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Vulnerability in Leadership

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Episode Description

The paradigm shift in society and our workforce in the past twenty years means that using the old model of leaders presenting themselves as impenetrable, perfect, and having all the answers no longer works. Margot and Jim get very candid as they talk about the ways they are seeing vulnerability impact leadership teams and how leaders can enter into it more.

What you’ll learn:

  • A common misconception about vulnerability [00:01:02]
  • Where to begin with embracing vulnerability at the leadership level [00:03:01]
  • Why a lack of vulnerability in leadership decreases effectiveness in our current corporate climate [00:04:42]
  • A vulnerability exercise to do with your leadership team [00:08:04]
  • Why it’s important for the whole leadership team to embrace vulnerability together — and how [00:10:18]
  • The impact that embracing vulnerability can have on your team’s effectiveness [00:16:38]


Margot [00:00:00] So today we're talking about vulnerability. I know that it's a bit of a buzz word—

Jim [00:00:04] (makes buzz/horn sound)


Margot [00:00:05] Oh my God.

(laughing, long beep, restarts with intro music)


Jim [00:00:13] Welcome to The OrgHealth Podcast: conversations about organizational health. I'm Jim Brown.


Margot [00:00:20] And I'm Margot Thompson. We're consultants and coaches to leaders who are creating healthy organizations.


Jim [00:00:25] We talk about leading at the executive level.


Margot [00:00:27] And we're going to do some of that right now.


Margot [00:00:36] So today we're talking about vulnerability. I am so excited about this.


Jim [00:00:41] Good, good, good.

Margot [00:00:42] So today we're going to be talking about what it is in a nutshell. So many people have different ideas about what it looks like and there are different kinds of vulnerability. The point of this episode is to give the practical steps for how to grow in something that really seems to be intangible, but it delivers very real results.

Jim [00:01:02] Right. Well, so let's, let's get clear about what it is. It is opening ourselves up so that the way we feel and how we think and how things affect us are more transparent to the people around us. Can we let our guard down and be absolutely authentic? Absolutely human, which means flawed, with each other.


Margot [00:01:35] Mhm. It's about letting yourself be known. And it's about prioritizing, knowing other people beyond the surface level, making a personal connection.


Jim [00:01:44] Right. Good. So, meanwhile, lots of people have a misconception that vulnerability is about admitting that we are no good. That it suggests that we're weak or we are not competent if we admit that we need some help with something. Does that mean that we shouldn't even have our job because we can't do it properly? There's a there's a lot of baggage with the notion about vulnerability.


Margot [00:02:14] For sure, and there's a real fear about how other people are perceiving us when we're being vulnerable.

Jim [00:02:19] Mhm. In many ways, modeling vulnerability is about creating safe space. It's almost paradoxical, though, because we're asking people to do what in lots of places is very unsafe, in order to create safe space.

Margot [00:02:41] Yeah, I think that we talk a lot about trust being the foundation of any healthy team and healthy organization. And I think that trust is the essential component when you're vulnerable or you need to feel that you are in a space where you can trust the people, that you are being vulnerable in front of.

Jim [00:03:01] Yep. This is one of the reasons that, when we work with organizations, the first thing we do is have a very intentional conversation with the leader, the CEO. Because we are convinced that if the CEO is not committed to making this happen, they will be the reason it won't happen. The CEO needs to be blazing the trail to make it safe to be vulnerable. So that means that she's the first person to admit that she doesn't feel like she's got this figured it out. To her team. I'm not saying standing on a stage to five thousand people. With her leadership team, she admits that she doesn't feel like she's got this figured out or she admits that what happened last quarter was heartbreaking, and she feels like it was mostly her fault and she's so sorry. Whatever that might be. She admits that there's stuff going on in her life, her personal life, that is making it difficult for her to have the horsepower to do what she knows her job is to do.


Margot [00:04:16] It is so much a part of human nature to follow the leader. So it is incredibly important that the leader is willing to be vulnerable if they want to have vulnerability on their team. So vulnerability really, I think people don't understand how much vulnerability humanizes leaders. Your team will trust you so much more if you are open and genuine and transparent.


Jim [00:04:42] Yeah, something that we've seen is there's a real shift. Let's talk about this, Margot, because it's... I still find people are kind of surprised when I say this. Twenty years ago, the epitome of a leader in control, the CEO, has got things figured out, is the guy who's standing on the stage and he's got all the questions figured out. Here are all the answers. We know exactly what we're doing.


Margot [00:05:13] Right.

Jim [00:05:14] And it's kind of like everything is flipped totally on the other side now. For a leader to stand up like that makes the current workforce uncomfortable. They feel like, yeah. You can't have it all figured out, so you're lying to us or at the very least, you're lying to yourself. And the opposite, the "I don't have it all figured out. Here are the questions we're working on. We're going to work together to come up with our best answers." It's like the opposite stance from 20 years ago and it's very welcomed. It's reassuring to workforce when the leader admits they don't have it all figured out. It's quite a paradigm change.


