Vulnerable: What does it mean to be vulnerable at work?

Posted on: April 1st, 2020 by Clear Thinking Team No Comments

Bev seems to be looking for inspiration from above in this unscripted exploration of Vulnerable from our Cards for Clear Thinking series.

If you prefer to listen rather than watch, and to be honest I’m not sure we do anything on screen that you need to see, then click on the audio player to just listen.

And finally, if you love to read words then you can find the transcript below…..

Please do comment if there is something that strikes you. It may be that you have a different experience or understanding to share which will enrich the thinking that we’ve shared here. We’d love to hear from you.

Bev Holden 0:01
Hello, this is Bev and Kate from Clear Thinking. This is the next in our series where we are just in conversation exploring some of the well all of the words hopefully that make up our cards for clear thinking. So we are going to focus today on the word vulnerable. And, I guess we’re using this to get to grips with what the word means to us. And its relevance to the work that we do with the people in organisations that we work with. And so to kick off our thinking around this, I had a look at the dictionary definition of vulnerable and the dictionary says it’s being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed either physically or emotionally. So that’s why we’re starting Kate, what do you think?

Kate Miles-Roberts 0:58
I was looking at the picture that we have chosen for vulnerable and it is a glass heart. And I guess the definition that you were just talking about, being vulnerable and exposed to harm, if you think about that, if I dropped that on a tile floor in my kitchen, it would smash. So definitely, there’s that part of vulnerability that there has to be some kind of jeopardy in it. So you have to be offering up something that that matters to you, I guess, to then be vulnerable.

We asked people on LinkedIn and Facebook to make their comments and Jo Cotton was saying that you’re at your most vulnerable when you’re doing something that you really care about she was saying that you can be a bit over giddy about stuff and a bit kind of devil may care. “Well, who cares? Anyway, I’m going to do it. “

But actually, the vulnerability comes in when it’s really important to you that you get it right or that people don’t think of you as foolish. So I quite like that, thinking about that difference between the devil may care attitude, where you might look like you’re putting yourself out there and being vulnerable but actually, you’re not, because you don’t really care about the outcome. Whereas when it is something that you do very much care about, then that’s real and true vulnerability that you’re showing. And I like that, it really made me think about it a bit differently, what about you?

Bev Holden 2:03
So that really makes sense, doesn’t it when you think about the fact that it has to matter in order for you to be vulnerable, because otherwise you’re not really bothered. So I really like the notion of that. And I think that’s why if it’s something that you think might harm your reputation, or you’re standing in the eyes of others, it’s harder to be vulnerable.

So from a leadership point of view, I think people find it hard sometimes to admit perhaps, that they don’t know or they can’t do something. Because, in being a leader, there’s this misconception that you are invincible and capable of everything. And it becomes really difficult to ask for help if that’s the situation. And it’s not as though the leader has the monopoly on being right or having all the skills. Sometimes, I’ve noticed in some of the conversations that we have with people who manage others, that they want to be the ones who provide the knowledge and the information. And rather than expose themselves and expose a vulnerability and say, “I don’t know what to do next, what do you think?”, they’re much more inclined to ignore that thing. So I think that reputation goes with vulnerability and those two things going hand in hand I think, is an important factor.

The other thing you started with was the glass heart on our picture. When I was looking at what people say about vulnerability, it’s massively linked to our feelings and love and relationships. And I posed the question to Jon and the first thing he said was, “in love and relationships, blah, blah, blah.” There’s so much that’s wrapped up with that feeling. And when we talk about love or care in the workplace, people often find that quite difficult to deal with because it’s not seen as a place where we talk about that kind of thing. So maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to think about vulnerability, or hard to be vulnerable. I don’t know. What else do you think?

Kate Miles-Roberts 4:32
So the other thing that makes me think about is the grey side of the card which is bulletproof. The one of the things that often happens when the cards are out, people look at vulnerable and go, “surely you’ve got that the wrong way around. Surely the positive is bulletproof and the greyed out negative is vulnerable?”. And that seems to happen an awful lot. There is that thing about “I’m a leader, therefore I’m invincible, bulletproof, need to know everything”, we can’t ever say, “I’m not really sure about that,” which feels like quite an old fashioned, well warn, way of thinking that obviously still permeates.

