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Reframing vulnerability in organisational life, from liability to strength

The popular social researcher Dr Brene Brown exploded on social media when in 2014 she spoke about vulnerability – its messiness, its beauty and how necessary it is in forming the basis for authentic relationships and human connection. Her thinking stuck a chord with millions of people around the world including me. So much so that I was inspired to explore this topic and its link to compassion and courage in organisational life through my doctoral thesis.

I am excited about sharing snippets of my doctoral work with you through this monthly newsletter. Please do reach out to me if my thinking resonates or stimulates some ideas within you for how we can make our workplaces, more compassionate and humane places to be.


Reframing vulnerability in organisational life, from liability to strength

Daily I spend time with leaders and teams in organisations, supporting them to be more effective. They all seem to yearn for similar things. Environments where they can bring their best and be their best. For this to happen, most people report that they must be psychologically safe.

A study conducted by Google revealed that the highest-performing teams have psychological safety in common, and trust each other enough to allow for speaking one’s mind, allowing for the messiness of creativity, and sticking one’s neck out without fear of having it cut off  – just the types of behaviours that lead to innovation and market breakthroughs.

So how do we intentionally create the conditions where psychological safety exists? My research found that the leader plays a significant part in facilitating psychological safety and they can do this by the simple yet profound act of role modelling vulnerability. It might sound simple, but leaning into vulnerability for many leaders is fraught with discomfort.

Traditionally, in business, vulnerability has been generally seen as weakness. Having a strategy that is susceptible to attack, or negotiating with your liabilities revealed, goes against the grain of conventional wisdom. By the same token, personal vulnerability has oftentimes been considered a liability for leaders. Admitting that you don’t have all the answers, that you feel disturbed or disappointed by the politics in your organisation or that you feel at times overwhelmed by the pressure of the job, are acts of vulnerability.

To authentically role model vulnerability, I am convinced that first, we must change the way we think about it. We must reappraise vulnerability from a leadership liability, to a leadership strength or asset. If we continue to emotionally and cognitively construct vulnerability as a leadership liability, emotional and psychological contraction for us and for those we are seeking to influence, results. In this state, the need to protect ourselves from perceived threat becomes our highest concern. The emotional reflex to disengage from vulnerable feelings through denial and defensiveness, results in disconnection and lack of trust.

For me and for many of the leaders I coach, leaning into vulnerability requires courage. Embracing, rather than fleeing from feelings and experiences that make me feel vulnerable, requires my psychological, emotional and instinctual persistence. However, if we consistently lean into the discomfort of vulnerability, that is, we feel the anxiety and act in spite of it, the outcome will most likely be genuine connection with others. In doing this, we sow the seeds of understanding. We cultivate the conditions for trust to bloom.

Brené Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.