Margot [00:06:07] I think that organizational research over the past 20 years has shown that there's been a lot of development in the sense of ideas being generated. And because the type of corporate climate that we have right now requires ideas to be generated, the leadership team can't be responsible for bringing all of those together. So asking for those ideas from your workforce, from your employees, from your managers has proven to be incredibly effective. And that has changed the dynamic quite a bit.


Jim [00:06:41] Right. But they're not going to offer those if the CEO is standing at the front, putting on the face of knowing all the answers.


Margot [00:06:49] That's the thing right there. Exactly.


Jim [00:06:51] Yeah. So. So, that person, that leader needs to really be setting the pace of being vulnerable and showing that they can receive that from others on the team, as in it's OK if you admit you made a mistake. I'm not going to fire you that day because you made a mistake. We welcome when you share that you need help, so that we can work together and solve the problem. We want to know what's going on in your personal life because it affects your work life. There's no way around it. These kinds of things, making it clear that I'm going to make that evident to all of you, my team, and I expect you to do likewise. You're safe to do that.


Margot [00:07:41] Sure. And if you have better collaboration and more robust options to choose from, you can make way better decisions.

Jim [00:07:47] Right. And if together we're working, making better decisions, we're likely not going to be burning out. There's not going to be as much turnover. So all kinds of pay off if we create a space where it's safe to be vulnerable.


Margot [00:08:04] Right. So one of the things that you do that I really, really like when we're working with teams is the personal histories exercise.


Jim [00:08:11] Yeah. This is where we ask everyone on the team to reflect for a moment and then we get them to share. Where did they grow up? Talk about their family and where they were in birth order. So, their... I'm the fourth of five children in my household when I grew up. And what's something that happened in their youth that has, impacts them even today? It's shaped them, so to speak. And when people, when people open up about this, it's just amazing what people learn about each other around a team.

Margot [00:08:51] Yeah, I'm always surprised at how teams react to that exercise. They are almost always, I don't know if "shocked" is the right word, but they're almost always impacted by something—or, something that each one of the people on their team has said has shaped them.


Jim [00:09:09] Yeah.


Margot [00:09:10] I think what I hear most often is that when you share something that has been really impactful to you, and how that's affected your life, it's at a deeper level. And people are really, really influenced to do that themselves, to just share from a deeper level themselves.


Jim [00:09:30] Mhm, yeah. We saw that happen in a team. This is more than a year ago. And this was, I think he was the second or third member. He's not the leader, not the CEO. But, boy, did he put it out there. And I seem to remember him saying he hasn't shared this with anybody else.


Margot [00:09:51] He did say that. And the whole team was so affected by that. And every single person who shared their personal history after that went deeper and deeper and deeper.


Jim [00:10:03] I remember one of them said, "I had three things in mind that I could share: the safe thing, the sort of sort of out there thing, and then the really deep thing. And after he shared, I knew I had to go to the really deep thing."


Margot [00:10:15] Right. And she did.


Jim [00:10:16] Yeah. Yeah. This is, this is a beautiful demonstration of the power of being vulnerable in a small group. When we take a step, when we open ourselves up, it actually invites others to open up. We're afraid that it's going to do the opposite. We're afraid that people are going to close up and make us feel terribly exposed. But our observation is, in fact, people open up more. They do reciprocate with the example that they were just given.

Margot [00:10:52] Right. I think that when you're being truly vulnerable, everyone can feel that. Everyone can feel the genuineness and the transparency of it. And it's incredibly impactful for the team.

Jim [00:11:04] Exactly.

Margot [00:11:07] I'm reminded of a time when we assigned a team some homework, they—on vulnerability—they were gonna be ready to share it the following morning, and the team was absolutely amazed, to a person, when they came in the next morning and they realized the impact of that exercise as they heard what others had to say and the reaction of others to what they had to say on the topic.


Jim [00:11:32] Yep. Every person was impacted.


Margot [00:11:35] Every person.

Jim [00:11:36] I'm thinking of a day I spent with a team. And at the end one of them said, "Oh, my goodness. I feel like we've built trust and moved further in one day than we've been able to move in years before." So I say this simply so that we can help people realize that this is not a grueling climb up a mountain. This is a commitment to changing behavior. And the faster you commit and the more deeply you share that commitment as a team, you'll be surprised how quickly you can create some safety and vulnerability for the team. So another one of the obstacles, Margot, is that. Sometimes team people, team members don't actually receive it or reciprocate or respect the vulnerability. Let's talk about overcoming that.


Margot [00:12:38] Absolutely. I think that going to the same place together as a team is really important. Knowing that you're all in it together allows team members to invest without fear. They know that they're not at a different level of investment than the next guy, and they aren't as scared that they're going to look any particular bad way at all.

Jim [00:12:59] Yeah. Here's a fun story. I worked with a team and there was one fellow who was a great guy, but he just wasn't quite getting it going there.


Margot [00:13:12] Yeah.


