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.