More vulnerability makes for better leaders

by | Jan 5, 2021

As part of your workplace team dynamics, can you let down your guard, admit flaws, and ask for help?

For some of you, without hesitation, your answer is a resounding YES, but for others, this couldn’t be further from your truth, and the voice in your head is shouting, “Are you kidding? NEVER!” In your world, this level of vulnerability leads to personal humiliation or career suicide. It’s hard for anyone to tell the truth when the results of doing so might be punitive.

Understandably, vulnerability is pretty scary. Often dialogue looks more like a verbal tennis match, words volleyed back and forth, one person determined to win and the other just trying to save face, avoid exposure or humiliation.

Why is workplace vulnerability so important?

Vulnerability is one of the most important characteristics any human being can embrace in life according to Patrick Lencioni, best-selling author of The Five Behaviors of a Dysfunctional Team.

Lencioni claims there are five behaviors teams need to master to become truly functional teams; the most important and foundational is trust. When people can be emotionally real or vulnerable with one another, it completely changes the dynamic of a team. It helps people trust one another inherently and powers productive conflict versus destructive conflict. Productive conflict means teams engage in a healthy debate of ideas, without fear, to bring the best solutions forward.

Vulnerability-based trust is when people can and will say things to one another, such as:

  • You’re much better at that, can you teach me?
  • I am sorry I didn’t read the situation right. Can we start over?
  • I am wondering what you think about this idea; I realize it’s a little out there.
  • I’m sorry I lashed out at you during the team meeting yesterday; I realize I didn’t show up well.
  • I don’t know where to go from here; I could really use your support with this.
  • Thank you for calling me on my insensitive comment. I will use this as a learning opportunity and try to be more conscientious in the future.

Committing to vulnerability-based trust as a team means you are willing to be completely open with one another and adopt a confident mindset that your team members’ intentions are good.

If you’re a leader, it’s important that you take the first step to model this type of open-hearted behavior. This gives permission to everyone else that it is safe to do so also.

If you don’t lead a team, can you find avenues to encourage the leaders in your organization to demonstrate and cultivate relational trust in their teams?

Recent events have provided a rare opportunity for us to engage in more open dialog because more of our private lives can be exposed to our managers and team members when working from home.

Vulnerability-based trust doesn’t develop overnight. Small daily acts of vulnerability achieve substantial strides. Here are a few behavioral tips to deepen your team’s relational trust:

  1. Resist the temptation to talk behind your team members’ back.
  2. Take the time to get to know team members on a personal level.
  3. Ask for help, even if you can grind your way to a solution.
  4. Everyone makes mistakes. Admit when you’re wrong and apologize.
  5. Be curious about others’ perspectives and ideas before sharing your own or practice speaking up sooner if you tend to wait until others have spoken or until called upon.
  6. Create opportunities for healthy laughter and levity on your team.
  7. Give specific positive feedback and identify ways to encourage struggling team members.
  8. Share your failures and fears.

Deepening your capacity to practice vulnerability-based trust will initially feel uncomfortable as you experiment with new behaviors. Over time, your investment will pay off as you experience more vested, enjoyable, and productive relationships.

Vulnerability-based trust is at the heart of great teamwork; it’s simple in theory, but it’s not easy in practice because it requires courage and hard work, but it is worth it because the benefits of a great team are truly extraordinary. In addition, organizations that are willing to tackle internal discrimination and inequity issues and are serious about becoming future-ready must provide the psychological safety required for people to risk being vulnerable with others to build relational trust.

Take a leap today—choose one small vulnerable act, professional and/or personal, and go for it!

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