I was chatting to Matt last night and he was talking about the cards. And one of the things he was saying about vulnerability is that people, in his experience, often referenced the fact that surely bulletproof is the thing. And, it was making me think about often we talk to people who have a sense of imposter syndrome. “I’ve been promoted, and I’m just waiting for people to find out that I actually don’t really know what I’m doing.” And I think that if you’re working with that feeling of imposter syndrome, then vulnerability is a really difficult place to be and thing to show, isn’t it? Because almost it goes against the grain… “I know I’m vulnerable, but I don’t want to share it, because other people haven’t guessed it yet. And if they haven’t guessed it, then I’m still okay.” Whereas I think for you and me often, we’re just making stuff up as we go along and we view life as a work in progress and for us that feels okay.

I was really thinking about that today. We were talking about the working from home situation, which is really new to people. And people are really busy with back to back Zoom meetings, and this, that and the other. It did make me wonder if a little bit of that busyness is people’s reaction to feeling like they are making it up as they go along, so they are clinging to the stuff that’s quite familiar and secure?

It feels as if people know meetings are good things, so they are filling thier time with things like meetings, just doing it virtually. So they feel they are doing it right. It feels like people aren’t allowing themselves to think, “you know what, we’re all making this up as we go along, because no one’s been in this very odd situation before”. Alot of the kind of stuff I’m seeing posted is advice about how you should be doing it right, not people saying “do you know what, if you feel like you’re making it up, it’s because we all are and that’s okay.” And so when people do show that little bit of vulnerability, “I don’t really know” it really gladdens my heart, that people are able to be alittle human about it.

Which is one of the things that Cate was talking about on Facebook. So she talked about when she’s worked with really great leaders, and they show their human side and they can acknowledge that they have got vulnerability, that makes her want to follow them even more so. And she makes the point that vulnerability plus strong leadership are a great thing. So it’s not an either or, which I think some people do think “well, you can be this, or you can be that, but you can’t be both”. What else did it make you think about?

Bev Holden 7:39
And so I have been thinking about the leadership thing. If you demonstrate vulnerability, and ask for help, it leaves gaps for other people to fill, for other people to do their best work, to step up. And if you never show any sign that you need anything, this can become an issue. So the whole point of having a team is that your combined strengths, skills, knowledge experience, comes together to make something happen, that couldn’t happen without that team being together.

And so it makes sense that the leader of a team doesn’t know everything and can’t do everything. But I think that leader has to create an environment where people feel that it’s okay that there are gaps. And it’s then okay to look for who can fill them and how a team can start to identify its own vulnerabilities. So if I think way back some of the work we did, a long time ago, with one of our very first clients, and we use a team management profile, and we looked at where the distribution of preferences was, and there was one segment of the profile that was missing. And that was a vulnerability for that team. But what it meant was that objectively, we could take that segment and work out how that team was going to fill the gap that wouldn’t naturally, through their preference, be identified. So, being vulnerable, being open about it in a leadership capacity, creates the opportunity for you to bring the best out in other people and leave some gaps. So that was something I thought about today.

I was also thinking about the one of the words we use in our business, we have three, inspired, collaborate and innovate. Innovate was one that struck me today, because you have to admit that you don’t know how to do something in order for something to improve, or you have to admit that something’s not quite right. So if you are suddenly going from working in an office environment, to your entire team being geographically dispersed and working remotely together, then, you’ve never done that before. And so you’ve got a choice you can go, “we can’t do that” it’s one option and close it down straightaway. Or you can say, “I don’t know how we’re going to do that, what do you think?” And so that exposure that you create, that vulnerability that you show, that “actually I don’t know, I’ve never done this before”, then allows for improvement, difference, innovation, whether that be massive, whole scale, innovation, and something big and messy or a tiny little incremental innovation. So I think that’s been occurring to me a little bit more today, and the importance of that. What more?

Kate Miles-Roberts 10:42
Based on what you were saying, I really agree with that. And I think that if you’re able to have those good conversations that say “I’m not really sure about this bit what do other people think?” It opens up that dialogue, it opens up that discussion for people to chip in, to raise their hands, to raise their heads, above parapet and say “well, I was thinking this, or I could do that”. So I think, being able to express it and be really happy that you don’t know what people will say as a result of you being vulnerable, but having a positive intention around it can be massively important to a team.

One of the books I grabed when I was thinking about it today was this one, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, and I’ve used this to inspire a few bits of work with various teams. And I was thinking about vulnerability within quite senior leadership teams that I was have been working with recently. I was looking for a way of how to introduce vulnerability as a real strength because they’re all really brilliant at what they do, they are all subject matter experts in different ways, but as a team, that ‘expert’ lable can sometimes get in the way of them being quite human and normal with each other. It’s almost a case of “I need to defend my position within this team” , “my status needs to be at least equal to everybody else.” And so vulnerability isn’t particularly a thing on their agenda.

