A friend I had not heard from in a while called and said he had been given a great role where he could be of tremendous value to his company. At once I congratulated him on his promotion and began to enquire about the details. One of the interesting aspects of his role is that he has the authority to pull a group of employees on a monthly basis to collaborate in a discussion to bring positive change to their workplace. He says however, the problem has been a lack of animated discussion or exchange of ideas in the group in all the meetings they have had. So he was asking me what could one do without launching “collaboration training” to get folks to start sharing their ideas. It struck me that he was touching upon one of the most powerful leadership behaviors. I said to him that a single genuine act could ignite the group and start them on the path to an innovative culture. And that thing is none other than a display of vulnerability.
"The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability... When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins."
- Howard Schultz
In earlier days as a learning manager, I had a similar experience. We had always heard there were pockets of dissatisfaction but they were not being shared directly to managers. To address this we would create opportunities for people to discuss amongst themselves and we would make arrangements to leave the room so that people could feel free to speak out. As the managers would see only a summary of those items, people felt brave enough to share some of their thoughts. However, it was a single act one day that brought the first step for all of us on our journey to becoming a winning team.
That event was an apology. I put it on our agenda and explained that I regretted a decision, that I had made a mistake. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. Not only did it feel unnatural but what did it say about my leadership, my ability to lead and my so-called leadership strength? As it turned out the team discovered I was human, that I had good skills but that I also had blind spots. The aftermath of that confession was one of the most interesting periods of my career. People were no longer afraid to try new things. If their manager could make a mistake in trying, so could they! People felt free to share their ideas and felt safe in doing so. The icing on the cake was that I observed team members protecting us from my blind spots with the advice they freely shared in the matters they knew most about.
So, leaders need to be aware that being open with your employees, admitting mistakes and acknowledging failings is a catalyst for productivity, creativity and innovation in the workplace. As a leader, you set the tone for what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. If you are appear faultless and intolerant of mistakes, then it is very likely your organization will follow your lead. Lack of vulnerability in a leader will certainly inhibit employees’ willingness to take risks, which will hamper your efforts to innovate.
Being vulnerable is in fact a strength, not a weakness! It demonstrates you are human and approachable; it creates a sense of openness and willingness to share experiences, good and bad. It declares that it is ok to take risks, to try new approaches and make mistakes as long as you learn from them. In the competitive, global markets that exist today, organizations need every advantage to be competitive. A workforce that follows a leader who embraces vulnerability will not be afraid to ‘think out of the box’. A culture of vulnerability gives your employees the freedom to try new things and take a positive view of failures as opportunities to learn and improve.
"If you think dealing with issues like worthiness and authenticity and vulnerability are not worthwhile because there are more pressing issues, like the bottom line or attendance or standardized test scores, you are sadly, sadly mistaken. It underpins everything."
- Brene Brown
It is nearly impossible to be creative and innovate in an environment that is intolerant of mistakes and failure. More time, effort and energy will likely be wasted due to employees covering up missteps and worrying about placing blame. When co-workers are not being forthcoming with management and one another about mistakes and failings, then collaboration, creativity and innovation will suffer. When knowledge gained from mistakes is not shared, then those same mistakes are likely to be repeated by others, resulting in lost productivity and profitability.
By embracing vulnerability, leaders are willing to unmask their deficiencies, admit they don’t know it all, invite feedback and ask questions. It builds trust and cultivates deeper connections between leaders and employees. When leaders are open, employees are more likely to speak up when they see something is wrong or can be improved. Workers will know that it is ok to not have all the answers and that they need to rely on each other. Knowing each other’s weaknesses, as well as strengths, will make for a stronger team where co-workers can complement and support each other’s efforts.
"Remember teamwork begins by building trust.
And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability."
― Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
Another true story and a great example of vulnerability leading to insight occurred in a VA hospital pharmacy in New Jersey. Gravity feed shelves were installed so that as pharmacists took a package off a shelf, the package behind it would move to the front. This was supposed to speed up the pace of work, but the pharmacists encountered problems with packages repeatedly falling off the shelves onto the floor. An engineer was called in to review the problem and the determination was made that the angle of the shelving was too steep and the shelves would need to be reinstalled. This was a large pharmacy and the cost would be significant. Fortunately, one of the pharmacists noticed there was a slightly larger lip on the underside of the shelves than on the top surface. Overhearing the conversation concerning re-installation of the shelves, the pharmacist suggested to the engineer that they just turn the shelves upside down so that the lip would prevent the packages from falling off the edge. The engineer hadn’t thought of that, but demonstrating his vulnerability he admitted the problem and he was open to the suggestion of the pharmacist. All the shelves were turned upside down, the problem was solved with many hours of work and dollars saved.
Think of it this way. Vulnerability simply means you are open to failings, that admitting mistakes and learning from them and each other, are part of doing one’s job. When perfection is expected, creativity is inhibited. Employees will always stay in their ‘safe zone’ if the only option is perfection. They will fall back on old reliable methods to solve problems and avoid any sort of innovative solution. They will look for the easiest solutions that are least likely to expose areas where they lack knowledge and expertise. How then is a company going to be competitive with a culture like that?
Expressions of vulnerability will free creativity, as employees, no longer afraid of making mistakes, are willing to take the necessary risks to achieve company goals. And all it takes is one leader, with hand on heart, to show you how it’s done.
"Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change."
― Brené Brown
*This article is compiled from the PeopleProductive Talent-OS libary and my direct personal experience.