Jim [00:13:13] And. A day or two later, he sent the whole team an email apologizing that he hadn't done the pre-work for the day and he didn't understand what we really meant when we were talking about getting vulnerable. And he was just so vulnerable in this e-mail that he quickly demonstrated to the team: okay, I didn't go there with you, but I'm there with you now.


Margot [00:13:42] Yes. So that was perfect!


Jim [00:13:43] Very, very powerful.

Margot [00:13:45] Yeah, absolutely.


Jim [00:13:48] I think another big one is if we would notice when other people are being vulnerable and just appreciate that in the room to the team, that helps, one, affirm the person who is taking the risk and, two, remind everyone that, oh, yeah, we're supposed to be doing that. It's a good thing to do.


Margot [00:14:12] Yeah. That level of positive reinforcement makes it easier for everybody and encourages it to happen again and again.

Jim [00:14:19] Yeah. So, it's so often that we expect the CEO to be the one that's doing these kinds of things. And of course we, we want them to, but it's even more impactful when other people on the team do it. So. We were with a team and the mild mannered, kind of introverted finance person said something about somebody else being very vulnerable. That was a great example where people were realizing, "Oh, yeah. That's a good point." And it was even. It was almost, like, laughable that the person that they would least expect to be vulnerable was noticing the power of someone being vulnerable.


Margot [00:15:12] Calling it out is really important, whether it's positive or negative. I think that it's just as important to call out the behavior that decreases psychological safety.


Jim [00:15:21] Yeah, let's—what's an example of when we've seen one of those things happen?

Margot [00:15:27] Well, I've seen somebody make a comment in a group discussion and the leader just absolutely shut them down. "Nope, that's not it. That's not true." Hand out, the whole bit.

Jim [00:15:40] Yeah.


Margot [00:15:41] And move right onto the next topic. And I know that that person felt completely shut down and very disrespected by that attitude.


Jim [00:15:51] Yeah, so in that setting, what we'd love to see happen would be: someone be brave enough to say, "Well, time out. Let's just talk about what just happened," to deal with the fact that that was a major withdrawal out of the trust fund, so to speak. And it shouldn't be skipped over.


Margot [00:16:17] And we're not really just talking about an act here. We're talking about genuine vulnerabilities. So it's not like a leader or anyone else on the team can just pretend to be vulnerable. That's the kind of thing that many people on the team will just be able to subconsciously sense. It needs to be genuine. You have to be real with it.


Jim [00:16:38] Yeah. So people need to lead by example. And let's, let's just remind everybody what are some ways that we especially demonstrate vulnerability? One is we admit mistakes or we take responsibility for failures that happen. Another one is that we actually ask people for help. We bravely share ideas that no one else has talked about before, even at the risk of people thinking they're crazy.

Margot [00:17:08] And ask others for theirs.

Jim [00:17:11] Sure! And we talk about what's going on in our own lives. We share about our personal world. Even though we might be afraid that people think that they don't need to know about that. But if it's, if it's affecting our world for better or for worse then it's actually beneficial for others on the team to know about it. I'm thinking about a meeting that I was in where a person on the team shared that his daughter was going through a divorce and that it was a devastating experience for him. He felt like a failure as a dad. He just didn't have a clue what to do to help his daughter. And everybody was, like, just affected by his emotional rawness in that moment. Now, the team didn't try to solve the problem. It wasn't about, oh, now we're gonna talk about divorce. No, it was simply, wow, that's a heavy load you've got. And the fact that they knew it actually helped them because as the meeting continued and he was a little edgy at times and maybe short in conversation and responses, people knew that it wasn't about their ideas. It was about: life is hard for him right now. Give him some space. Give him some grace. It's just helpful! And this kind of stuff that goes on in people's lives all the time, and we act as if you're not allowed to talk about it at work. But it still is bubbling up.

Margot [00:19:04] Yeah, we've often seen teams recalibrate the way that they deal with a particular team number once they understand something that's been going on in their lives that they hadn't talked about before.

Jim [00:19:16] Right. Right. Margot, I really appreciate that you helped us understand that you had a tough night. You came and you shared that you'd been up late at the hospital with your husband and you weren't asking for sympathy. You were just admitting that that was your reality. And so it meant that we were going to incorporate that into how we can work with you this day. And it didn't make you weaker. It just meant you... It made you more known. And that's healthy. That's helpful.

Margot [00:19:55] Yeah, I'm going to admit, too, that I went—on my way over here today, to do this podcast—I went through worry about how I was going to talk about things because I was so tired. I was concerned. I had fear about how it would affect the way that we could communicate today.


Jim [00:20:18] Sure.

Margot [00:20:18] And those are the things that everybody goes through.

Jim [00:20:21] Right. That's human.

Margot [00:20:23] Right. It's exactly that. It's human.

Jim [00:20:25] Yeah. So, thanks for being vulnerable with us about that. And I hope that you were able to quickly feel safe that you could just be yourself.

Margot [00:20:36] Well, you're pretty good at making me feel safe. Thanks, Jim. I think it's, it's just if we all care about succeeding, we need to all care to know each other better.

Jim [00:20:44] So important.

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