How Vulnerability Makes Your Leadership Stronger

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I coach a lot of leaders who initially state that vulnerability does not belong in the workplace.  In fact, they believe that if they are vulnerable and share select personal things about themselves bad things could happen.  What bad things?  The information about them could backfire and be used against them or they could be seen as weak or incompetent.  I’ve heard my clients say that their team will take advantage of them if they let their guard down.  While all of these outcomes are possible, it often does not happen that way.  Vulnerability is actually a sign of strength and courage.

Think about the most impactful, powerful speaker you’ve seen at a conference.  Were you wowed because they fired off new information that was useful to you but your sense of them is that they never struggled with getting to their expert status?  Or, if you’ve had the experiences I have had hearing with powerful speakers you know there is a connection that’s made with the audience.  That connection (because there is transparency, vulnerability and basic humanness) makes me feel like I can do it too.  I too can struggle and come out winning.  I can be imperfect and flawed, but still be successful.

What about the leader who makes a mistake that impacts the company?  You are aware the mistake was made but the leader avoids talking about it with others and even hides the mistake in the hopes that no one notices.   What message does that send?  That it’s not OK to make mistakes and if you do, don’t let anyone know.

I had a coaching mentor who always said, “flaunt your flaws.”  I took that to mean it’s OK to be open about who you are which includes strengths and weaknesses.  None of us are great at everything and if you present as if you are you will not connect well with others.  We can sense when someone is full of it and not being candid.

Brene Brown is a thought leader on vulnerability and I highly recommend her books and Ted Talks that highlight her research on this topic. 

If you want to practice vulnerability in the workplace here are some suggestions:

1.     Start with a trusted colleague and share something about yourself that you haven’t shared with anyone at work.  It doesn’t have to be something huge but on a scale of 1-10, maybe a 6.

2.     Be transparent about an area of professional development you are engaged in.  For example, when I coach leaders and they are working on a specific skill like giving feedback, I have them tell their staff that they are working on this skill and will be asking for feedback on the feedback.  It’s amazing how this openness increases feelings of safety on the team.

3.     Think about a workplace skill you admire in someone at work and tell them that you respect that aspect of their work.

4.     Remember, being vulnerable does not mean let it all hang out.  It’s about sharing with the right audience who is deserving and has earned your trust.  Be selective in your audience and timing.

How can you show your courage and strength by being vulnerable?  Is there a small step around this you can try at work?  I’d love to know how it works out.

Are you avoiding difficult conversations?

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From time to time we all have difficult conversations that need to happen at work and home.  You know, those conversations that you are procrastinating on and avoiding for various reasons.  Maybe you feel like the other person is going to be angry and defensive, maybe the other person is great at talking circles around you or maybe they are highly sensitive and you don’t want to hurt their feelings.  No matter what stressful thoughts you are having about these discussions there are some principles and skills that can make these talks go much smoother than you are envisioning.

 

1.    Lead with transparency and vulnerability to create a safe environment

From the field of neuroscience we know that transparency and vulnerability increase connection.  The part of the brain associated with distrust, fear, and protecting self is the Amygdala.  This old part of our brain is important to keep us safe and was especially important back in the day when there were numerous physical threats.  I’m sure you are familiar with the stress response that generates fright, flight, freeze, etc in us when triggered.  In .07 seconds we register whether the interaction with someone is safe.  The newer part of the brain, the Prefrontal Cortex triggers connection, collaboration, caring and creativity. 

 

As you consider your next challenging conversation, what actions, thoughts or words will trigger openness in the other person and you?

 

2.    Look to connect before launching into the topic

“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” FDR

 

We’ve all had the experience of a boss, partner or someone we know launch into a criticism or something they are angry with us about without an introduction to either prepare us or using an easier to digest approach that doesn’t trigger our stress response.  It doesn’t have to happen that way!  One way to approach the conversation is to establish rapport first with the intention of bringing trust, openness and connection into the conversation.  What does this do?  It activates the hormone oxytocin (which is a feel good hormone) and reduces cortisol.

 

Before your next challenging conversation, set the intention of listening to connect.  The goal is to withhold judgment of each other and be open to new possibilities created in the conversation.

 

 

3.    Listen to Understand

As you are listening to the other person how much do you fully step into their world and see things from their viewpoint?  To do this requires openness and being non-judgmental and it’s harder than it sounds.  We all carry a story about the other when we come into these conversations.  What would it do for the conversation to put the story aside and be curious and open about their experience?  From a neuroscience perspective, the ability to do this activates empathy and mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons allow us to understand each other – they open up empathy.

 

4.    Practice!

There’s no shame in practicing what you are going to say and how you would like to show up in your challenging conversation.  You can test out with someone else how your words and energy are landing on them.

 

I’ll share a personal example of using these strategies.  I was not looking forward to having a conversation with a contracted employee who I needed to take off the project he was on.  The story I made up was that he was going to be really angry and try to talk me out of my decision, a decision that was best for our company.  I also knew there was plenty of room for him to let me have it around the startup nature of the project and how frustrating the technology was and all the changes that were happening.  I set an intention of how I wanted he and I to feel in the conversation before we had the conversation.  I wanted me to feel empathic and understanding and I wanted him to feel heard and appreciated for what he did bring to the table.  Essentially I valued him as a person and consultant and thought he could do well in a different situation.  I wrote out some bullet points to cover so I wouldn’t lose track and practiced my opening. 

 

When we did have the discussion I transparently told him that I was nervous about the conversation and asked him if there’s anything that we could co-create that would minimize defensiveness.  I asked him how the project was going from his perspective.  I shared my concerns with him on the project and that we decided that he be removed from this type of client work.  He was not defensive and actually seemed relieved!  He did give me some feedback on how things could improve and we ended the conversation both feeling heard and appreciated.

 

To learn more about the neuroscience behind conversations check out the work of Judith Glasser and her book “Conversational Intelligence.”

 

To work with Chris to help you manage challenging leadership conversations in the workplace contact her for a complimentary consult.