don’t wear your heart on your sleeve; and please don’t bring emotions or empathy into the business equation. But really, that is what business needs – open and honest conversation between people. Not padding, not protective gear, not the ability to dodge hard hits. Empathy, or walking in someone else’s shoes can go a very, very long way towards creating new ideas and possibilities. And really, football players are some of the most emotional beings out there, it’s just all covered up in pads and helmets.
Emotions are the true potential energy of people. It’s emotions that drive us to action, not dreaming. A great dream will only become a major movement and possibility if it is embodied with emotion. That combination is vital and if you want people to come along with you, a dose of vulnerability will go a very long way in getting to the real issues.
Josey made it possible for some honest conversation and led to an acknowledgement on Tom’s part about how his team can fire back and may contribute to the problem. This was a huge step forward for the leadership team. Sadly it may not roll out yet to the broader organization without a bit more vulnerability in modeling to the rest of the organization that acknowledging mistakes can lead to healthier teams. We learned later that Josey continued to influence her peers when another quality issue came up. This time she spoke up early and Tom was able to let the sales team in on the problem. Together they arrived at a solution that had no negative impact on the customers or the bonuses. Tom still isn’t fond of using the word vulnerability but he does communicate out the importance of exposing and acknowledging the potential issues faster as the best path for creative solutions.
What You Can Do: Use Your Feminine Strength
So step into your next team meeting or planning session and, instead of holding your cards, try revealing what you really think, feel and want. Be interested in discovering how others respond. Use what may be a more natural feminine strength. You might be in for a big surprise. Play without pads and helmets, but if you do, be sure to let the rest of your company know what really happened in the boardroom. Try a little dose of vulnerability – maybe you are exposing yourself to danger, but you may also be giving yourself the best chance to see what is really out there and respond accordingly.
CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke are Master certified life coaches, business consultants, speakers and authors of The Beauty of Conflict. They believe real relationships are the key to creating great business results. They’ll take your team from mediocre to great.
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