It got me looking in this book, which is a great read anyway. The author talks about a guy from Harvard, a Professor of Organisational Behaviour called Jeff Pulsar. And he’s got this thing called the Vulnerability loop, and it’s a really nice way of thinking about how you generate and use vulnerability in a really positive way. But what he says is, vulnerability often is more about the action of the receiver than it is about the sender. So if I’m the sender, and I’m thinking “right, I am going to be vulnerable, I’m going to expose my vulnerability here”. So I, as Person A, make a signal that I have a vulnerability. And then Person B detects the signal. And then, this is the crucial bit, Person B, then responds to that signal. And I guess that’s where you make a choice as Person B, in terms of, I either respond and share a bit of my own vulnerability (and we meet as vulnerable people) or I almost disregard it and feel a bit embarrassed about it and just don’t respond, so the tennis match stops at that point. But if I, as Person B, responds similarly with something else that makes them vulnerable, and I detect that signal, and we form a much closer relationship between us because they’ve made the offer, I’ve accepted it, I’ve made an offer back. So it is all levelled out. And, they (the senior team in question) responded really well to just thinking about that.

When you think about vulnerability, it’s really easy to think about the ‘person’ being vulnerable, but actually, to think about it differently and consider the role of the person receiving that information, that’s a key point of consideration. And it’s not a thing that I’d thought of particularly before, but it puts a very interesting perspective on it. I think from a team point of view, and probably from a current point of view, with people having to make stuff up as they go along and behave really differently and be placed in different positions and situations, it’s probably a really useful one to remember as well.

Bev Holden 14:15
So yeah, it is useful. So I was thinking, there’s a really strong link to what you’re saying, I was thinking about the components in the thinking environment, particularly encouragement and ease. And that’s Person B, encouragement is giving heart, giving courage to a person. So if somebody gives you a merest hint that they’re going to demonstrate some vulnerability, if you’re going to help them do that well and help them think and go to the edge of where they want to go with their thinking and their expression of their thoughts. Then you have to encourage them, you have to maintain that attention that presence in the moment for them to know, with that non judgmental listening, that it’s okay, because they’re looking for signs and signals from you that they’re okay to continue. So, encouragement becomes really important, not in a cheerleader kind of way, but in a, ‘okay, I’m hanging there, I’m waiting, I really want to hear, I’m curious , I’m interested in what you’re gonna say next’ And where you might go with this and how much of yourself, I can help you to expose, in a really positive way. And then Ease goes hand in hand with that as well. So in creating a situation, a circumstance, and obviously ease sometimes comes because of the duration of your relationship and how you’ve built trust over time, but you can still create ease in a moment with someone who is very new to you, and where the relationship is quite new, that lets somebody feel that they can be vulnerable.

And you were saying before that, it’s just about when one person does it opens the door a little bit to feeling more comfortable. And it links to the collaboration side of what we do, in that, when we demonstrate vulnerability, it builds trust, it’s like, ‘here’s a little bit of my soft underbelly that I wish to show you, please don’t hurt me when I roll over and show you that underbelly. Be nice to me, be kind, be compassionate’. And then when you are, there’s an increase, a surge in that connection, that oxytocin is made, because you suddenly feel that connection with that person. And then it becomes easier to work with that person because you develop that understanding and that empathy, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that is woven into it, I think.

Kate Miles-Roberts 16:40
Yes, definitely. And I think that makes me think of a situation that I have relatively recently and we were doing a Thinking Council and somebodies challenge was linked to them having made a mistake, an error, and as we all went around and shared our stories, we all shared a story of when we totally got it wrong, and actually it was hilarious, it was really funny. But also, I think, for all of us, there was such a strength of connection in that conversation, because we were all able to go, ‘yeah, and this is how I did it’. And it’s not as though we were proud of it, but we were able to be really human and honest and say, ‘yeah, this is what I stuffed up’. And it made all of us go ‘ah ha, it’s not just me then’ Because it’s really easy to think ‘nobody else does this as badly as me’ sometimes. And when you’re able to do that vulnerability bit in a group, that the sense that you get at the end of it, I remember when we’d done it, we were all talking, it was almost like people didn’t want the conversation to finish because they were so enjoying feeling part of the club of ‘people who’ve got stuff outrageously wrong’. And you know, we’re all in that club at some point, me more so than others! It was good, somebody made the first step and then we all stepped up to that….’ Okay, we’ll play this game, we’ll be vulnerable too’

Bev Holden 18:10
It’s like saying ‘show me your scar, look at my scar, no, my scars bigger than your scar, look where my scar is! ‘

Kate Miles-Roberts 18:17
Exactly – in a very non competitive way!

So that was really good.

Bev Holden 18:24
But actually that’s a really good example of how in that group setting, there’s encouragement there because one person does a little bit, and the next person goes and does their little bit, but it can escalate, in a good way, that people reveal more and a little bit more, a little bit more. And then want to reveal more so the conversation, no one wants it to end, because I’m quite enjoying unburdening myself with all these embarrassing mistakes I’ve made. And so it becomes almost addictive. It’s cathartic. It’s so nice to just say all that stuff.

Kate Miles-Roberts 18:54
Yes, I think so. There was one other thing I was going to say. I think sometimes we feel that by asking questions of other people, that we’re allowing them to show their vulnerability or expose their true self. And going back to my book, because I’ve been enjoying re-looking at it, there’s another little exercise. Imagine that you and a stranger ask each other the following questions, and there are two different sets of questions.

So a couple of examples from Set A is ‘what’s the best gift you ever received and why?’ and ‘describe the last pet you owned’ So, questions that might help somebody open up and tell you a little bit about themselves. But Set B is slightly different. One of them is, for example, ‘if a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future, anything else, what would you want to know?’ And another one is ‘What’s your greatest achievement or an accomplishment in life?’ And so they are subtly different. Set A are questions that allow you to uncover some information, but they are pretty much information based. But Set B really allows you to be vulnerable in the moment, to expose your inner wishes, your thoughts, your hopes and your dreams. So it’s interesting just thinking about the questions that we ask each other to allow people to be vulnerable, because sometimes we think that we’re doing it, but we’re probably not, or skirting around the edges, just because it’s not a thing that we often talk about in business. Which is why people think that bulletproof should be the word, because that’s how we’ve been brought up.

Bev Holden 20:44
And so the thing that springs to mind………. the thing that occurred to me was, at the start of pretty much everything we do, we asked an appreciative question to get people’s brains working well, so they can appreciate what is in their reality that they might not have noticed till they came into the room. And I think that is always a moment where people give something of themselves that reveal something. And often if you ask a question like we did at the start of last week’s ‘snail experience’, and you say to someone, ‘what is it that brings you joy?’ people reveal a lot about themselves. It’s very feelings based because you’re asking them about an emotion in that particular case. So people express some vulnerability but in a very positive sense. So they’re not saying I don’t know and they’re not seeing it as ‘I need to share my weakness with you’ they share (and I don’t want to use the word softer) but kind of a softer side of themselves or a warmth that reveals what’s important to them, which is back, full circle, to what you said at the beginning about ‘it matters when it matters’. So vulnerability is harder when it really matters. And so, it makes me think about some of that stuff as well.

Kate Miles-Roberts 22:11
So the thing that you were saying, it just made me think about, it might be their softer side, it’s their humanity, it is their human side. And just that realisation that we’re not robots, we’re not all cut from the same cloth, we’re not stormtroopers. We are all uniquely different, human, and all of us, whether we admit it or not, have vulnerabilities and are vulnerable and it’s a thing to embrace rather than not.

Bev Holden 22:45
And so you know, people do that thing because they don’t have the word for it, where people say soft skills training and soft skills development. It’s not that, it’s human skills. We doing human skills today, not soft skills. Because there’s technical skills and there’s human skills. For me, it’s actually a really nice way of rebadging it, so from now on, when people talk soft skills, no, it’s human skills, that’s what we do.

I’ve got a quote, that I’d quite like to share, in order to capture it for posterity. It’s by an author called Steven Russell. So he says that vulnerability is the only authentic state he says it means being open. And that’s open for wounding, but also open for pleasure. And he says, ‘don’t mask or deny your vulnerability, it is your greatest asset. Be vulnerable, quake and shake in your boots with it. The new goodness that is coming to you in the form of people, situations and things can only come to you when you are vulnerable. Isn’t that really nice?

Kate Miles-Roberts 23:55
Yes, really nice.

Bev Holden 23:56
And, it is that people like to think of themselves as being open, well, if you truly are open, you’re expressing some vulnerability in order that somebody can fill that gap that you’ve identified and fill that bit of space where you need it most. And so I thought that was a really nice way to think about it.

Excellent Nice quote.

Indeed. So is that vulnerable done for now do you think?

Kate Miles-Roberts 24:21
Yeah, I’ve enjoyed that.

Next up…..Attentive

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